Ep 02 – Poulet Bonne Femme, Gavin McCarthy and Sara Mitchell

Podcast Ep 02 - Poulet Bonne Femme, Gavin McCarthy and Sarah Mitchell
In this episode of A Pivotal Moment, host Mark Cahalane speaks to Gavin McCarthy and Sara Mitchell, the husband and wife team behind Poulet Bonne Femme, a popular Irish food business which started life with a trailer in a public park. Both Gavin and Sara had successful careers in property development and international marketing respectively, before the 2008 financial crash impacted their careers and changed their trajectory. They talk about how Poulet Bonne Femme came to be, starting with Gavin’s redundancy and a family holiday in West Cork.
Listen On Google Podcast Button

Podcast Episode Transcript – Poulet Bonne Femme, Gavin McCarthy and Sara Mitchell

Mark Cahalane 

Hello and welcome to A Pivotal Moment, a podcast series about ordinary people who made extraordinary decisions both in their business and personal lives. I’m Mark Cahalane and in this episode I will be talking to the husband and wife team behind Poulet Bonne Femme, Gavin McCarthy and Sara Mitchell. Both Gavin and Sara had successful careers across property development and international marketing before they took the decision to set up Poulet Bonne Femme. I started by asking them both about their backgrounds. So Sara and Gav, welcome. Sara, tell me a little bit about your background, your family, where you grew up? 

Sara Mitchell 

I grew up… well after a few years abroad, I moved to Dublin aged seven or eight, grew up in Monkstown. I’m the eldest of five children, I don’t live very far from where I grew up now in Dún Laoghaire and now have four children. My background has always been in marketing and sales. Really more marketing. I worked in London for a few years for a beer company. And then came home to Dublin, married Gav and set up my own company actually, which was kind of in events and it was going well until the crash in 2008, yeah. 

Mark Cahalane 

You came home to marry Gav. That sounded very deliberate. 

Sara Mitchell 

Well, that’s what Gav says. Yeah, I came home and married Gav soon after I arrived home. [Laughter] 

Mark Cahalane 

And Gav tell us about your background, family… 

Gavin McCarthy 

Yeah. I grew up in, in Glengarry. In south Dublin. I’m the youngest of four boys, and… primarily my background would be in property before Poulet Bonne Femme. I worked in Hooke & MacDonald in the city centre and then I went to work for a property developer after that and then obviously the crash came in 2008. And everything changed. 

Mark Cahalane 

Did you enjoy what what you were doing? 

Gavin McCarthy 

I loved it. Loved it. Loved property. Still do love property.  I suppose when I was working at Hooke & MacDonald it was really on the marketing side of things.  That I was working in mostly obviously sales, but it was about presenting developments. And so it was all new developments. So it was very busy at the time. So it was all presenting, you know sort of lifestyles and you know way of life and and and new schemes and it was all kind of very exciting. Loved it. 

Mark Cahalane 

Sara, what about you? Were you happy with what you were doing? Were you enthralled with it? 

Sara Mitchell 

I certainly loved working for the beer company in London. I don’t know whether that was just because of all the free passes. To concerts and festivals and nightclubs, or whether it was the work. I was in my 20s. It was a lot of fun. And then when I came home and started working for myself, I did enjoy that actually. I liked the freedom of it and I was disappointed when it didn’t work. But actually I was also pregnant with our first baby, so the timing wasn’t the worst.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. I obviously had no no one else working with me, so it’s just a one man band. So yeah, it wasn’t too disappointing. 

Mark Cahalane 

Had you both always wanted to have your own businesses? 

Gavin McCarthy 

I did anyway, I think. My my dad actually always worked himself, pretty much, so it was kind of a natural thing for me to do. I think I always want to work for myself. I mean, when I was working for, you know, other companies, I think it was only a matter of time before I wanted to do my own thing. Yeah. So, I think I always did want to work for myself. 

