How Quay Co-op became a Cork icon after 40 years in its community

‘Reaching this milestone is down to hard work, dedication and also that spark of alternative creativity that we see every day in the people here’

Town and city centres have been under pressure in recent years, which threatens to erode local sense of place and identity. One major issue has been the rise of the ‘clone town’, where the spread of retail and hospitality chains have replicated identical high streets across entire countries.

This has chipped away at local differences and wiped out many unique  businesses – along with the social and community assets that such distinctive local organisations can offer. As online shopping began to take trade from bricks and mortar retail, it also meant that boarded windows began to simultaneously appear in dozens of town centres as big chains collapsed.

With looming recession thrown into the mix, many localities are concerned for the future of their centres and long-standing, distinctive local names are becoming more cherished. 

Co-operatively owned enterprises, with their roots in communities, can offer strong examples of this – and in Ireland, one such business has just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Quay Co-op opened in May 1982 on O’Sullivan’s Quay in Cork and has become a local icon: a mix of a landmark building, radical campaigning base and trusted business. The city’s first vegetarian restaurant, it is based in a neglected former pawnbroker’s shop which the co-op members personally renovated with a distinctive blue facade. It has since expanded into the properties on either side, including a former fire station building.

Launched in a time of recession and joblessness, over its lifetime Quay Co-op has employed 750 people and estimates that a million people have passed through its doors.

Still owned by its members, it employs 50 people between its vegetarian deli, bakery, wholefoods store and restaurant on O’Sullivan’s Quay, its vegetarian food-production facility on Cove Street and satellite stores in Carrigaline and Ballincollig.

Like many community co-op businesses, it also acts as a social and community hub, providing space for a food co-op, bookshop, women’s centre and crèche, and offers a meeting place for feminist, gay, lesbian and environmentalist groups.

Over the years, it says it has provided “a local base for the politics of social movements which is as needed today as it was in the 1980s when Irish society, and its economy, seemed to be going backwards rather than forwards … we have seen many one-time hopes become a reality.”

Pressing issues at the time of its launch included gay rights, the 1983 anti-abortion amendment, the Criminal Justice Bill and the first Divorce Referendum. A worker co-op, it clings to that idealism still, and plans to continue its campaigns “so future generations may enjoy this planet respectfully”.

This extends to the running of the business, which works to improve sustainability of packaging and sourcing. For deliveries, it has just bought an electric van “which is far more environmentally sound and almost silent” and is looking at switching its lighting to LED.

“Over the years,” it adds, “a balance always has been found between the campaigning work in which many members were involved and with the day-to-day work needed to create the funds to keep us up and running.

“Ireland has undergone a massive social and a cultural shift and the Quay Co-op has played an important role in driving those changes. We retain a strong interest in food politics which we believe to be the next big fight and we are leaders in the provision of organic vegetarian/vegan wholefood.”

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, co-founder Arthur Leahy said: “I speak for all the Quay Co-op members when I say that we are hugely grateful to the people of Cork for their continued support, it means so much to us.

“Reaching this milestone anniversary is down to hard work, dedication and also that spark of alternative creativity that we see every day in the people that work here, come here and shop here. Our radical roots inform what we do to this day; they make us proud of where we work and what we’ve stood for, for 40 years.

“Today we face new challenges, none more so than ensuring that our future generations may respectfully enjoy this beautiful planet in peace.”

General manager Simon Tiptaft added: “Hundreds of people have worked at the Quay Co-op over the years but many have stayed for decades.

“Our team and our members are so important to us. Our customers, too, are savvy forward thinkers who continually spur us on to be better, to do more for the causes that will make a better future for us all. 

“As a worker co-operative we have a unique view on trading – for us it is not about profit – if we can break even while supporting jobs and the causes that matter to us, that will do just fine for the next 40 years.”