Mary Fogarty: Loughmore Community Shop and Tea Rooms
Loughmore Community Shop and Tea Rooms is a new cooperative business that was set up in Loughmore in 2012 and it’s aim was to combat the decline in services in our community and also to combat the even bigger problem of rural isolation. I am here this morning with my friend and co-manager Maeve O’Hair. We hope that you will find what we have to say, not only interesting, but of benefit to you if you are thinking of starting a project in your own community.
First, I will tell just a little bit about Maeve and myself and how the idea started. I will go through the various steps and work that we did to set up the cooperative, where are are today, what we are doing to run the cooperative and our hopes and aspirations for the future.
About three years ago, through a chance meeting with Maeve, I sorted out that both of us had similar ideas and plans to set up a business in Loughmore. Maeve had been actively considering opening a tearooms and I had been thinking of opening a shop and tearooms in our parish. Both of us could see a huge need to do something, because for seven years Loughmore had nothing…absolutely nothing. Every business had closed and it meant that even if you wanted the most basic grocery item, you had to travel 6 miles to Borris or three miles to Templemore.
Maeve’s background is in journalism and PR and she is also a certified organic farmer. I am a qualified financial advisor and I worked with a financial institution for 38 years but we both have a lot in common because we have both experienced great challenges in our lives individually. Maeves’s husband John died a number of years go and she was left as a young woman to bring up her family and rear her children and as a result of being a widow, Maeve really experienced rural isolation first hand. For me, I got breast cancer and found myself unable to work due to ill health, but it was during my recovery from breast cancer that I very quickly realized that there was nothing in Loughmore. I couldn’t even buy a pint of milk and I didn’t have the energy to travel to town. When I was growing up in Loughmore, my parent owned a business there with a shop and a petrol station. Sadly all the businesses left and we were left with nothing, only the local pub that opened at 6:00 in the evening. I decided if I survived this cancer, I would do something about it and I had it in my head to reopen my parents shop but I really didn’t have the energy to go it alone. As luck would have it, I was discussing this situation with a friend of mine and this woman was from Crosspatrick. She introduced me to Joan Vaughan who spoke to you earlier on. I visited Joan’s shop in Crosspatrick and was hugely impressed. It was during one of my visits to Joan, that she said, “Mary, I think what you are thinking of doing is something similar to what they are doing in England and you should go home and look up the Plunkett Foundation.” So that is exactly what I did. The very minute I looked at the webpage and saw what they were doing, I said, “Yes. This is exactly what we should be doing and it would really suit well in Loughmore.” I spent about 6 months researching the Plunkett Foundation and they have a lovely network of help for people. They had over 300 shops set up and they were communicating with each other. I felt this concept was really right and really good. I loved the concept. At this point I was going to open a cooperative in the community similar to what Joan was doing. Then the most wonderful thing happened, I met up with Maeve again and Maeve and few years previously had done a study on Horace Plunkett and she loved the concept, so we were both thinking on the same line. Maeve’s sister then very kindly offered us the most beautiful location to run our business….the cottage in Loughmore. It is an authentic 18th century cottage and absolutely beautiful and retains many of its original features. We restored the cottage to its former glory a few years ago. It was an idyllic place to run our new business.
So the next thing was to see if there was an appetite for this type of enterprise in our community. We organized a Christmas market in our local community centre and invited all the local producers and crafts people to come and sell their wares. This was a major success and at that market we asked them if they would like to do this on a more permanent basis and do something to help themselves.
With all this knowledge behind us, we approached North Tipperary LEADER, where we were introduced to Gearoid Fitzgibbon and Pat Killeen. Pat took us under his wing and our project fell under the umbrella of Village Rejuvenation, as this was his area of expertise. Pat visited us in Loughmore, saw the cottage and was as equally excited about the project as we were. Pat discovered that the CEO of the Plunkett Foundation was speaking at a Rural Development meeting in Portlaoise. He arranged for Maeve and myself to go meet Peter Couchman at this meeting. From this meeting, Maeve and I were invited to the UK to visit a number of the Plunkett Cooperatives and saw first hand how successful they were and the impact that they were having on the communities. We were full of enthusiasm and fully convinced that this was the way forward. We reported back to Pat, put in our application and no words could express our delight when we were granted 75% funding to set up our business and our dream was coming true. As LEADER does not fund retail, we still had to find funding to set up our shop, so we had a public meeting in our community centre. We invited Peter to that meeting as well as ICOS, the Enterprise Board, our cooperative members and members of the parish. We offered our parishioners the opportunity to become shareholders in this new cooperative. We were absolutely delighted with the response that we got from the entire parish. People really embraced the idea and offered us so much help. Volunteers came and helped us prepare the premises and it brought out the best in everybody. It is a prime example of a community working together for it’s benefit. We now have the most beautiful and idyllic little shop and tearooms and we are very proud of it.