Sara Mitchell 

I don’t think it was quite as straightforward for me. I didn’t really have a career path. I was just living day-to-day and having fun, and I I never really thought about what I wanted to do so much. So it’s been an interesting path for me. I always knew I couldn’t work for anyone else, but that was because I just wasn’t very good at it. And then when I did start that events business I realised that actually you know, it is obviously very hard work and you’ve no back up    I did enjoy it more. I was better not taking directions from other people, definitely. 

Mark Cahalane 

You’ve both described the crash, which was obviously a pivotal impact on your your working lives. What brought you to Poulet Bonne Femme? How did that come about? 

Gavin McCarthy 

It really all started in August 2008. So we got married in 2007 and then in August 2008, Sam, our eldest, was born in July and then we were down on holiday down in West Cork. And I think, Sara, you were gonna stay on for longer. And I was coming back to my job. When I drove back on a Sunday, came into work on Monday and never forget the feeling driving into the office. Getting my car going to the office. And I knew there’s something not right in, you know. In the the atmosphere in the building wasn’t right. I knew something was was kind of strange. And then that’s when I lost my job. I got made redundant. So that was the start of Poulet Bonne Femme actually, even though we didn’t know what we’re going to do. But that was the beginning of something. I went straight back down to West Cork, I think, and it was kind of a shock. I mean, Sam was two weeks old or something like that. So in one way it was a huge shock, but then also it was kind of nice to spend some time with him as well. I mean even though I think actually the writing was probably on the wall for the whole industry. Probably even going back to 2006, 2007, there was problems there. You know, everyone could see that the price is being paid for sites was off the charts. And it was just all very, very bubbly indeed, but… 

Sara Mitchell 

We were quite young, so in hindsight when you look back at that crash as you say. It was a hugely pivotal point in our lives.  Like everything changed, but I don’t think we quite realised how much when we were in it because we were young and we were so optimistic and we were so willing to take a chance on something. I don’t know that I’d do it again now. Even though we had Sam, he was only 10 days old, so even that responsibility of being a parent hadn’t kicked in either. So the whole world changed, but I do think it took us a few years to look back and realise actually how much it had changed and what we did risk. 

Gavin McCarthy 

And what we had to go through. You know. 

Sara Mitchell 

Because Gav got a redundancy package. And he was lucky because he was one of the first to go. So he got one. I don’t think anyone after might have, but we were able to use that money. But we put the whole thing into Poulet Bonne Femme. We never questioned whether we should be, you know, putting it aside for a mortgage. Gav had bought a house and we had both redone it and moved in. So all of those kind of questions, which now when I look back, I can’t believe that we didn’t think about. I just think we were so young. 

Mark Cahalane 

And before Poulet Bonne Femme came about. Gav, you’ve lost your job. Sara, you’re in the events business. You have a very young son. Do you start a conversation together. What are we going to do? What we want to do? Do we want to do something together? 

Sara Mitchell 

We thought you’d get another job. 

Gavin McCarthy 

I was going to go and get another job in property.  But really, there was no jobs out there whatsoever. It was kind of people burying their heads in the sand a little bit in terms of how big the problem was. We had insight into that because I’d seen, you know, the price of being paid for sites. I knew there was a problem coming. So I at the time tried to position myself, you know, between financial institutions and developers, to try and carve out some sort of a a role for myself. As a go between I don’t know. But I think then NAMA came along and just kind of took that away. So I I tried to do a few things, maybe I think up until about Christmas time of 2008. I tried to kind of get something off the ground. And then we had discussed. I think we discussed you know, the food industry or I, I can’t actually remember to be honest. 

Sara Mitchell 

No, I don’t think we did. You you had looked at that. And then you looked at other parts of property that you could have gone into. And then I think by Christmas we realised that that’s just not going to happen. And then the option to emigrate was always there. And you know, a lot of people were going to Canada. I had been born in Canada and had no intention of going back. And not only that, I just come home from London, so I did, you know, emigration just wasn’t on the cards. For me anyway. And then we had been to Spain a few times and seen the rotisserie. And actually every time we’d gone on holidays, we’d been excited about getting it. You know, it was so tasty. And Gav suggested it one day in the kitchen and again when I look back at this, it’s it’s again that youth and naivety almost like I thought, Oh yeah, great. I’d love to work in the market. You know, it’s so romantic. Yeah, I could totally see myself working in a market and Gav just threw it out. And actually, in a funny way, it was the only one that took legs like there were a few ideas. 

