In September of 2012, The Elm Tree pub won its unprecedented second Great Carvery of the Year award in-a-row, in only the third year of the competition. Hospitality Ireland looks at what fine food is being served up in Glounthaune — and why it’s winning all the plaudits.
‘Traditional’ can mean many things when describing an Irish pub. It could mean traditional music played every evening, it could mean traditional décor throughout the bar, or it could mean traditional grub — and carvery is just that. During the Celtic Tiger many pubs went down the carvery route, seeing a quick way to offset sales falloffs after both drink driving legislation and the smoking ban hit publican pockets hard. However, it must be noted that not too many of those pubs who took on this added business model convincingly pulled it off, and this can be understandable. It’s not as simple as just adding on a couple more square meters and opening up a kitchen; relentless hard work, impeccable standards and an ability to satisfy hundreds of diners an hour offers a better description of what it takes to serve up a top-notch carvery.
And to see this in action, we need look no further than Derek and Lorraine Walsh’s pub, the Elm Tree, in Glounthaune, Cork. After taking over the place four years back, the duo have assembled a fine team to dominate the carvery landscape. Well known for fine food throughout the whole of Cork, this latest accolade only underlines such a reputation.
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“It is huge recognition,” explains Lorraine O’Neill, head of sales & marketing at the Elm Tree. “If you look at the level of work that goes into a high-standard carvery, the work that goes in, this recognition is wonderful. We never expected to win this year.”
Having won last year, Lorraine says the entire staff were fully expecting to miss out – as is often the nature with these competitions. “Even when Derek and Lorraine went down to the awards, they viewed it more as an enjoyable trip – never considering that they would win! This definitely reinforces our opinion of what we do here.”
What they do at the Elm Tree boils down to a simple business ethic. High standards are set, and maintained, and in return their business has profited from such a successful base. “It is one of our primary draws. On Monday to Thursdays, it accounts for about 40 per cent of our takings. On Friday that would reach 50 per cent and, you know how popular carverys are on weekends... On a Sunday, for example, we serve carvery from 12-3 — only last week we got through nearly 500 customers in that time frame.” Those numbers are astonishing, and a testament to what Derek and Lorraine Walsh do.
“Carvery has been a key element of what we do at the Elm Tree since Derek and Lorraine took this place on four years ago,” explains O’Neill. However, did they change anything ahead of this event? “Not really…” muses Lorraine. “We didn’t really change our approach at all, we just maintained our high standards. It’s not easy to do, we work very hard at this but it is a core part of our business. Our presentation and attention to detail is huge. One thing we did do, though, was make use of our signage. The award from last year is up in a prominent place for example, we also have tv screens with rotating ads on them and Perspex screens throughout the building, all to better advertise and promote our carvery.”
This year there were exciting additions to the awards. Firstly, the competition was opened up to Northern Ireland, offering much more entrants to the awards. However even more interestingly, public voting was incorporated — and this is where the Elm Tree really came into its own. “Aha well we did get involved there,” laughs Lorraine. “We got 5,000 business cards made that said ‘Vote For Us’, which we distributed out a few weeks before the voting closed.” This is a cute, simple idea with a thank you from the whole team on it, which added a bit of theatre and inclusion. “We gave them to anyone who ate our carvery over the last few weeks — that way they even felt a part of our success.”
And that success has brought instant responses from their clientele, with fawning feedback coming in at full flow. Even the day the award was announced, they had customers sending in well-wishes. “Local businesses in the area also sent on their regards with nice congratulations cards. Businesses like the carvery because they can get in, get well fed and get out during their break, so they showed their appreciation, which was lovely.”
However, the most important aspect of this for our readers is, what can you do to challenge the Elm Tree next year? Well, it all comes down to hard work. “To be at the level required to win it, consistency, presentation and quality of food are all huge. We listen to the customer, what they want they get. Some places might have two options in a carvery, we have loads, and they change. Word of mouth then trickles out and the business improves.”
Launched in 2010 by Unilever Food Solutions Ireland, Great Carvery of the Year is a nationwide search for Ireland’s best pub and hotel carvery. After a hugely successful first year, the competition was expanded to create two separate categories of winner in 2011: the Great Carvery Public House of the Year and Great Carvery Hotel of the Year. This year saw even more exciting changes as the competition was extended to include Northern Ireland and a public vote was introduced to determine a top three shortlist of Best Pub Carvery and Best Hotel Carvery from each province – Munster, Leinster, Connacht and Ulster.
Following a three-week-long public vote, Unilever Food Solutions’ business development chef, Mark McCarthy, and his team of mystery shoppers had the tough job of choosing a winner. The judging panel was unanimous, however, in choosing Harvey’s Point and Elm Tree as their preferred venues. Speaking at the Grand Final, Mark McCarthy said: “A great carvery is about much more than just good food; it’s about the whole package. That means creative menus, exceptional chefmanship, clever use of seasonal and local produce and top-drawer customer service. Harvey’s Point and The Elm Tree demonstrated all of these key ingredients and more. I was blown away by the passion, dedication and creativity that these two venues put into each dish on their menu – they are truly inspiring and very worthy winners.”