WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – AOIFE O’NEILL, MANAGING DIRECTOR
Westport native Aoife O’Neill is the owner of The Creel, an all-day kitchen eatery and deli overlooking Westport Harbour and Clew Bay. Aoife left a career in the HSE as a Medical Scientist to open the new food experience in 2016 and says she is very happy to be part of the thriving business community in the small town. Her husband Tom Bourke, who is also from Westport, runs The Towers Bar & Restaurant at the other end of the Quay, meaning hospitality is now a family business. Aoife is very proud of being from Westport and loves the community spirit in the area.
She will always be found at The Creel either out front serving customers and making coffee, or in the background working hard on creating new and exciting concepts, researching new stockists for the deli, meeting suppliers, or collaborating on new dishes.
The Creel has recently launched evening and from what I’ve seen of the menu and photos online, it looks like you’d get a very decent feed with a smashing spritz or local beer on the side!
How did your career path bring you here?
There’s a saying ‘What is for you won’t pass you’ and I believe that really is why I am here today! I have a completely different background having achieved a master’s degree in Haematology. I worked as a medical scientist for many years in the HSE in Dublin, Galway and Mayo, edging closer to home all the way I suppose. One cold December day we called in to The Creel with the children and got chatting to the then owner. She mentioned she was selling the business and the rest, as they say is History. A mere three months later, I took over the business from her and thus started my journey in to the hospitality industry.
How does your career fulfil you?
For me I feel fulfilment every time I see a dish that we have spent weeks working on being plated or when I chat with a satisfied customer. Knowing how many steps were involved and all the hard work it takes to produce quality food that customers enjoy is truly satisfying. Also working with a fantastic team of people who care about the industry, be it being customer focused and ensuring that every person who walks through the door is well looked after, or the creative flair in the kitchen, is very inspiring and pushes us all to work harder and challenge ourselves.
What are your professional ambitions? What is next for Aoife O’Neill?
We opened The Creel Deli just down the harbour from the Cafe in summer 2021. It was borne out of the various lockdowns as I felt that our customers were looking for more quality Irish artisan food products and good homemade fare they could bring home and enjoy or eat on-the-go. The Deli has been a real success for us, and we are seeing a continued growth in our customer base with more and more returning customers all the time. Building on this platform is a big ambition of mine. We are actually opening a new Deli in a neighbouring town this summer which is very exciting for us all. It gives us the opportunity to develop and expand our Deli offerings from gourmet sandwiches, savoury and sweet treats and our ‘Creel At Home’ range of high-quality homemade dinners for busy families. I know only too well how hectic life can be and how some days there just isn’t enough time to make a nutritious meal for the family so we have a full range of family favourite dinners which are ready to pop in the oven. We have a five-year strategic plan in place which we are working towards so that the long-term ambition is to see The Creel brand expanding further afield, building on our current format to have a collection of outlets across the country.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
Jess Murphy, the chef-owner of Kai in Galway, is a person I admire greatly. A trailblazer of sorts, she has championed changes in the Irish food industry, calling for equality for female chefs in a macho male dominated world, whilst running a thriving business. A multi award winning chef who really challenges and pushes the status quo in every aspect! I have had the pleasure of dining in her restaurant on a few occasions and she deserves all the accolades that come her way.
In your opinion what challenges face women in the Irish food industry?
I often find that as a woman in the industry we are not taken seriously as business owners or entrepreneurs, the perception out there in a very male dominated sector is that you almost need a male chaperone with you to have your voice heard or opinion taken seriously.
What do you think can be done to raise the profile and visibility of women in the industry?
I do think attitudes towards women in business are changing, there are now more social and enterprise curricula in our secondary schools with regard to work experience and business modules which allow students to experience the industry first hand. Seeing for themselves women running successful businesses is changing the attitude of the next generation and making it a viable option. A national and concerted effort to re-instate a state-led Hospitality and Tourism training sector is crucial to ensuring that hospitality/chef jobs are held in high esteem and regarded as potential career paths.
The more visible women in the food industry become, be it on social or mainstream media the better chance that more of the younger generation will see that gender is not an obstacle to achieving ambitions.
What was the proudest moment of your career thus far?
Honestly, I’m proud of every little step that brought us to where we are today. There were many moments in the last few years that I thought ‘What am I doing here, I can’t do this!’ but I had a vision and a plan in mind for the business and how it could evolve. I stuck to it and stood strong and thankfully we are in a position where, despite the obstacles, we have a thriving and developing business. I’m very thankful for the collective effort of my team and the support of the local community in Westport. Without them we wouldn’t be here so I suppose I’m very proud of all those around me who make The Creel what it is today.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I guess it’s pretty simple but just to believe in yourself and not to fear making big decisions, even if they feel like risky ones … who knows where they might lead you!
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Being a multitasker certainly helps! When you are running a business, the responsibility lies with you at the end of the day, so being solution driven and having good organisational skills is very important. From day one, having processes and procedures in place to streamline the day-to-day running is key, otherwise you end up micromanaging which is a drain on time and resources. Freeing up time in this way allows for the creative and development processes to flourish. The biggest asset we have are our employees – recognising talent and commitment and building a good team of people around you is paramount to maintain the success of the business and to allow growth.
Are you a savoury or sweet person, please tell us a real treat?
I tend to sway more towards savoury and am partial to a good cheese board at the end of a meal! I love to go travelling and the highlight of most trips is trying out new dishes and regional delicacies. my food heaven is spending time in San Sebastian in the Basque region meandering through the streets of the old town and sampling the vast array of Pintxos in the bars and taverns.