Gavin McCarthy 

Yeah, there was actually a delivery I remember at the time people were all leaving. People are all leaving, going to London, going to Canada, and there was we just I remember considering like you know, we set up some sort of a a transport company to. Fill that you know there was. 

Sara Mitchell 

Yeah, were a few ideas. But this one just took off because again, Gav had that money, so we were able to just invest it into capital. So we got the rotisseries in, we got the van made up in Northern Ireland, actually in Randalstown. And we got a place on some of the markets. It took us about a year to get into all of the good ones. But…. 

Sara Mitchell 

There was a bit of a a thing going on about Irish food as well at the time. I think we were quite lucky in that way. People were very focused on Ireland. When you think back, you know, they were adamant they weren’t going to buy foreign food. Everyone wanted to support Irish. So actually… 

Gavin McCarthy 

The markets are just beginning to take off. The food scene was really vibrant at the time. Then… 

Sara Mitchell 

Yes, we kind of found ourselves lucky in the right place, the right time, but it was never going to be forever. This was just a stopgap. 

Mark Cahalane 

And just before getting into the whole Poulet Bonne Femme  story. Do you remember what the emotion was like when you realised, well look, Gav isn’t going to get another job? Were you afraid? Were you panicking? What was going on for you? 

Gavin McCarthy 

I don’t think we were, but… 

Sara Mitchell 

Yeah, I think we probably should have been, but no, never. That’s one thing I always look back and I’m amazed about that. There was never. We were so confident. Like I kind of can’t believe how confident we were. We were. Were just convinced. That we could do this and then, you know, you’d get a job again or I’d get a job. One of us would get a job. And the other one would keep Poulet Bonne Femme  on almost like a little business in the market. And we’d keep going. And we very much lived hand to mouth for those definitely 12 or 18 months. You know, and and then we had another baby. 

Sara Mitchell 

It was really busy. But again, we were excited, I suppose. 

Gavin McCarthy 

It worked. It worked from the start, so we were we were busy, you know, so suddenly we were actually trying to kind of catch up with it in a way.  

Sara Mitchell 

Yeah, we got a second trailer pretty quickly, like it was only 12 months. We had two trailers on the go and we were working seven days a week and our mums were minding the boys. We’d two at the time. You know it was busy, so you just didn’t have time. And anyway everyone was losing their job by that stage. So it wasn’t so shocking. You know, we were kind of lucky to have a job. And a lot of our friends left. So we were also lucky we didn’t have to leave.  

Mark Cahalane 

And just to fully understand, when you talk about trailers and rotisseries, you had seen in markets in Spain how people bought rotisserie cooked chickens? Yeah. 

Sara Mitchell 

Like a grocery. 

Mark Cahalane 

And you had this idea that might, that’ll work in Ireland. And the start was you had a trailer and a stand. When you say markets, you’re talking about food markets in parks? So you were literally travelling around Dublin? 

Gavin McCarthy 

Yeah. How many markets we’re doing 9 or 10 markets a week? Yeah, just yeah. 

Sara Mitchell 

All over Dublin. To be fair. Yeah. And then we did some events. 

Gavin McCarthy 

Our main one really was Dún Laoghaire on on a Sunday. That was our one that really got us going. Got us established. We had a very, very, very busy trade on Sunday. We kind of made a name for ourselves, you know, I think. I mean. Actually people still come to us, even in our new Store in Blackrock that we’ve just opened. People come to us and say we bought from you when you were in the trailers. Really, you know, was actually, even though we didn’t know at the time. Was very strong for the brand. You know, like for you to get to know us and to link, you know, the business that is now back to then. It’s actually been a great story. 

Mark Cahalane 

Where did the name come from? 

