Gaining Momentum: Lorraine Heskin, The Gourmet Food Parlour


The latest in our series of interviews with influential Irish business leaders features Lorraine Heskin, founder of top-end restaurant, takeaway, catering and event business Gourmet Food Parlour.

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Lorraine Heskin was so taken with her dining experiences in New York that when she returned home to Dún Laoghaire, she wondered if she could recreate that vibe by opening a café. Thirteen years later she has eight restaurants across Dublin and Galway, a thriving takeaway premises, a successful private and corporate catering and event business, 300 staff and annual sales of around €12m. She’s even launched her own crockery range, so if you want a spectacular high-end meal, step into the Parlour.

Why did you set up the Gourmet Food Parlour?

“I was a specialty food consultant in America and loved the fact that eating out in New York is so cool, so relaxed, so high-end. I felt that at the time there wasn’t really that experience available in Ireland. I had often thought about starting my own business and came home with so many ideas that I thought: ‘If I don’t do it now, I never will.’”

In a competitive market, how do you differentiate from other restaurants?

“I had a dream and vision from the outset to be different. I wanted an eclectic mix of food and drink – a place where you have great gourmet meals cooked in front of you, to eat right there or to take home, all provided with fantastic friendly service. A place you’d feel just as comfortable whether you were drinking great wine with a great meal or just having a coffee.

“And what makes us really special is that we serve that gourmet food right the way through the day – breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Not only that, we can bring it to you, whether it’s at parties, weddings or corporate events. Providing all those things makes us unique.”

Recommended reading: Gaining Momentum: Noreen Doyle, The Irish Biltong Company

What do you think are the main challenges facing businesses – especially start-ups – that want to scale up?

“You need to stay ahead of trends, but remain true to your core business and your brand, or other competitors will overtake you. Business, particularly the food industry, is very fast-paced and you need to make sure you’re always at the forefront of any change. Customers want you to evolve and you’re only as good as your next menu.

“Expanding is a risky business but sometimes you need to take that chance. When we expanded into our first restaurant we were barely surviving but realised we had to increase our seating capacity, and then increase the kitchen space to cope with that. It all made the business stronger.

“Customers want you to evolve and you’re only as good as your next menu”

Lorraine Heskin, founder, Gourmet Food Parlour

“A major challenge is how you respond to your mistakes – because you will make them. We’ve opened restaurants that have not been successful and we’ve had to shut them, which is hard when you are so passionate about what you’re trying to achieve. But that experience made us stronger – you can always learn from mistakes. Just make sure you don’t make the same one twice.

“The key to scaling up is to make sure that growth doesn’t distract you from your main path. Don’t expand for the sake of it – there has to be a well-thought-out reason for it and it’s essential to look after your staff and the structure of the business while you’re doing it. Building your own business is emotional, it’s your baby but there’s a huge responsibility to get it right for your customers and your team. So stay grounded – don’t lose sight of your core vision or your end goal.”

How did you finance your growth?

“Every piece of expansion we’ve done has been financed through bank loans. You need to keep a cash flow and we’ve never had or wanted investors, so we’ve always gone to the bank. You have to jump through some hoops, especially when you’re starting up as a young business with no proven track record, but it gets easier as you become more established. There’s nothing wrong with loans, in fact I’d thoroughly recommend them.”

What advice would you give to other businesses that are scaling up and seeking financial support?

“Most importantly, make sure you have a solid, concrete and realistic business plan – and get help if necessary to do that. And don’t take no for an answer – if you get turned down, keep going and try again.

“My other advice would be to walk in the shoes of the business person you aspire to be. Find yourself a mentor, someone in your line of business to advise and look after you, who’s 10 years further down the line than you are. Use their experience to educate yourself to improve your weakest points. If I had my time again I would do so many things differently – I wish I had had someone to guide me. For that reason, I mentor lots of start-up owners now. Hopefully they won’t make as many mistakes because they can learn from mine.”

Recommended reading: Gaining Momentum: Niall Horgan, Gym+Coffee

What’s next for the Gourmet Food Parlour?

“The last year has been very busy – we’ve opened two new restaurants and a 6,500ft kitchen facility so we’re consolidating at the moment. That said, we are planning a couple of openings next year.

“In the meantime, we’re just improving little areas of the business. Communication is really important to us – after every single day there is a meeting in every restaurant with the head chef and the staff to discuss and act on any customer feedback, good or bad, that we’ve had during the day. And we’re proactive too on social media, reaching out to our customers and asking them what they would like us to cook for them. Those little actions make such a difference to our connection with the customers.

“My own personal plan is simply to keep enjoying what I do, because I absolutely love it. Nothing makes me prouder than knowing I own Gourmet Food Parlour and that I work alongside so many talented and amazing people. And nothing makes me happier than seeing customers really enjoying our food and our dining experience. It’s heartwarming, it’s brilliant.”

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