As part of the “Profiles of Entrepreneurs” series, I recently talked with Cathal Queally, owner of Lily O’Brien’s Chocolate Café in Manhattan.
Premium chocolate production is becoming a surprising specialty for Ireland and, although the main ingredients are imported, it is an increasingly successful “artisan” industry in the country.
One of the best known brands is Lily O’Brien’s Chocolates. Started as a mini-enterprise in the kitchen of Mary-Ann O’Brien in 1992 and named after her daughter, the chocolates were soon in supermarkets and local shops.
Looking to scale up her home business, Mary-Ann sought investment from the Queally Group, one of Ireland’s largest privately owned agri-businesses. With their backing, O’Brien was ready to position the premium chocolate on the world map.
During this time, Cathal Queally, the second youngest of eight siblings in the Queally household was busy working as an environmental manager in the family business.
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While visiting New York, Queally became enthralled with its bustling cafe culture and quickly realized there was an opportunity to open a premier Irish chocolatier café. He had seen a competitor apply a winning chocolate-café formula successfully in Ireland and with his 30th birthday looming, he was ready for a new adventure. The idea for Lily O’Brien’s Chocolate Café in New York was born.
When U.S. banks turned him down for initial financing, Cathal looked to Ireland and the Queally Group stepped in to help him secure it. With money in hand, the physical build-out of the café was plagued with unexpected problems, and the timing could not have been more challenging.
“I signed a lease for 36 West 40th St. (across from Bryant Park) in August 2008 and three weeks later Lehman Brothers collapsed. Also, the rental space is in a cooperative building and the board took time approving my plans. This delayed getting building permits and more,” says Queally.
“I missed out on Christmas and Valentine’s Day,” he recalls.
Fortunately, throughout the start-up phase, Queally had the support of Enterprise Ireland and was operating out of their start-up incubation space at EI’s Park Avenue office.
“There was great camaraderie among the other companies there and Karen Coyle with the Irish Food Board was very helpful. We opened in March, 2009 which just happened to coincide with former taoiseach Brian Cowen’s U.S. visit, so he was in fact one of my first customers.”
The smell of chocolate has been scientifically proven to activate the brain’s pleasure centers, so it’s no wonder the café is a popular destination in a chaotic city. Through local advertising, foot traffic and social media, business is up 30 percent from last year and Lily O’Brien’s is quickly building a reputation for its luxurious chocolates, rich coffees, and desserts.
“The busiest time of year is when the Bryant Park ice-skating rink is in operation. People come in for hot chocolatedrinks, and to unwind. Valentine’s Day is very good, Christmas season too.
“Our corporate gift baskets are very popular and this is an area I want to grow,” says Queally.
“Overall, my goal is to make Lily O’Brien’s Café a New York destination.”
To help him boost online sales, a new website is being designed by fellow IBO member and graphic designer, Niall O’Kelly.
Looking back on his experiences in New York, Cathal has some advice.
“You don’t have to rush in. Take time to understand how things get done, from building permits to garbage removal. Get your team together first and don’t work with someone unless you are 110 percent comfortable with them.”
The freedom of being your own boss is something Cathal clearly revels in.
“It wasn’t easy but with family support and networking groups, like the Irish Business Organization, I’m realizing my goals.”
When it comes to growing the business, he would like to have three or four more café’s in operation before considering a franchise model.
Back in Ireland, Mary Ann O’Brien is planning for the future too. She was recently appointed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to a seat in Ireland’s upper parliamentary chamber, the Seanad. So coupled with the 160 tons of luxury chocolate the company produces a week, things are looking pretty sweet for Lily O’Brien’s, and for Cathal Queally too. Lily O’Brien’s Irish Chocolate Café is located at 36 West 40th Street and there’s more to learn at www.lilyscafenyc.com.
IBO news: The Irish Business Organization is attending the Mets Irish Heritage Day at CitiField on August 27th. Kieran McLoughlin, CEO of the Worldwide Ireland Funds, will be the featured speaker at the IBO Breakfast on Sept 20th. For more information on both events go to www.ibo-ny/com.
*Caption – Lily O’Brien’s on West 40th St. in Manhattan.