A highly regarded chef has been credited with turning around the fortunes of a struggling Northern Irish pub. Colleen Lennon was approached to take the helm of The Oliver in Newry, and adopted a ‘softly, softly’ approach to transforming it into the successful venue it is today.

She had been juggling working in full-time education during the week and in foodservice at the weekends when she got a call from the owners asking if she could “give them a wee hand”. “At the time, there were a lot of chef shortages and a lot of inconsistencies with chefs coming and going,” she explains. “A lot of chefs were looking for the big money but then they couldn’t cope so The Oliver ended up in a vicious circle.” Colleen came in to steady the ship and get a good team in place – and ended up as chef-owner of the 100-seat bar and restaurant, which also has a function room holding 120-140 people.

A steady approach was key to avoid alienating the locals. “I didn’t want to change it too much, too quickly,” she continues. “Newry is a city but in reality it’s a close-knit town. We get a lot of southern Irish customers too.

“The Oliver is a gastro bistro serving the old favourites like fish and chips and burgers, but I also introduced a full Specials menu alongside the all-day menu to let customers try something different. “We’re really focused on fish. There is no real seafood restaurant in Newry, you have to travel 12 miles to the nearest one.

“I review the menu regularly and pick off the bestsellers from the Specials menu. We are slowly changing people’s perceptions to something a bit more modern but we didn’t want to scare them. It’s different when you’re the chef- owner because I’m on the ground and can see where the trends are and what people don’t like.”

Colleen has a small team comprising just herself plus a sous chef and two apprentices. “The kitchen is quite small so it would be a tight squeeze if there were more than four of us!” she says. She’s a keen advocate of apprenticeships. “Apprenticeships are definitely the way to go. You can train and mould them to the way you want them to be, and getting them to the end when they qualify is really rewarding. When they finish, they are industry-ready.”

The team uses a host of Country Range ingredients in their dishes, with the new Country Range Luxury Full Fat Soft Cheese – winner of a 2019 Quality Food and Drink Award – proving a current favourite. “It’s a fabulous product with great texture and consistency with great end results and standardisation in our recipes,” says Colleen. “We use it to make our own individual cheesecakes and cream cheese dressings.”

Colleen has also seen the number of vegan customers increasing. “It has become massive and we’re planning to introduce a full vegan menu this year with dishes such as restaurant- style nut roast and a vegan take on spaghetti and meatballs.”

Weddings are a new development for 2020 and the upstairs function room is proving a great venue for comedy, local bands, storytelling and christenings, so business is booming.

“I haven’t stopped!” adds Colleen, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”