Jenny-Rose Clarke and her husband Toby were enterprising teenagers when they set up an olive stand in Cork’s English Market.
A quarter of a century later, business at The Real Olive Company is still booming (we maintain no human being can resist their whipped feta dip), and The Sandwich Stall, which they opened in 2001, is thriving too.
But that’s not all; Jenny-Rose and Toby started Toons Bridge Dairy, a family run West Cork operation, in 2011. They produce authentic cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, scamorza, caciocavallo and halloumi) in small batches, using local raw cow, sheep and buffalo milk.
With a new herd of buffalo in situ and doorstep delivery up and running, the duo are planning a 25 year celebration to toast their hard work… but Jenny-Rose maintains it was all down to blind faith and brilliant staff.
This is how they’re Working It:
Toby started our business with the Olive Stall in the English Market when he was 19 with €500 borrowed from his mum. I joined him a year or so later. We worked very hard, didn’t spend much and put it all back into the business.
I was 19, over confident, very naive and had nothing to lose. I couldn’t see how anything could go wrong. In hindsight it was a great gift. If I were to do it now I would plan and worry too much now before taking that plunge!
There was no tough part; it was all so new and exciting. All fun and carefree, there was no real plan and nothing to lose. The group of people that worked with us were amazing. I don’t think that happens easily anymore, we were very lucky.
When our first daughter was born we moved from the city to Toonsbridge, where we bought a very cheap old creamery. We lived in the part that is now the pizzeria until our second daughter was born. Then we bought a beautifully wild and remote farm further up the Toon Valley, where we all still live.
We’ve continued to grow the Real Olive Company since 1993 (we’re 25 years old this year), adding bits along the way. In 2001 we opened The Sandwich Stall in the English Market and in 2010 we started Toons Bridge Dairy in Toonsbridge. In 2013 we opened the shop and pizzeria there.
I was brought up not to borrow money easily, if at all. As we get more established I’ve learned you do need to invest more to achieve the next level, which is a bit scary sometimes.
I have made so many mistakes and continue to do so. Being so young and carefree when we started, without a plan, advice, business training or support, was something we paid a huge price for in later years. We perhaps focused too much of our energy on the food and doing what we loved; a lesson learnt for any future projects.
For the first 10 years I don’t think we spent any money on advertising or promotion. It was all about individuals and passionate person-to-person selling in the English Market. And amazingly open and interested Cork customers. It was all word of mouth – a pre-social media era!
The best piece of career advice I’ve heard is to delegate as much as possible and concentrate on the area you are best at. Others can often do things better than you. In my case I tried for too long to do everything.
I love picking edible flowers and herbs for our stalls in our garden at the dairy. I studied fashion and textiles at the National College of Art and Design – rearranging the produce on the the stalls satisfies that visual bug in me
Without great staff, great ideas are not enough. What I am most proud of is some ability we have to attract great people to our business.
The English Market is about great food and great people. The customers are amazing, more diverse and interested than anywhere else we sell. The other 40 odd traders are equally diverse and interesting, all families with a story, proud of what they do. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of and an integral part of what makes Cork Cork.
My advice to entrepreneurs? Be sure to believe in what you plan to do. It will take over your life and provide you with some of your most rewarding and proud days but also some of the most challenging and dark days. Get as much advice and support as is available.
Neither of us is of the social media generation. It’s an area I feel we need help with.
I know it’s “the way forward” but it is something I struggle with. It doesn’t come naturally. I am quite a visual person so Instagram appeals to me.
As a mother and business owner I struggle to stay organised. Mothers can be hard on themselves! I have recently found Google Calendar alerts very helpful, it beeps for dentist appointments, piano, meetings, etc.
Looking back, if I could change one thing I would have tried harder to find a way for either Toby or I to have been at home more for our children. I also would have sought business advice and support earlier on in my career than I did.
There is a group of women traders in the English Market that have been such a support, inspiration and source of advice over the last 25 years that I can’t imagine getting this far without them. We live very rurally and I am not terribly outgoing or sociable, I need to work on the networking thing!
We have lots of exciting plans for this year; new cheeses and dairy tours are being developed in Toons Bridge Dairy. Toby bought a herd of buffalo earlier this year, they are settling in nicely and will be milking before long. We have started an online shop that allows us to deliver all our products both The Real Olive Company and Toons Bridge Dairy right to the customer’s door, anywhere in the country. This is really exciting as we have always had customers visiting our stalls saying ‘I wish I could buy your food near me’, well now they can. We’re also planning some sort of 25 year celebration, so watch this space.
Main image by Ben Russell