Sara Mitchell 

Actually my mum, her mum used to make recipe called Poulet Bonne Femme , which was white wine chicken dish as opposed to the coq au vin which is the one everyone knows. So when we started it, mum just threw the name out and then just instantly we loved it. And actually over the years, people have told us they don’t like it, but we’ve been. We’ve really stuck to it, I think. It really suits the brand. And yeah, I just as soon as I heard it. I was like, it’s perfect. 

Mark Cahalane 

So you’ve a growing family, a young family, you’re husband, you’re husband and wife.  What is it like? Working together when that sort of pressure comes on? How do you manage that? You know you know you’re just doing it. 

Sara Mitchell 

We didn’t have a choice again because we were only just married when it happened. Like we’ve never really known anything else. It’s just part of our life, it’s not like work. You can’t… 

Gavin McCarthy 

Somebody described it as the business is like the wallpaper. It’s always in the background. It’s always there and that’s…  

Sara Mitchell 

Working for yourself is like that. It’s always there. 

Gavin McCarthy 

You never really get away from it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But you don’t ever get away from it. It’s always there. It’s always responsibility that you need to. 

Sara Mitchell 

And even the kids are so aware of it, like Mark, the second boy would have been in a Little Puse. I’d have been working in the trailer with him as a newborn baby behind the counter. It’s so part of their lives. 

Mark Cahalane 

So very much a a family enterprise, obviously. How do you reach decisions together? Do you discuss everything? Is one of you the ideas person? One of you the organisation person? How does that all work? 

Sara Mitchell 

It’s a slow process, I think. We start talking about something and then we don’t ever stop talking about it.  You go for a lot of walks. We talk things, but it’s a slow process. We don’t really ever sit down. And make decisions. I think we’re more instinctual. Like we we, we our instincts are always… I don’t know how to describe that but it’s not… We don’t ever sit down and make decisions like that. We hardly sit down and have meetings. We have team meetings obviously, but you and I… things just evolve slowly and… I guess then at crunch times, we decide will we do this or will we not? But we’ve already made-up our minds. And again, like I’ve said, it’s it’s always there. So it’s like even in the middle of the night, you could be talking about it. You know it it doesn’t. It’s just part of your your day-to-day. 

Gavin McCarthy 

It’s part of conversations all the time, so it’s not like, you need to sit down and have a meeting about work.   

Sara Mitchell 

We have tried sometimes not to talk about work, you know. If we go out for dinner. 

Gavin McCarthy 

But like not in a sort of repressive way. Just like it’s an interest of ours, you know we love it, you know? So it’s we like talking about it. obviously  you know, there’s some elements that are more challenging than others or, you know, parts of business are challenging. But you know, we both love what we do. So it’s not like it’s it’s not like work. 

Mark Cahalane 

 You must have seen and learned different things about each other. Gav, what have you learned about Sara? 

Gavin McCarthy 

She’s very good on… She’s very clear minded. Which I wouldn’t have thought actually when I married her, I would have thought she was quite clear minded as she is. Very focused, very clear minded, very good on numbers. I didn’t know that about her before. I mean, maybe this the reality of running our business kind of brings things out to you and I’m sure it does, but I definitely didn’t know that about her before I married her.  

Mark Cahalane 

Sara, what have you learned about Gav? 

Sara Mitchell 

I don’t know whether I knew this about him or not, but he has great instincts for things, so he’s great with people and he’s great at understanding people and… You can put him anywhere, but he he has just a good instinct for the business. You know, he mightn’t sit down and do the numbers with me, but he just understands business and maybe it goes back to what he said about his dad always having a business. But he’s a risk taker, but it’s an instinct in him, you know. And I guess I would never have known that. I would have had no reason to know that. I wouldn’t have seen him at work or you know. Even listen to him and he’s talking about work. 

Mark Cahalane 

As the business has evolved, you’ve moved out of parks. You’ve moved into the Avoca network and you’ve recently opened your own store in Blackrock. Was that always compelling vision for the business? 

