Shannen Butler Keane is the owner of Diva Boutique Cafe and Diva Bakery and Deli in Ballispittle, West Cork. She is an American who has made her home in Ireland. Shannen’s food style at Diva is relaxed and homely, bringing an American ‘family’ approach to casual dining, and her baking is legendary! In the latest in our Day in the Life series, this talented lady tells us a little about what running a busy multi-stranded food business entails, and how she balances professional demands with home life and relaxation.
When and How Do You Begin Your Working Day?
Most mornings, I like to wake about an hour and a half before I have to be at work, to have coffee in bed. That’s very important! If I’m feeling productive in the morning, I also like to get a few household chores done before work. Things like the laundry, the dishes or the hoovering, which I don’t feel like doing after work. I find doing stuff in the morning really helps take the pressure off and means I can relax when I get home.
We have two distinct seasons, so my starting times at work will vary depending on whether it’s summer or winter and which section of the business I am working in that day. During the summer season, if I am baking I will arrive in the bakery at 7 am. Our bread is made the day before and left to prove slowly on an overnight rise. I bake them first thing in the morning, along with our scones and brown bread. Then I cut up the cakes and get things ready for service. If I am working in the kitchen I might start at 8.30 am, and if I am in front of the house then it could be nine o’clock.
How Did Your Passion for Cooking and Baking Begin?
I have lots of childhood memories of food. I am originally from Seattle, and I spent lots of time with my grandparents who lived by the sea. My grandmother was a party person who always gave a full 100% to events like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. She would always go the full hog, never half measured! My Grandpa always did the turkey for Thanksgiving. We would go clam digging by the ocean. I also have family in Alaska so we went salmon fishing there and would have wild salmon three times a week. It was our staple. So I guess from a very early age the love of food was instilled in me. As I grew up, I had friends in catering and in restaurants, so I would always help them. Then when my Grandma died, I took over her role in doing the party thing.
I married a man from Galway who was a commercial fisherman so I stayed at home and did a lot of cooking with my girls while he was out fishing. We used to spend summers preserving, pickling, canning and bottling things ready for the winter. I suppose getting involved in the food industry as a profession was one of those things that just happened really. During the time I was married we were always back and forth to Ireland with the girls, mainly to Galway, so that’s when I really got to know this country. My first food business here was a little coffee shop in Kinsale before I came to Ballinspittle.
What Gives You The Most Satisfaction From Your Job?
I think making something nice for other people is really satisfying. This sounds mad but a few years ago I had made muffins for someone and the person was so happy, I thought, ‘God, I just made someone really happy there!’ So it’s the thing of just giving something nice to someone which makes them happy that drives you to keep working in this industry. We have busy summers, which is great, but I really love the winter when things slow down a bit, then I can take more time to think about what we are doing and try new things out in the bakery. In the summer there are three or four of us in the bakery so it’s full speed. Working in a bakery is very different to working in a kitchen, where there can be lots of lively banter.
You really have to concentrate on what you are doing in the bakery because otherwise, you get things wrong. I always tell my bakers there’s no talking in the bakery. I feel bad saying it, but I know myself the minute someone speaks is when you will put too much of something in the mix or leave something out, and you won’t realise until the cake or bread comes out of the oven. So I don’t talk when I am baking, I like to concentrate on the recipe and getting the measurements just right. Making great bread and cakes is a very satisfying thing!
Which Part Of Your Job Do You Like The Least?
Managing staff! I don’t mind paperwork but staff management is very difficult. I think any boss would have the same problem! You want to create a nice environment to work in for the team, but still make sure people are productive. It’s a double-edged sword. You have to be a friend to your staff, but still, be able to tell someone when they do something wrong.
What Advice Would You Give Someone Looking to Become a Baker and Cafe Owner?
Make sure you can do every job your business involves. I can work in any area, kitchen, bakery or front of the house, and that’s essential when someone is off sick or can’t come in one day, because you can’t be left with anyone to do their job. My brother Taylor worked with me for years as the baker, but I had to ask him to train me to do the bread and stuff because when he eventually did leave I needed to know what he was doing so I could step in. He’s a great baker, but now working at Toons Bridge Dairy, getting some different experience.
