WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – JUDI KINNANE, CAFE OWNER
Judi Kinnane is the very hands on engine behind the Espresso Bar on the pier in Kilkee, Co. Clare. Her story is fascinating for the fact that she shows that with a solid plan, hard work, determination, a dream (and also a job that allows you to save), you can in fact change courses completely and start that small business you’ve been thinking about for a while.
I’m particularly grateful to Judi as she went into a considerable amount of details around the steps she had to take to achieve her dream and I love seeing the realistic side of her story telling. I would find this very useful if I was planning to open a small food business myself.
A fascinating read and a massive thanks to Judi Kinnane for sharing with me. Also, how glorious does the Eddie special sound?
How did your career path bring you here?
I grew up in a house where my mother baked every week. I, like my four sisters, baked our way through our teenage years and I just loved it. The smells and the feeling it created in the home, plus the sweet rewards were lovely. We rarely had shop baked cakes and on the very odd occasion we had a box of Kimberly or Mikado, or Coconut Cream biscuits.
My father was definitely my best customer and no matter what I baked he ate it, and lets just say there were a few dodgy bakes. When my father died I stopped baking unconsciously. When I eventually sought out help years later, I found myself back in my happy place and I baked and
baked to my heart’s content. I had to distribute my produce and I baked so much that my sister asked me to stop coming to her house with food.
I needed to keep going for my healing to continue and I had to find another channel for my products. It was at that point that I connected with a pal who had a small Juice Hut by the sea and I worked in his small kitchen from early morning before he came to work and produced all of the daily bakes that he sold in his shop.
At the end of the summer season I decided to direct my profits into formal training and I took myself off to Ballymaloe Cookery School, where I met many wonderful teachers who suggested I continue with their 12 week intensive course. At the same time I was working in my HR career,
which was taking off in different directions and I was gaining a reputation in the Pharma world.
I was not in a position, either financially or physically, to be able to step out of my ‘real life’. Instead, I asked Darina Allen if she could help me to find a way to gain the Ballymaloe experience and work it around my career and travel schedule, and thankfully for me she did. She was so flexible and she made it happen by enabling me to slot in and out of the 12 week
programme at different times and even allowed me to bring my black Labrador Arthur with me, even though he loved chasing the chickens to death!
I found myself in Ballymaloe for one whole year on and off and it was one of the richest personal experiences I ever had. After that year, I knew I needed to find a way to bring my dream of having my own seaside café to life.
While at Ballymaloe I had the good fortune of meeting Blathnaid Bergin (Darina’s sister), who runs The Business of Food. Blathnaid’s no nonsense approach to running a food business is quite refreshing. The business fundamentals and the finance needed to open and sustain a food
business were clearly articulated and I fully appreciated that it would be some time before I could pay off my debts and gather some funds to finance my own start-up.
So, that is what I did for the next six years. I put my head down and I worked hard on my HR career. I gained more exposure, took on more responsibility and focused on the day job. At the same time I kept cooking and baking for friends and family, and critiquing every premises I
visited, all in the name of research for my own food business.
Then I got an offer I simply could not refuse and took on a high profile, global role that came with many challenges and zero budget. Within the next number of years I built an award-winning Global Talent Acquisition Team. It was both rewarding and challenging and gave me huge growth
professionally. It ticked so many boxes for me – I learned so much from the leadership teams I worked with. I built an amazing diverse and creative team, I managed a huge budget and travelled extensively, plus I got an increase in salary.
Despite all of this, there was still a gap in my life! My dream was drifting away and on a personal level life was challenging. I was always
away from home and I was “always on”. I spent a lot of time in airports or working furiously on email. If I had continued down that path, the next step would have been to relocate to the US/Switzerland or Asia. I decided I just didn’t want it any more. I had reached a plateau and I wasn’t challenged enough. I gave the company one year’s notice and worked on a plan to exit
I decided to step away and turn to a small coastal village in West Clare called Kilkee to nourish my soul and feed my passion to create a gorgeous café where people could come to connect year on year. I wanted to create something special and a place where anyone could feel comfortable, welcomed and where people actually recognised you and acknowledged
your return custom. Something that just can’t be created in an airport lounge despite the amount of times a person travels through on the same route!
So I started small and took over a little unit to see if I would like it. It was a huge deal to walk away from a successful corporate career and years of study to gain my Masters in Organisational Behaviour. I had to be sure that I would like it enough to jump ship completely. The great news is that
I did love it and although it was only for ten weeks initially, I decided to pursue further education in food to validate if it was definitely for me.
A short course with The Business of Food followed and I then secured a one year Post Graduate in Food Management & Innovation through the
Springboard Programme in the Limerick Institute of Technology. There I really tested what I wanted to do in the food industry and more importantly what I didn’t want to. Then I committed to taking the café on again for the following season and ran it for the summer period and came back for a third year.
By the fourth season I had invested my profits back into the business and completed my expansion, custom building my own unit with the hindsight of having tested what was feasible and possible in the smaller unit.
How does your career fulfill you?
