We knew our tasty chicken idea would be more than just flavour of the month
HOW I MADE IT: Sara Mitchell, Owner of Poulet Bonne Femme
The Sunday Times, 4th of September 2016, 12:01am, Sandra O’Connell
Mitchell was inspired by the memory of the succulent chickens eaten on holidays in Spain
The week Sara Mitchell and Gavin McCarthy had their first baby was a momentous one. They were so happy with their new baby, her husband losing his job the same week “didn’t seem a problem”, said Mitchell.
It was July 2008 and finding a job to replace his sales and marketing role in the construction sector was to prove difficult.
Emerging from the baby-bliss cocoon, the pair realised that, to start bringing in money, they were going to have to set up a business to do it. They drew up a list of about 10 possibilities. “I can’t even remember them now,” she said. “Selling rotisserie chickens was the one that grew legs.”
Teenage sweethearts who had met on the bus into Dublin, the pair studied at Portobello College in Dublin, she in marketing and he in business.
They married in 2007 and, with her track record working for Anheuser-Busch in London and him working for ubiquitous developer Bernard McNamara, they were well set.
One year, one baby and one redundancy later and “everyone was telling us to emigrate”, said Mitchell. The pair worked on their rotisserie chicken idea, prompted by the memory of the succulent chickens sold on roadsides and at markets on holidays in Spain.
Nobody told them it was a daft idea, at least, not to their face. “Everyone was really supportive,” she said. “It was only much later that people started telling us, actually, they had thought we were insane.”
Mitchell confesses to having “a very romantic view” of the venture. Her only wobble came when they ploughed the last of Gavin’s redundancy money into a custom-made rotisserie trailer.
“When we went to pick it up, all I could see was a chip van,” she said.
By that point, there was no option but to plough on. Taking a name suggested by her mother, derived from a French dish, Poulet Bonne Femme booked a stall at Leopardstown farmers’ market in May 2009.
With the country still in the depths of recession, the challenge was to get people to pay €12.50 for a free-range chicken basted in a special, homemade marinade.
“We were advised not to use free-range chickens because they’d make the product too expensive but it was something we both felt strongly about,” she said.
They sold 20 chickens on their first day, working side by side in the trailer. At best it looked like a way to keep the wolf from the door until one or other of them landed a decent job. “And at least we knew we wouldn’t go hungry — there was lots of leftover chicken to eat.”
Indeed, even today her eldest son, a “great eater”, refuses to eat chicken
A move into the People’s Park market in Dun Laoghaire marked a serious step up for the pair. “It was a real foodies’ market and demand soared,” she said. “All of a sudden we were selling 120 chickens a day.”
Unbeknown to Mitchell, McCarthy was offered a job, and turned it down. “He mentioned it when we were out in company one night.” At this point the pair had bought a second rotisserie trailer and were working three markets a week, with the in-between days spent prepping a range of casseroles and sides.
The redundancy nest egg was long gone and McCarthy’s convertible Mercedes, a vestige from his property development days, sold to buy a van.
It was hard work and a precarious living, particularly as a second and third baby arrived. Yet she recalls it as intensely happy. “We were in this bubble.”
Being so busy kept them from looking closely at their business model. “Our business was way too weather-dependent,” she said. “You’d cook 30 chickens and it would lash rain and no one would come.” They thought about opening a permanent shop and sourced a unit in Monkstown, until they discovered that cafe chain Avoca was opening in Monkstown, and was going to have a rotisserie. “I rang my dad in hysterics telling him we were finished and he just said, ‘Ring them’.”
Avoca’s co-owner Simon Pratt had been a customer at the People’s Park market, and they had spoken about the business. Pratt told them to put a one-page proposal together.
In 2011, a Poulet Bonne Femme rotisserie opened as a concession in the Monkstown Avoca. The young couple pay a commission on sales and don’t have to worry about rates at all. All of a sudden their volume sales went through the roof, fuelled by further expansion into Avoca cafes at Rathcoole, Kilmacanogue and Suffolk Street.
Now selling seven days a week, 12 hours a day, their growth enabled them to keep their prices down. In nine years, the price of their chickens have increased only once to €12.95. The company, a member of Love Irish Food, an association of Irish food brands, also grew revenues by extending their range, providing all sorts of roasted meats, including beef and porchetta.
Another shock was to come last year with the news that the Pratt family was selling Avoca to Aramark. “We only found out when everybody else did,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell had spent the previous year stepping back from the rotisserie counter and moved into an office. “Spending that year working on the business, thinking strategically about how to grow it, was perfect timing given what happened at Avoca.
The opportunities to partner with Aramark are greater than they were with Avoca. Earlier this year Mitchell moved the company into Spade, the food incubation centre in Dublin, and began developing a food service range for corporate events, office lunch deliveries and most recently, other cafes.
The business, which employs 22 people, will this year turn in excess of €1m, and is profitable. “We’d like to open our own shops now too, and take it into the UK,” said Mitchell.
The success of the temporary stopgap doesn’t surprise her nearly as much as how much she enjoys being in business. “I love running a business, which is something I never would have known about myself,” she said. “I just love it.”