Determination to succeed at running her own business got Maeve O’Malley what she had always wanted – her own restaurant, Meltdown on Lower Leeson Street. ThinkBusiness talks to her about not giving up on her dream.

What led you to set up Meltdown?

I always wanted to own my own business. I tried loads of ideas and most didn’t work out. I opened a small cafe in Connemara when I finished college and ran it for three years. I then did a Total Immersion Chef Programme and worked with a chef but didn’t enjoy working for somebody else.

Then I moved to Dublin and opened a food market with my friend but that didn’t really work out. We started selling chilli which people liked but it didn’t make any money. Then I worked as a development chef for Freshways, account management and then commercialisation for Coca Cola. I thought that was the Holy Grail but I was miserable. I hated not having anatomy over what I was doing.

“With Covid a lot of units are closing down so there’s going to be a lot of new exciting things opening up. I’ve noticed so many places opening, there’s a real entrepreneurial spirit in the air”

I spotted a unit that was up for lease. I got a loan from the bank based on that unit but it turned out it wasn’t legitimate and it fell through. But I had my loan and I had quit my job. The only thing I could get was a three-month Pop Up in Dublin. It was a great vibe but I lost money. I went to the Button Factory for two years. I did really well but I was limited because the space is tiny. I couldn’t cook my own meats or store food. I was working in a kitchen that belonged to another company, was managing their staff and expectations along with my own but I still couldn’t get a lease due to unaffordable key money.

I finally secured the Leeson Street Lower location where I am now. The lease was supposed to be up in November but because of Covid-19, they’ve extended it for at least another year. I just leased another location on Montague Street, which is has a 33-seat restaurant upstairs, downstairs takeaway and benches outside. I’m delighted. We open in the next few weeks.

“I got PR contacts from colleagues and they all did write-ups. That was great to get people in the door”

How did you respond to Covid-19?

I didn’t close, which was brilliant. I had just opened Leeson Street so I’d spent any money that I’d made doing up the place. I didn’t have a penny. If anything, I was in debt when Covid started. I reduced opening hours with a few staff who wanted to work. Because it was quiet, it gave me time to get lots done.

I hired a chef, extended the menu, we started making our own cakes and salads, set up online ordering, changed the till systems, we made everything more efficient. Now we’re busier than we’ve ever been. With Covid a lot of units are closing down so there’s going to be a lot of new exciting things opening up. I’ve noticed so many places opening, there’s a real entrepreneurial spirit in the air.

“A big challenge for me was the loneliness of starting a business on my own. It’s isolating when those big bills come in; it can feel like the whole world is caving in on top of you”

What do you think of the environment in Ireland for entrepreneurs and can it be improved?

People were very good to me. I can’t get over the support of the general public, particularly now during Covid. People are going out of their way to order deliveries. I’ve been well supported in the media but I’m lucky because I know how to engage them. I partnered with the Together for Yes campaign which gave me a media push. I got PR contacts from colleagues and they all did write-ups. That was great to get people in the door.

“Getting started is next to impossible. Renting premises is a chicken and egg situation. You can’t get the premises without money and you can’t get the money without the premises”

What challenges you meet and how did you overcame them? 

A big challenge for me was the loneliness of starting a business on my own. It’s isolating when those big bills come in; it can feel like the whole world is caving in on top of you. So, I set up a WhatsApp group. When I see someone starting off, I’ll talk to them and add them to the group. There are 13 of us who started around the same time. We have the same issues and can advise one another. 

“I’m really proud of how the teams all came together. There was a time when going to work wasn’t nice but I’m very happy now. We’re all having a good time; for me that’s the main thing”

Getting started is next to impossible. Renting premises is a chicken and egg situation. You can’t get the premises without money and you can’t get the money without the premises. I am two and a half years doing this and I’ve only just gotten a 15-year lease. I’m busy. I feel like I’m doing a lot of things right and I couldn’t get a unit that was decent even though I’ve been constantly looking. That’s the biggest issue – getting a space.

But keep trying things. You never make any money from Pop Ups but they get your brand out there, get people talking about it. They are good for getting to move staff around too. You can figure out if somebody is doing a good job quickly by taking them out of the situation and seeing how it goes without them.

When I started at the Pop Up I inherited staff. They knew how to work the systems and other things I hadn’t a clue about so I felt like I was at their mercy. They were great but when I promoted them some of them weren’t qualified for the job I was giving them. There was a power struggle which had to be sorted out and it was a bit of a nightmare. But it taught me how to better manage people and talk openly about issues. I am very good at it now, whereas initially I wouldn’t have said boo to anybody.

“Keep trying things. You never make any money from Pop Ups but they get your brand out there, get people talking about it”

What are you most proud of?

Finally getting a space and knowing I am going to be around for the next while. I’m delighted I survived. I’m really proud of how the teams all came together. There was a time when going to work wasn’t nice but I’m very happy now. We’re all having a good time; for me that’s the main thing. I’m not doing this to make lots of money; I’m doing it to create a space I want to work in. It’s really important that everybody is in that together.

“You can’t launch a product and leave it at that. I respect people who’ve managed to get products front and centre in spaces because it’s hard work”

What’s next for you? 

To launch a product range. I have a hot sauce called Meltdown Hot Stuff, which is in Aldi at the moment. I did Food Academy last year and launched it last September. Then I did Grow with Aldi, which was great because it made me scale the product. I didn’t win the contact to sell it in Aldi for a year but it made me think about what it takes to promote something properly.

I hired someone to take over my Instagram and recently took her on full time to do business development and PR because that was the issue with the hot sauce. People liked it, I really wanted to push it but I didn’t have the time. You can’t launch a product and leave it at that.

I respect people who’ve managed to get products front and centre in spaces because it’s hard work. Now I have someone to focus on it every day, we’re going to grow that range. In in the new unit, it’s going to be takeaway downstairs – Meltdown. Upstairs we will close from 3.30pm to 5pm and then open up as wine bar in the evenings. I’m very excited about it. 

Interview by Olivia McGill

Published: 14 October, 2020

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