Feeding on success

01 January 2000
Feeding on success

Aged 72 and still marching proudly around her hotel Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, County Cork, Myrtle Allen seems blissfully unaware that she has become a legend in her own lunchtime. Yet this doyenne of Irish hospitality has not only inspired a whole generation of chefs, she has become a marketable brand in her own right.

"This is for my retirement," she laughs, picking up a packet of Myrtle Allen's Irish soda-bread mix. "It's taken me ages to get it right, but so many people asked for it that I had to do something."

But soda bread is just the beginning. There's Ballymaloe Country Relish and Cucumber Pickle made by daughter Yasmin; furniture by grandson Sacha; a Ballymaloe shop in the hotel grounds run by daughter Wendy; metal furniture made by grandson Isaac; Crawford Gallery Café in Cork's art gallery, established by daughter Fern and run by daughter Hazel under the Ballymaloe banner; and the Ballymaloe Cookery School run by daughter-in-law Darina and son Timothy.

These businesses are successful in their own right. Even so, behind this family affair looms the unassuming figure of Allen and the highly respected Ballymaloe operation.

The "my home is your home" ethos and absence of a reception desk create an element of cosiness that many have emulated, but few have rivalled. However, Allen insists success has been more the result of good fortune than good planning.

"When I started, my only ambition was to serve perfect food, or as near to perfect as I could get. So I opened the dining room as a restaurant and based it on home and local foods. I was not thinking of expanding very much, just making a bit of pocket money," she says with characteristic modesty.

First to see the potential of the Ballymaloe name was Wendy, who in the 1970s decided to open a shop selling Irish gifts and kitchen items. At first this was in the living room of her house but later she moved to an annexe of the main house.

Wendy recognises the importance of the Ballymaloe banner, but even so is keen to maintain individuality for her own business. "It is part of the Ballymaloe buildings but it is a business in its own right," she says. "My business does not financially benefit Ballymaloe except through making a visit there of more interest, so bringing in greater numbers."

The next major extension of the brand came in 1983, with the setting up of a cookery school under the eye of daughter-in-law Darina. She first arrived at Ballymaloe in the late 1960s when she was looking for someone to teach her about good home cooking.

"I heard about this nice family in County Cork who were specialising in good, wholesome food," she said. "So I decided to write them a letter. To my surprise Myrtle wrote back, inviting me down. In her I found a woman who had no time for convenience foods and who wrote new menus every day."

After training in the Ballymaloe kitchen, Darina's next step was toward cookery classes. These were initially held on quiet winter days, which kept the business solvent when the Allens did not have enough customers for the restaurant.

But interest was soon so great that Darina hit on the notion of running a full-time cookery school. "Ivan and Myrtle persuaded me that I could do it and encouraged me to use the Ballymaloe name. And people came. I'm sure that initially this was because of the Ballymaloe pull. It was a huge help, but also a huge responsibility to live up to."

From 11 students on short courses in holiday cottages attached to Ballymaloe, the cookery school has moved into its own premises and takes 44 students all year round.

One of the more recent offshoots of the Ballymaloe name is the pickle and relish business, run by youngest daughter Yasmin. This is expanding rapidly, increasing from sales of 16,000 jars of relish in June 1995 to 40,000 in June 1996. Yasmin is currently targeting supermarkets, an area where the Ballymaloe name is slowly achieving recognition.

On top of this, daughter Natasha is involved in taking bookings, Darina's brother Rory O'Connell is head chef, and there are countless male grandchildren working as wine waiters and helping serve buffet food.

How easy would it be for other hoteliers to diversify in the same way as Ballymaloe? "I don't see why other people couldn't do a similar thing," says Allen. "But there is no doubt that we have an advantage in being a family and a long-established name. You've got to have a product that people want in the first place."

For Allen, it's time to concentrate on the soda bread. She left full-time duties in the kitchen last year and, she claims, will need something to keep her busy.

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