O’Briens has proved to be a remarkably successful franchise operation since Brody Sweeney started the business in 1988. High time for a visit from Nellie Nichols, in search of Irish magic.
It’s that very Irish time of year again. St Patrick’s Day under the wonderful freezing cold, bright blue sky at Cheltenham races when if you’re lucky you’ll have a few oysters and all that Guinness. There are plenty of other ingredients the Irish are splendid at too, many of which lend themselves well to making a very wholesome sandwich. One of the best I’ve come across was in Dublin a few years ago, courtesy of the Irish Food Board who introduced me to a traditionally Spiced Irish Beef recipe that involved two weeks of marinating. We made rather good sandwiches out of it with a Guinness Mustard on slices of Soda Bread.
So I’m very excited about my visit to O’Briens Irish Sandwich Bar in London and tasting more delicious Irish ingredients. Here is an impressive success story. Started by the fabulously named Brody Sweeney, who opened his first shop in 1988 after apparently choosing the name O’Briens from an Irish telephone book. By 1994 he had a further three. Then he started franchising and hasn’t looked back since. Successful franchise sales from the start made serious inroads into building the brand. Their cluster approach to large cities to gain critical mass has won them the position of market leader in Scotland and Ireland, each new opening having a positive jump in sales in the surrounding existing stores.
Today O’Briens is an impressive international chain of over 300 units in thirteen countries across Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa and their current ambitious expansion plan is for a further fifty units by 2008. So everything in the chilled cabinet should be very rosy. Baked Irish Ham is on the menu together with the famous Ballymaloe Relishes. I can hardly wait. There’s even their famous Shambo breads shaped like a shamrock. Each and every ingredient is efficiently detailed on their website page entitled ‘Guilt Free Food’ with a breakdown of calories and fat per portion. (I can’t see any indication of how big the portion is. Perhaps they should add this on to help us work it all out.)
Mrytle Allen and her husband bought Ballymaloe in Co.Cork in 1948 and turned it into the world famous restaurant it is today. Her fine recipes can be found in her own cookery books she wrote in Ireland and her relishes are now produced and manufactured worldwide.
Her Country Tomato Relish is the best I’ve ever found in a jar, second only to homemade and it makes a wonderful cheese sandwich.
My first choice in O’Briens therefore is to try their Irish Ham and Ballymaloe Wrappo from their Low fat Lifestyle Menu. 263 calories and 2.8g of fat and £2.35, so sensibly priced. I imagine their Wrappos are going to have a real point of difference from the norm but it seems a trademarked name only. It’s a good eat and tasty for a low fat option.
The individually very cute shamrock shaped Shambo breads come in either ‘Nutty’ or ‘Focaccia’. I try the brown nutty one, (in fact seedy, I can’t find any nuts), with one of their most popular toasted fillings; Bacon and Brie with Ballymaloe Cranberry Relish and shredded lettuce. This is delicious and well thought out. The shredded lettuce added after toasting so it doesn’t get cooked and wilted. This is priced at £3.75 though which I think a little on the steep side.
I must try one of their specials and am recommended their Chicken and Bacon Tripledecker with red onion, coleslaw and mixed leaves. I’m asked what bread and choose Granary so am a little bemused that the middle slice of bread turns out to be a toasted slice of white. I’m not sure about quite so much onion and do miss a mention of tomato but it’s very generously filled and made but perhaps a little top end at £3.25.
I’m told their Tuna Nicoise tossed salad (£3.55) is their best selling salad so try one of those too. It’s a very generous size and interesting enough with additions of olives, egg and pine nuts but I would perhaps recommend larger pieces of leaves than shredded. When all is said and tossed it’s a little bit of a mess and even though it tastes good it isn’t visually appealing. I went to O’Briens for an Irish sandwich believing this was its ethos and the bedrock of its success. Brody Sweeney once said that ‘Irishness’ and ‘friendliness’ are integral to the O’Briens experience and I wouldn’t dream of doubting this for a minute.
He is clearly very passionate about the company’s Irish roots so surely these should be safeguarded and developed on through the food it sells. It must be challenging to say the least to ensure Irish ingredients get to the far corners of the franchised globe, but I do believe this is an area that could be further exploited and benefit both their marketing and menu with a little focus.
There is endless provenance and exceptional quality in Irish food, the cheeses, meats, fish and history of recipes you simply can’t find anywhere else in the UK. It seems a great shame and a waste not to utilise this great USP far more to ensure even greater success in such a thriving business.