Sunday, November 28, 2021

Aramark yet to square cost-cutting agenda with Avoca’s credentials

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Aramark and Avoca were always something of an odd match. The US property, retail and services group and the darling of Ireland’s foodie scene. At its core, Aramark was a mass caterer and a facilities manager; Avoca was a niche food and retail business. Aramark ran direct-provision centres, among other things; Avoca won awards for its sourdough bread.

So when the US company acquired Avoca from the Pratt family for a reported €64 million in 2015, many wondered if the Avoca brand would suffer, not least because Aramark had a reputation for cost cutting. Both sides promised it wouldn’t.

Six years on and that pledge looks increasingly shaky. Aramark has presided over a mass exit of Avoca staff while people close to the business say standards have slipped under the new owners.

Most of Avoca’s original management team has left, including the company’s two executive chefs Leylie Hayes (who penned the popular Avoca cookbooks) and Mark McGillicuddy; its executive manager Teresa Byrne; the head of food buying Elaine O’Conner; the head of retail buying Mandy Haslett; and Avoca’s innovation chef Andrea Carydias.

About 51 managers, assistant managers and other senior staff across the group’s 14 stores have also been let go. Most received the minimum statutory redundancy payout of two weeks’ salary per year of service, some with more than 20 years of service. Many of those taken on since are said to be young. Many are understood to be on minimum-wage contracts.

Prior to Covid, Avoca had a workforce of just over 1,000 across its network of branches, the head office in Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, and the group’s central production unit in Bray, Co Wicklow.

Covid impact

When contacted, the company said the current headcount was just under 1,000. “Avoca, like many businesses in the retail sector, was significantly impacted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.

“In order to safeguard the future of the Avoca business and create efficiencies across many departments, a process of restructuring affected less than 6 per cent of the workforce across head office and store management level,” it said.

The company also rejected the claim than most of the new hires were young and on minimum wage. “To claim that the majority of staff taken on are young and on minimum wage is categorically untrue,” it said.

“Avoca has a robust always-on recruitment process and endeavours to hire a creative, diverse and skilled workforce across all areas of the business.”

All bar two of Avoca’s 14 outlets have now reopened – stores in Avoca village, Co Wicklow, and Moll’s Gap, Co Kerry, which rely on a tourist footfall, remain shuttered.

Several staff members told The Irish Times, however, that they had little contact from management while furloughed and were effectively left in the dark about their employment status. They also claim they were offered less favourable jobs elsewhere within the Aramark group under the company’s restructuring plan, which prompted them to leave.

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