Gavin McCarthy 

Going back to 2010 because that was a pivotal time in the business when we were up and running a year and a half or so. And then the snow came. That was a lesson for us that we cannot rely purely on the markets because it’s weather dependent. It’s not like it’s in France and Spain where people, it’s part of their culture, where their shopping markets and the weather is fine. Everything else. You know you can’t have that when it rains in Ireland. You know it rains and you know people don’t necessarily shop in the rain. Do you know? So, we were looking at our own shop actually in Monkstown and that’s how the Avoca thing came along in a way, because we were looking at a shop in Monkstown. And we nearly signed a lease on on on the premises and then we heard Avoca were opening up along the crescent in Monkstown and that they wanted to do rotisserie.  We were devastated by that news, thinking, Oh my God, here come Avoca. They’re phenomenal brands. And if they want to do rotisserie, they’ll do rotisserie and they’ll blow us out of the market, do you know what I mean. 

Sara Mitchell 

And we crushed. 

Gavin McCarthy 

But then as Sara’s dad actually suggested, when you just get in touch with Avoca. And as it turns out, my dad knew Donald Pratt, and there was a sort of a family connection to a degree. So we contacted Simon. He knew about us and then he said, why don’t you come in and concession basis in Avoca? Suddenly, we’d come from a market into Avoca, which is amazing. And then that kind of started something with them. We originally did want our own shop. And our own standalone, but then the Avoca thing… we opened with Avoca and that really worked. And next thing wrote another one, another one, another one, you know, and that totally consumed what we were doing. So coming back to our own store, it was always going to happen at some point. 

Sara Mitchell 

Took much longer from the because of the evoca relationship. You know, we were so busy so long. Yeah, but it had originally been all. 

Gavin McCarthy 

Took much longer, yeah. We were able to expand easily with Avoca. 

Sara Mitchell 

But it had originally always been the plan. Always the plan when we realised this was going to be our jobs, you know that it wasn’t just a short term thing to get us through the recession. So then we decided we really… 

Gavin McCarthy 

But also like from the open of Avoca in the  

Sara Mitchell 

11th of the 11th, 2011. 

Gavin McCarthy 

Yeah, we were slammed. So busy. Yeah, was great. We were really busy. People really responded to the product and, you know, just it worked. So when something works you just go with it. 

Mark Cahalane 

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. You looked at a franchise model at some stage, is that right or what? What went down there? What were the the key learnings for you both? 

Sara Mitchell 

I think we just realised that the brand isn’t suited, it’s not so streamlined, you know.  We we did a lot of work in making it streamlined and putting in systems and trying to replicate it, but actually I think we learned that it’s not… It’s it’s too organic. You know, it’s too it didn’t respond well and that location is so important for us  There are certain criterias that we need and it doesn’t work without that.  

Gavin McCarthy 

Yeah. And I think we we, you know, we really started valuing our own staff. You know we really understood from from that point on that you know your staff are so much part of your brand and you can’t just kind of outsource that. Well, you can. I mean some brand, some brands do it and it works, but I think you need to be so tight on control. And then sometimes you’re really tired of control. You lose that little bit of something with your brand. You just need to be careful that you don’t. You don’t ruin your ruin things you know. So with the staff, we weren’t. We weren’t controlling the staff, so basically all the kind of suppliers.  That you know, the bread, the chicken, the marinade. All the things that made our product.  Was all kind of agreed.  And they had to use… You know, all of our kind of agreed suppliers and everything else, but the staff need to believe it. 

Sara Mitchell 

Well, they are part of the brand. Very much so, and especially in a kind of high end product. 

Sara Mitchell 

The staff are the ones who are selling it. They’re totally part of the team. For us. 

Mark Cahalane 

What are the key differences running your own business? Being an employee of a business? You’ve talked about, okay, your husband and wife partnership, it’s an ongoing ever present conversation. Well, what else is different for you? 

Sara Mitchell 

I mean it would be a lie to say that sometimes I don’t daydream about being an employee and just clocking off at 5 o’clock on a Friday.  And getting my pay, you know, that’s very tempting. But… I think working for yourself for us and because we’ve got a family and we’re doing it together, has given us the huge freedom. And a lifestyle we love and we didn’t plan for it, but it has really worked for us. For me anyway, there’s no comparison. I wouldn’t be able to do the employee but, but it’s not all plain sailing as you say. Can be over consuming, full on. And there’s no let up. You know, even if you’re on holidays. And especially I sometimes do feel bad for the kids. That sometimes it’s always there. 

