Blackrock’s little food stand with big ambitions

There’s a reason why Bhonn Space, the compact food and wine stall at Blackrock Market in South Dublin, next to Michelin-starred restaurant Liath, also has phase one in its title. The wine bar, lunchtime restaurant and takeaway, owned and operated by four key Liath team members, is the first step in an ambitious plan to fund a new restaurant and deployment of the Bhonn Space concept to other locations.

“I’m dreaming big. I see this outside of Ireland, I see them popping up everywhere,” says Damien Gray, chef and owner of Liath, whose other Bhonn Space shareholders are the two-star restaurant’s general manager Niall O ‘Connor, Restaurant Manager Louise Creane and Chef Jozef Radacovsky “It’s, dare I say it, actually a little ahead of its time right now. These small, efficient, really, really tasty food stalls with extremely low overhead are starting to pop up in big cities,” he adds.

The project began in April last year, when Gray, motivated by initiatives he had read about in the United States, which saw productivity soar and staff retention strengthen when restaurant workers were invited to become stakeholders, asked the three if they would be interested in writing a business plan to open another restaurant. “We jumped on it,” O’Connor said.

Creane describes the path that led them to signing a lease on the market stall. “We were looking for locations and nothing really came up, and then this place became available. So Damien said, ‘How about doing a small project to make money for a bigger project?

Ailish O’Neill, a former restaurant manager at Liath, was hired to run the business day-to-day, and shareholders all took turns while fulfilling their roles at Liath. The concept has now evolved into a concise, ever-changing lunch menu, eat-in or take-out, and an evening wine bar offering snacks and small plates as well as interesting wines by the glass.

Five months later, the business is profitable, says Gray. But no money is taken by shareholders to finance phase two of Bhonn Space. It will be a restaurant and event space, modeled after the Carousel in London, where a wine bar and private hire space also host up-and-coming and well-known chefs from around the world for short residencies.

Popular ramen at Bhonn Space, Blackrock Market, Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photography: Dara MacDonail

“It will be a mid-range restaurant. Ailish will lead the team and she will become a shareholder. We plan to bring in guest chefs, and then we’d replicate that menu for, say, six to eight weeks, and then we’d bring in another guest chef. The idea of ​​Bhonn Space is that it’s a modular concept, it can be an art gallery, it can turn into a cocktail bar, it can do brunch, it can be a restaurant with extremely tasty food and good and a very easily accessible price,” says Gray. “Bhonn Space will be extremely fluid. And then, as we go into each phase, it will slowly become more structured, until it becomes a restaurant.

“We know what we are looking for. We know what we want and we have the business plans drawn up”, adds Creane who, until this project, had never seen herself becoming a restaurateur. “Seeing the stress this would bring to many business owners made me a bit suspicious. But when Damien came to see me, I thought to myself that there was no one else in the world that I would rather open a business with or be mentored.

For O’Connor, the opportunity came at the right time. “It’s a difficult industry to break into, in many ways. I’m at an age where I’d like to step onto the ladder in terms of ownership. It was an incredible opportunity to do so. Because we did the construction ourselves, we kept the costs very reasonable, and it was a way to get on the ladder, to start.

“From an employee’s perspective, I’ve been in this industry for a long time, and having this opportunity from an established owner is an amazing thing. It took me a long time to get there and I really appreciate it.

Kalamata olives and smoked almonds at Bhonn Space, Blackrock Market.  Photography: Dara MacDonail

Kalamata olives and smoked almonds at Bhonn Space, Blackrock Market. Photography: Dara MacDonail

Smoked Potato at Bhonn Space, Blackrock Market, Blackrock, Co Dublin.  Photography: Dara MacDonail

Smoked Potato at Bhonn Space, Blackrock Market, Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photography: Dara MacDonail

As a chef, Radacovsky is more used to being behind the scenes in the kitchen, and one of the draws for him getting involved in the project was the opportunity to interact with customers. “I did my first full day on Saturday and for me it was a great day, just to get out of my comfort zone.”

Radacovsky and Gray enjoy bringing their creativity to a style of cooking that is different from their day-to-day work in the food industry. Lunch specials change regularly, although the ramen has proven so popular that they can’t take it off the menu. In the evening, snacks and small plates, currently with a Spanish theme, take over and there is no shortage of options to make up a complete meal, or just a gourmet bite to accompany a glass of wine.

Some dishes on the menu are wine bar standards, like Kalamata olives and smoked almonds, but there are also more intriguing plates, like salt and pepper octopus, panko pork and smoked potato, which, according to Radakovsky, are “Ballymakenny Mayan Gold potatoes; we cook them in salt in the morning and then smoke them in hay for 15 minutes. Then they just go in the fryer, and get a spice of patatas bravas, and we serve them with a saffron and old-fashioned mustard mayonnaise, or an emulsion if you want to be fancy”.

Radacovsky and Gray handle most of the menu development, while the others collaborate on the wine list. But everything is done in committee. “It’s what’s in the contract, whether we all agree on everything, or come up with something else,” Creane said. The four are both friends and colleagues, but a binding partnership agreement was needed to deal with what Gray calls, “the ugly parts”, like what to do if someone wants to step down.

Gray says he sees “massive changes” in the way his Bhonn Space co-directors perform in their roles on Liath. “They think about business differently, their management skills have increased tenfold, and it just happened naturally. Liath’s current effectiveness is mind-boggling, as it’s like clockwork now.

Espace Bhonn is open Wednesday to Sunday from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. and Thursday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.