Keeping it in the family


FAMILY TIES Pictured at McHugh’s newly opened cafe in Cong at the weekend were Peter and Rory McHugh, the second and third generation of the family in the hospitality trade. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Mike Finnerty

LAST Friday Rory McHugh celebrated his 38th birthday.
By sheer coincidence he marked the occasion by opening his fifth ‘McHugh’s Cafe’ in Cong, the south Mayo village where 70 years ago his late grandfather, Peter, ran an ice-cream parlour, hardware shop and mobile canteen that served tea and sandwiches to the masses.
The picturesque village is synonymous with the McHugh family, and where Rory’s father, Peter, who is famous for continuing the family tradition of ‘McHugh’s canteen,’ was born and bred. So it was a proud day for the entire clan when the latest café opened for business.
Especially after a year that has challenged and tested everyone from Old Head to New Zealand and from Achill to Australia. Some businesses have been pushed to breaking point while others are facing an uncertain future. Rory McHugh knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
“I’d be an optimist by nature and I knew the lockdown wasn’t going to last forever for us,” he explains. “I genuinely didn’t worry, not for one second. We were lucky that we had no big loans and no debt. I wasn’t going to close the doors.
“Without my wife, Ivana, I wouldn’t be where I am today. She encouraged me and supported me to take on the café in Ballinrobe initially and has been a great inspiration to me. We have three daughters —Abigail (7), Matilda (4) and Penelope (2) — and it was great to get to spend so much time with them back in April and May.
“The only frustrating thing during the whole period was waiting for a decision to be made by Government,” he adds. “And, of course, I can understand why people in the hospitality industry are so frustrated. It’s been a very very tough time for a lot of people, and a lot of people in business.”
Rory McHugh works long hours to try and make sure everything runs like clockwork across his five cafes and has no intention of resting on his laurels.
“I’m already looking to do what we can do next,” he smiles.
A chef by trade, he now ‘oversees the operation’ that started with one café in Ballinrobe eight years ago, then led to others in Headford and Castlebar, before a fourth ‘McHugh’s’ opened its doors in Claremorris back in May. In the middle of a global pandemic.
Then came the decision to try his luck in Cong.
“It’s a very seasonal village and I never saw myself having a business in place that’s seasonal,” he admits. “But while I own the cafes, it’s a democracy between the whole family — with my dad, mam and my brothers, Peter (who manages the Headford café) and Christopher (who looks after the Castlebar outlet). We would discuss things together, and we would try and reach a decision together. So we decided to give Cong a go.”

Rural Ireland
Which begs the question, is there a place for sentimentality in business in 2020?
“I think there is room for a certain amount of sentimentality in business in rural Ireland,” replies Rory.  “It’s a family business, I’m the third generation, and I’m incredibly proud of my dad and granddad.
“We’re a local brand and we want to give towns and villages something that they don’t have,” he adds. “For me, rural Ireland is a gem, a diamond in the rough. And I know there’s a lot of doom and gloom I’m convinced these places will come back eventually.
“It’s the people who make villages and towns. And there are great people all over Mayo.”
Long before he was a business owner, Rory McHugh was travelling the highways and byways of south Mayo and north Galway with his father, watching and learning the family trade. Now, all these years later, he is putting those experiences into practice.
“My brothers and I grew up working with dad and we saw how he was with people and with customers. It was all very relaxed, all very casual. It was about making people comfortable.
“And that’s what we’ve tried to do in our cafes, we’re never going to rush people out the door,” he says. “If somebody wants to take two hours to drink a cup of tea and have a sandwich, and have a chat with their friend, that’s fine. We tell the staff, ‘Be yourselves, be relaxed.’ That’s our philosophy really.”
And as for advice for anybody thinking about opening their business?
“Life is too short, so go for it. If you have a passion, go for it. But don’t open on a whim. Prepare, prepare, prepare. If you’re not prepared, you’re not ready.”