Toby Simmonds – Toons Bridge Dairy and The Real Olive Company


Posted 4 months ago in Food & Drink Features

“It has been fascinating watching Dublin coming back to life, from the eerily quiet days of early May to the return of traffic jams and beeping cars.”

Toby Simmons talks to us about how the Pandemic influenced their decision to reopen The Good Food Store in Georges Street as a specialist food shop, under the  Toons Bridge moniker.

 

You set up Toons Bridge as a pop-up in The Good Food Store owing to family connections and it being severely hit by the lockdown. Can you explain the background to yourselves and what this involved?

Vanessa Clarke owns the two Good Food Stores, where the original shop in Serpentine, Ballsbridge, is still busy, offering its mix of sandwiches and coffee to go. However, the lockdown decimated the Georges Street shop, like most of the city center food businesses. At the same time, her sister in Cork, Jenny Rose and I also saw a huge impact on our two businesses, The Real Olive Company and Toons Bridge Dairy. The Real Olive Company outdoor market stalls ceased and the wholesale business, particularly to restaurants, virtually disappeared. The dairy sells a huge proportion of its produce to the food service business and has a very limited retail market outside of The Real Olive Company stalls.

Toby Simmonds and Vanessa Clarke. Photo: Allen Kiely

The solution was obvious to us all, to reopen the Georges Street store as a specialist food shop, bringing the best of all of the various businesses. We had talked about this idea last year, but the real impetus was the global lockdown that had everyone wondering would life ever return to normal. The setup was relatively quick and low cost. The sign writer in Toonsbridge had the sign ready in a couple of days and a closed down butchers in West Kerry was the source of the new fridges. Thanks to the talented and very hard working builder, the building was ready within a week.

 

What was launching during a pandemic like? Is it fair to say the food industry has been one of the few ones least negatively impacted?  

It was surreal, all of the customers were incredibly patient, interested and relaxed. The Italian community found and flagged us immediately, and counted for at least a third of our initial custom. Fresh mozzarella, ricotta and particularly strachino means alot to an Italian abroad. The other very significant customer base were the Cork diaspora who were tipped off by their Cork relatives of our opening. We had one girl in her twenties from Coolea gasping, saying that now she could get the food from home!

Photo: Allen Kiely

We have also met many restaurant owners who did not know themselves with the amount of free time on their hands. It has been fascinating watching Dublin coming back to life, from the eerily quiet days of early May to the return of traffic jams and beeping cars. We feel quietly confident with our own business, but are hugely aware of the great challenge that the restaurants and bars face.

 

You have decided to make the pop-up permanent. 

Yes. While we have had lots of fun sourcing on Done Deal and had very little to lose, we fully intended to make this permanent. We have “plans” to do wine and open a very simple standing only wine bar. It has also had great spinoffs for the wholesale business and interest and exposure for our cheesemaking. We know this is sustainable because we have Italians returning several times a week for their staples.

 

Who is exciting you most in the food game at the moment?

This has been extraordinarily tough for all of my favourite producers and the more out there and artisan they were the more they got hit. The real gems sold through market stalls or to high end restaurants and this is only just beginning to come back. The most exciting thing is an old friend from Limerick market who has started making raw milk blues with cow, sheep and goat milks. He even has a raw milk “cremosa”. Hopefully they will find their way to Georges Street.

 

You also run The Real Olive Company, can you tell us a little bit about the olive import game? Is there such a thing as a ‘vintage’ among olives?  

Olives are a very misunderstood food. While traditionally they were the most natural and nutritious of foods, the modern food industry has transformed them into a cocktail of chemicals including vivid green colouring. Our speciality are naturally cured olives that can often take a year to cure away the bitterness. So, natural olives that ferment with just salt can often be far better and sweeter after a couple of years than when freshly pickled.

Photo: Allen Kiely

We find it funny that people who have great interest in grape varieties will come in and demand the same two olive varieties every week. In the Cork stall we have over 60 varieties throughout the year, which is only a fraction of the 2,000 varieties.

 

You are planning on private dining experiences in the space down the line. What are your thoughts on the restaurant scene in a time of Covid?

We think there is a big opportunity in the shop to have a different experience in the evening. Maybe private dining, maybe a wine bar. I have always been a huge fan of Spain and eating tapas/pintxos is something that I feel should be much more common in Ireland. It is also rare to find somewhere in Dublin that has the confidence to offer very simple plates where the product rather than the cooking is the main event. The social distancing and time limits are game changers and could be a catalyst for some very different approaches to food in Dublin.

 

Has Covid-19 changed our eating habits and demands? Any trends or new demands perceptible to you.  

The lockdown has really made an impact on food sourcing. People have given much more time to food in their homes, where it is so much more about the quality of the food than the setting or style. This applies to our range of imported artisan foods, but is particularly significant to our dairy and other Irish producers.

Our neighbours in the markets of Cork, Galway and Limerick have had very similar experiences, with much more patience from customers to get what they want. Our wholesale business has seen an explosion of new retail shops open across the country, many of which are converted restaurants with the proprietors very seriously considering whether they will go back to the restaurant trade!

Tuesday to Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday 10am-7pm 

24 South Great George’s Street, Dublin 2

toonsbridgedairy.com

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