I also had one year where I lost some key staff in every area of the business, so I had to slot in and fill the gaps myself. So I would say to anyone who is thinking of doing this as a profession, know your limits. If you can’t bake, seriously don’t open a bakery! If you want a baking element to your business, say a little coffee shop with good cakes and bread, then source them from a local baker who will do them right and be reliable. I think with any food business, it’s important to know your strengths and play to those.
If You Weren’t A Baker and Cook What Else Would You Like To Be?
I’m working on my plan! I do have a plan! I have an acre of land that I am building on at the moment, so I would love to be able to work more from home eventually. Maybe do food events, workshops and food photography. I do lots of food travel and I’ve got interested in the food photography and styling element from going to a couple of workshops and weekends. The food business is hard, we work 60 hours a week plus in the busy season, so I would like to eventually be able to pull back a little bit from that and work from home more. I will always be involved in food in some way, but hopefully, in a less pressured environment as I get older.
Are You A Technophile or Technophobe?
I embrace technology. I love social media stuff especially, and it’s definitely good for the business. I would love to be able to blog more, but in a rural business where margins are tight, it’s finding time to be able to do it. But yes, I definitely am one for trying new things and using technology as much as I can.
What are the daily challenges of your job?
Making sure everyone is paid, that there is enough money to keep everything afloat and pay suppliers, and everyone is happy. You have to be able to enjoy work, but also to be sure that your tax, ESB and other important stuff is up to date. There are time-based challenges as well every day. For example, my customers love to be able to chat with me when they come in, which I love, but it obviously slows me down in whatever I am doing and you have to be able to manage that. I also have to make sure things we need every day don’t break down! Every morning I end up asking are the ovens ok, if the bakery equipment working, is the credit card machine working, etc. It’s these essential things going wrong that can really disrupt the day.
A few Christmasses ago in the floods, the bakery was totally flooded. We were lucky enough to have a central drain so the water had actually gone when I arrived, but it provided an operational challenge for us in having to get cleaned up ready to be able to use the bakery again. These things can just happen and they can’t be helped, but you have to be able to deal with them. I also always have to bear in mind my customers coming in, and what they might want. I always know when people won’t be happy. When I was in Kinsale, I would actually send people to other restaurants or cafes in town that I knew would be able to serve them better than I could. We are in this business to make everyone happy, so if I know I am not going to be able to do that I am happy to recommend somewhere good that will be better suited to a customer’s needs.
Staff management can also be a daily challenge. We are busy in summer so we would generally have enough staff on to cope. But it’s the days when you think it’s going to be quiet and you suddenly get a group of 35 walkers coming in the door, and there’s only one member of staff on!
How Do You Manage the Work/Life Balance
This is the first year I have decided to close and take a break in November. We’re going to take a week off, so we can all come back to work and go into the Christmas period with a smile on our faces. I think that’s very important. We do have winter closures as well after Christmas, but I keep the bakery and deli open till the first week of January. Then I close till March. I find we have to do that because when we re-open for the spring and summer it’s all just a blur to the end of the season! I try to delegate as well and in summer I have a few more staff to work with. I think every business owner has the same worries about closing or being away from their business, but sometimes you have to let go because otherwise you’d just be exhausted. I think it’s nice to close as well so we all have time to do things. I like to travel during my time off.
How Do You Relax When You Get Time Off?
I make a cocktail! At home, I like to have a very well-stocked bar, so I can make a nice cocktail for myself in the evenings. I also love to travel. This winter I am going to the Philippines which I am really looking forward to. I also like to attend food workshops and food photography workshops.
What Is Your Guilty Pleasure?
My cocktails and watching Game of Thrones! I watch it with my partner. We make a signature cocktail of the evening and sit down to watch it together. We got into it quite late on but once we got started we loved it! I love tv box sets and taking long baths, and I like to keep up with Pinterest and food blogs as well.
What’s Your Favourite Place To Eat?
We like to go to The Black Pig in Kinsale. I like their casual food and good wine. But we could just as easily pop out for a pizza. We tend to go to Kinsale a lot as it’s close by and has lots to offer in eating out.
I think you have to beware of the green-eyed monster! By that I mean don’t look at what other people do and be envious. You can appreciate what others do, but always know your own style and stick to it. Our style is North American and that’s what I know and do very well. I think you can’t spread yourself too thinly, so stay true to yourself and know you’re doing the best job you can.
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