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An Award-Winning Sheebeen in Westport

Cronin's Sheebeen, Co. Mayo, picked up the Best Gastropub in Connaught award at the recent Restaurant Association of Ireland (RAI) awards.  Recommended in both the Michelin and the Lonely Planet guides, and with a beautiful view at the foot of Croagh Patrick looking out over Clew Bay onto Clare Island, it is easy to see why it is such a popular spot all year round.   I spoke to Simon Cronin about the establishment’s recent win, how they achieved their success and what inspires their menu.

Cronin’s Sheebeen was taken over by my father, Colm, and I, in early 2006,” Simon explained. “My parents have a long association with the licensed and food trade in Westport and then we moved to acquire The Sheebeen as it was known then.”

The Cronins then brought in a team of well known chefs that they had previously worked with, including Frankie Mallon and John McGough.  The business instantly exploded, but the economic crash that followed led to a major realignment of the business to a much more value orientated offering, to sustain it through the intervening years.  In recent years the family has been slowly working their way back up to their previously higher end menu offerings.

“We are absolutely delighted with our win,” said Simon, explaining that ”We had a bit of changing of personnel in our kitchen in January of this year where we installed a new head chef”.

Where some might have seen the departure of a head chef as a significant problem, Simon saw it as an opportunity to bring their food offering to an even higher standard to mirror the economy.  “It’s a big boost,” he beamed, discussing the award, continuing to say that ”It has assured us all that we're heading in the right direction”.

Simon believes that there was a combination of factors involved in the establishment winning the RAI award.

The first factor is the quality of food.  “We wanted to be seen to be serving food of a restaurant standard in an informal and relaxed surrounding,” he said.

The second factor involves the pub end of their service, as when they 'upped their game' with their food offering they also reflected this by expanding their menu to include craft beer and a bigger variety of spirits.

The third factor is customer service. “We’re very lucky that we have a small tight-knit long standing front of house team, and whilst we don’t try and over formalise our approach to customer service, we try to ensure that all customers feel relaxed and well cared for when they're dining with us.” This is ensured by training for all staff, involving an external trainer.

The final factor is that all aspects of the business are open to input from staff in order to identify problems and enable the smooth running of the establishment: “And whilst we don’t implement every suggestion, it does allow us to identify problems at an early stage and remedy them quickly”.

With regards to the menu, in January of this year,  the services of Anthony Printer as Head Chef were engaged.  “Anthony brings a wealth of experience to the business as he has worked across a broad range of establishments from three starred Michelin restaurants to upmarket country house hotels,” Simon said.

Anthony has also done a massive overhaul on the food, now giving the Sheebeen three separate menus – lunch, an evening a la carte menu from 5pm daily and a special Sunday lunch menu.  The daily lunch menu has offerings such as a Westport Charcutirie Board with homemade chicken liver pate, pickles, roast beef, and watercress served with sourdough bread. The evening features Fresh Newport Langoustine with wild garlic and lovage butter or Pan Roasted Black Sole with lemon and caper butter.   The Sunday menu offering includes tried and trusted Sunday favourites such as Roast Rump of Beef, Collar of Bacon and Braised Pork Belly, as well as fresh fillets of cod and salmon.

“We're very lucky we’ve some great suppliers in this part of the country that we have built up trusted relationships with over many years,” said Simon when considering the menu.  These include local suppliers in Rosbeg, the McCormack family for meat and Michael Madden for fish from Rossaveal Harbour.

Cost increases are a 'normalised challenge' for Cronin's Sheebeen, in that these are considered and prepared for in their everyday outlook.  Simon pointed out that these are the same issues that have existed for years, and sees them more as general operating issues but feels that until such time as there is a collective approach taken with strong support by government there will not be much change.

“Whilst I do believe the government realise the importance of the hospitality industry as a whole - this being evident by the introduction and retention (for now) of the 9% VAT rate - I still believe they could be doing more to resolve some of the issues which not only affect the hospitality industry but the wider economy as a whole.”

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