Gavin McCarthy 

I think you’re right, Sara. I don’t think it’s just such a different thing. It’s a lifestyle. Like working for yourself is a lifestyle, you know, and if it works very lucky, you know, like it’s tough though. I mean, it’s really tough on people. I know people in the restaurant business now are really struggling. It’s tough. It’s tough going. It’s hard work. And it doesn’t always work out. We’re acutely aware that we’re happy with things and the business is going well.  But you know, there’s risk there. 

Mark Cahalane 

Just before we finish up two quick questions. Other people who have that drive or that inner voice saying they want to do something quite different in their working lives. What advice would you give them? 

Sara Mitchell 

Well, I think if you have that drive to do it, you should always do it. You should never listen to anyone else. But I know that’s such an easy thing to say. That’s quite a hard thing to do. To ignore other people. But I do think. You should always go for it. I also think that… 

Sara Mitchell 

If there’s an area you’re not good at. You really need to get help.   I mean, we talked about finance, but that is an area that we’ve always got help on now. I’ve definitely learned a huge skill there that I never had. But you need to get people to help you. You can’t do everything, but I definitely think you should do it, you know. It’s a no brainer. 

Gavin McCarthy 

I agree. I think if you have a passion, you just you kind of owe it to yourself to go and do it. Having said that, that you need to be real and you need to be able to recognise when something’s not working, you know, so it’s all very well and there’s definitely a romanticism to working for yourself. There’s no doubt about it. I think it’s, you know, they think it’s going to be one way or one, you know a certain way and it’s not. I think you need to be real. I think you need to adjust like it. You know, there’s been plenty of times when we’ve been doing something and we’ve had to adjust very quickly to in order to not make it into not turn it into disaster. Even early days, you know, so you need to be adaptable. And I think you have passion though. Personally, I think it’s worth doing, you know, but I think you also need to be… Living in the real world too. 

Sara Mitchell 

We were lucky in a way, though, that we didn’t make the decision in in some ways to go out and do this. Like life just got in our way. 

Gavin McCarthy 

There’s no way we would have. There’s no way I would have left my job to go and set this up. No way you know. So in some ways, you’re right. We were lucky in that way. That this this was forced upon us. 

Mark Cahalane 

And finally Gav what’s something through all of this change, you have learned about yourself? 

Gavin McCarthy 

I don’t know. I mean. I’m probably fairly resilient and I think you I didn’t know that about myself because probably never have to know that you know. But I would say I’m resilient, keep going and that’s, I guess that’s a pretty important characteristic to have when you run your own business, I think you have to keep going no matter what because it’s there’s been some really hard times, really difficult times and you just got to keep going. Otherwise it won’t work out. 

Sara Mitchell 

Actually something I’ve learned about myself, resilience, but it’s kind of like a strength that you didn’t know you had. I guess you have no choice, but you’re doing it for your family and you can just work through anything and any amount of hours. And I’m sometimes surprised to myself at how willing you are to keep going. But… You’ve no choice at the same time. But I don’t think, like Gav says, there’s no reason to know that about yourself until your back is up against the wall.  Like it’s been loads of fun and a love of business that I didn’t know I had. But I do love it. That’s been a huge surprise. 

Gavin McCarthy 

It’s also, you know what it can be as well. You know what the the brand can be ultimately or you know in the future that’s exciting to work towards something and and try and grow it, develop it. And you know every brand starts off small. So you know why not grow it. 

Mark Cahalane 

Gavin McCarthy. Sara Mitchell, thank you very much.  

Sara Mitchell 

Thank you. Thanks for having us. 

Mark Cahalane 

You’ve been listening to a pivotal moment. My name is Mark Cahalane. I help businesses tell compelling stories to engage their stakeholders. I coach senior business leaders on systemic change and leadership. I partner business teams to help them drive high performance. And when business relationships go wrong, I help them all negotiate better ways of working together. You can find out more on my take on these topics at martelloleadership.com.      

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top