Sunday, December 11, 2011

Avoca's new venture: high concept, well-executed and beautiful

In my part of the country the Avoca brand is a bit of a food institution. When news appeared that the Pratt family were opening a new branch of their food/lifestyles business in Monkstown, South Dublin it was greeted with much glee by all who enjoy decent grub. The new outlet, in an area perfectly pitched for its customers is sure to be as consistently busy (even in planet recession) as their other food shops and restaurants.
For my foreign readers here's a bit of background: Avoca Handweavers (which the chain was originally named) grew from a cafe and crafts shop at the Avoca woollen mill in the small village of the same name in rural Wicklow. The mill is still there, as is the shop and cafe, but in the last decade the Pratt family who bought the business have extended their homewares, food shops and cafes to outlets all around the country. The shops have become food and homewares meccas; a great stop for buying a quick gift, picking up a set of meringue nests for an emergency dinner or grabbing a chocolate cake to die for en route to a childrens party.

What's interesting about the new shop in Monkstown is that there is now fresh fruit, vegetables and meat on offer. As someone who lives sandwiched between the Enniskerry and Kilmacanogue outlets I often run in to grab a salami for a pasta dish, goats cheese or some lovely Aine Rudden chocolate made in Co. Cavan. But I cursed the fact that picking up veg or fresh meat at the same time wasn't an option.In the Pratt's new venture fresh vegetables are on offer, there's a beautiful cheese room, rotisserie Irish chicken and most exciting of all a new butcher shop outlet from Pat Whelan from Clonmel.

Pat is a great believer in local food, farms his own cattle and it's great to see his type of quality beef landing up in my neck of the woods. The range of veg is the Monkstown outlet is gorgeous; all kinds of exiting things but one thing I'd like to have seen more of was Irish produce. I know that if you
want courgettes in December you're not going to find them grown in Ireland but I think there is more local vegetables available then what they are stocking at present. This could be an issue of availability - sourcing Irish is often confined to particular volumes and of course price, but hopefully in the future we'll see more of our local vegetables on the shelves.

Research shows that even in the midst of recession consumers like buying Irish. I think retailers should exploit this more and remember that "Irish" and "local" conveys a halo affect onto everything around it - a fascinating dynamic often abused by the large supermarkets but used to great affect by Supervalu and smaller independent shops. What the Monkstown store has plenty of is Irish pork from small farmers and producers, Irish Chicken and of course Pat's meat.
This is premium food in a premium location. The restaurant in this outlet, named Salt is superb, and booking is recommended - as usual with any new Avoca venture it was out-the-door busy. This shop is not the sort of place many are going to do their weekly groceries. At the same time retail such as this is crucial in re-branding Irish food as contemporary, authentic and desirable.
Avoca food always delivers on taste. It's not cheap but I don't think good value is about something being cheap. Cheap food is a downwards spiral for all of us as it narrows our methods of producing food into a "lowest margin possible" morass that ultimately resembles factory farming.

It's funny for me to write about Avoca as I feel a strange vested interest towards the place. Several of my friends work in the Avoca shops and restaurants near to me. I frequently have work meetings there as it saves
people travelling up the godforsaken mountain roads to visit me and my kids are well familiar with me landing in them in the door for coffee and cake. I wish them the
best in their new shop. To a degree we all should be proud of what the Avoca brand has achieved. It's a successful re-imagining of what Irish food and Irish retail should be. It's high concept, well-executed and always a pleasure to visit. Keep up the good work x

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