It ticks my biggest box – it was my dream to build a gorgeous place where people connect year on year and I am so proud of what I have achieved! I just did it and followed my gut. I have created an anchor for people in the community and especially through the challenges of the pandemic over the last eighteen months or so, that fulfils me on a personal level.
Plus we have had great feedback on our quirky menu and have lots of fun and interaction with our customers and are meeting a need for people locally. Having great people around me has always been important to me and we have a fabulous team in-house and a team of outsourced professionals and together we have a blast – it is simply a great place to work and we have some of the best views of the bay! So, yes I am fulfilled with my career.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Judi Kinnane?
There is so much more I want to contribute to the food industry in Ireland. I am actively looking at other opportunities for coastal dining and we have a number on the table for review. In addition I am committed to creating a learning space for high-end casual dining and this is currently in development.
We are only at the beginning of the journey. Personal and professional
growth is so important to me, so I will continue to expand and be solution-focused to overcome the challenges within the industry and provide people with enjoyable creative food experiences.
Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
Tracie Daly at your Service! Tracie Daly is a leader in the food industry; a professional chef, award-winning café owner, teacher, food truck of the year winner, and now successful Food Coach to businesses all over
the country. Although our paths did not cross at Ballymaloe, I met Tracie on a food business programme and instantly wanted her to be part of the set up of The Espresso Bar! She is an inspirational leader, who has hands-on knowledge and experience and yet is able to operate strategically.
Once you meet Tracie you instantly pick up her dynamism. Her creative energy exudes from every pore and I am truly inspired and challenged by Tracie. She is an accomplished business woman and is practical, honest and I love that she calls it as it is. She invests in herself and continues to develop and grow, and she is working with so many exciting businesses that she has her finger on the pulse of everything that is happening in the casual
fine dining space in Ireland and abroad right now.
Tracie enables me to do more and to step into my own greatness and supports me through the process. She asks the tough questions and
balances it with so much positive reinforcement that it feels like anything is possible. She adds huge value to my business and yet dips in and out. She works through the great and difficult times with me and is not afraid to roll up her sleeves when needed. She totally rocks and is a hoot to boot.
What do you think can be done to raise the profile and visibility of women in the industry?
I think things have moved on a lot in recent years in terms of coverage of female role models in the industry but there’s still scope to do a lot more. There is a great opportunity to showcase women in the industry across Ireland in a variety of different roles, not just the chefs. Behind some of the great eateries and innovative food businesses that the island of Ireland has to offer, there are some fantastic and inspirational female entrepreneurs driving them forward and pushing the boundaries. As a business owner you’re often so consumed by your own business that you can get bogged down in the day-to-day operations. So, I for one, would love the opportunity to hear more about other businesses and their success, or have the opportunity to strategically network with them.
What is the proudest moment of your career so far?
I am so proud of my beautiful beast. It is all consuming on so many levels and this bigger premises is located in the most beautiful spot. I am so happy I took a huge risk and just went with it. I am proud that I bit off a bit more than I could chew and I will most definitely grow into it over the coming months. It is so cool though and I absolutely love what I do despite the lack of sleep. I have worked in the business since its infancy and I am very hands-on.
So in the months ahead my aim is to switch roles, get out of the kitchen and grow the business and allow the team the new space to thrive.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to be nicer to myself – to know and appreciate what I bring to my own world and table!
Take time to understand what you want and then just do it! Keep working towards what you want. Everyday do something that gets you closer to where you want to be. Then trust the process and enjoy the journey.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
The great thing about running a business is that you are responsible for the A-Z. My role in my former corporate life was very narrow and deep, spanning countries and continents yet I had to stay in my lane and I didn’t always have the influence to change aspects of the business that didn’t work.
Running The Espresso Bar is like being on a motorway with a number of lanes, lights and roundabouts and I am responsible for everything from the maintenance, to operations, supply chain, customer service, finance, people management etc.
Being strategic is key to establishing, growing and sustaining the business and having a vision to where you want to take it. Using this framework to make business critical decisions makes running the business simpler. No one is an island and it is important to be able to identify a team and bring key people around me including food suppliers, service providers, outsourced specialists and the in-house team members.
I have never worked so hard before and physically ,this job is very demanding and being able to manage my own energy and being a role model for the team is essential.
There are so many skills required for this job. The list really is endless! It is a great industry to be in and if you are someone who needs a creative work space, wants to innovate and make a difference to people’s lives and wants to be challenged in the process, this is a great space to be in.
Are you a savoury or sweet kinda person? Please tell us about a real treat?
Sweet all the way! I am my father’s daughter. The Eddie special on The Espresso Bar menu is a nod to my Dad – freshly ground coffee with layers of fresh cream and chocolate blossoms make this a gorgeous indulgent treat.
As a child I went to the Limerick Milk Market every Saturday with
my father. Afterwards my Dad took me for a creamy bun and he always had coffee with cream so it has always been a huge part of my life and I have very fond memories of those times we spent together. My dessert of choice would have to be a good lemon meringue pie.