On the 23rd of August 2012, when we opened our doors for the first time, we created a little bit of history. We were the first Plunkett model cooperative to open a cooperative in Ireland in 150 years. We welcomed the Plunkett Foundation back to Ireland on its 150th anniversary. Everything we did to set up the business was done on a local level. We got local trades men to do all the work and purchased all our furniture from local suppliers. This meant a lot to them in these hard times. It is truly lovely to see the wheels of our cooperative in motion. We have nine food producers and ten craftspeople involved. All our food crafts are supplied from within a five-mile radius of the cottage. We put local “food miles” on our food, just to give you an example.. the vegetables come from four local “food miles” away and not a hundred and four. So, you know what you are buying in our shops is fresh and local. We have the basic groceries in our shops and our services are growing all the time. We now have a post service where people can come and pay their bills, get their paper and all the basic grocery items, similar to what Joan has in Crosspatrick. We hope this week to see the post box restored back to our village. It was taken away a number of years ago.
We now have three people employed on a permanent basis; Maeve, myself and another girl who helps us manage the business. We are open seven days a week from 9am to 5pm in the tearooms and we keep the shop open until 6pm. We have 3 people working with us on Tús Schemes, 12 volunteers who come in and work for 2 hours at a time. We also base people with disabilities and special needs and we have a lovely girl coming in from St Cronan Special School in Roscrea for a few hours and she absolutely loves it. It has given her a great sense of belonging and she has a great sense of pride in what she does. We have also given work experience to a number of the local Transition Year students and they also love it. They put it on their C.V.s and it is great for them.
There are no words that can express the joys and happiness the cottage has brought back to our entire community. It has actually given it back its heartbeat. There is now life in what was a dead village. People are enjoying the lovely warm atmosphere of the tearooms and appreciate having a place to buy their newspapers and groceries without having to travel further afield. We have had an absolutely amazing time since we opened. Last year was a complete whirlwind. We won to major awards. One was for Community Innovation and the other for the overall idea of setting up a business. Nationwide visited us and we have been on the radio and featured in national papers and the Farmers Journal. LEADER asked us to promote the cottage through the Electric Picnic at the plowing match and it was an amazing experience and in actual fact our stand was the most visited stand at the plowing match. We were invited up to Dunsany to meet Lady Dunsany where Horace Plunkett came from and she was so proud of what we are doing in Loughmore.
Our hopes and dreams for the future would see the Plunkett Foundation model spread throughout Ireland. It is a proven success and gives the community the knowledge and help to help themselves. At a meeting recently in Loughmore the Plunkett Foundation has put forward a plan to LEADER to help form the Irish Plunkett Foundation and help the Irish people set up these community shops throughout Ireland. We have the template and we welcome anyone who wishes to see what we have done to come visit us in Loughmore. You will be very welcome.
Our mission statement: We will endeavor to serve our customers with respect humility and professionalism and through our efforts will make Loughmore Community Shop and Tearooms a beacon of light and hope in our village. We wish to make our community shop and tearooms the social hub of the village and surrounding areas providing a suitable meeting place for all the age groups, young and old. We would provide an art and craft area for local past pupils and artist to have a local platform to showcase and sell their work. Special interest groups will be welcomed and facilitated. The disabled and those with special needs will also be accommodated. Loughmore Community Shop and tearoom will provide a first class quality service to all our customers. We will sell fresh locally grown produce as basic day-to-day items from our shop and on a monthly basis at our specially organised community market. We will run a tearoom that will provide warm comforting food and specialty teas and coffees. We will also cater for those will special dietary requirements. Friendliness, courtesy and approachability will be the hallmark for our trading.