Healthy Food Without the Hassle – Emilia Rowan Explains Cocu’s Secret to Success
R.E.S.P.E.C.T is humming in the background in Cocu Chatham Street and as I sit down for a Matcha Latte, Oat Cookie and a chat with founder Emilia Rowan it seems like an apt soundtrack. In three short years, what began as a light bulb moment for Emilia, recognising the gap in the Irish market for fast, affordable whole food options has transformed into a unique brand making its mark on the capital. Across three branches, Cocu is a testament to Emilia’s hard work and drive – it is difficult not to admire her dedication.
Describing herself as someone who never managed to stay in the same job for more than three months at a time, Emilia’s path wasn’t always so clear cut after studying Culinary Arts in DIT.’I went travelling as I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but the more different cuisines I tried, it was eye-opening’ she says.
The American dream beckoned, and in one of the world’s culinary capitals, New York City, Emilia’s immersion in all things food related helped clarify the path she would eventually take. ‘I guess you don’t really realise at the time how what you’re choosing to do is directing you’, she says of a stint as an assistant food stylist, which she did part-time supplemented by working seven days a week in a bar to pay her way in the Big Apple.
Outside of working hours, Emilia remembers ‘exploring and eating my way around New York’, with a particular affection for the informal little eateries doing one thing well. “The Asian, Middle Eastern influence really caught my eye but I don’t think I was totally health food focused there, well maybe I started to be as when I got there I put on loads of weight – I was testing everything, I had to!” she laughs. With that in mind, “finding a balance of really tasty food that actually is good for you was key.”
Seeing the vast array of options on offer, served up quickly and without fuss helped Emilia to identify a gap in the market back home in Dublin – simple and casual nourishing dishes crafted out of high quality ingredients, a ‘juxtaposition of healthy and fast food’ as Emilia calls it. Food that appeals to everyone and can be enjoyed by everyone, not exclusive to the “Fit Fam” and the like, is the driving force behind Cocu’s cuisine. Emilia’s Cocu vision is to create food with mass appeal, which is anything but mass produced.
Making it approachable was so important. A lot of health food places are geared towards a certain type of person, who makes a certain amount of money and I wanted to make it easy for anyone to eat this way.
Opening just over three years ago on Baggot Street, the brand has evolved and grown steadily after a number of false starts and a year of looking for that first property. Looking on the bright side of this delay, Emilia notes that while it was a ‘pain in the ass’ it gave herself and her business partner the breathing space to invest time into finding the right fit suppliers-wise and firm up the concept for Cocu. ‘We had so much room to play around with recipes and meet suppliers, go out to their farms and see what is going on and form these connections with the people, which was really worthwhile.”
This dedication to only utilising high quality Irish ingredients is a product of what Emilia calls Cocu’s ‘three pillars of success’, which she lists as ‘creativity, quality and simplicity.’ With this philosophy in place from the very beginning, Cocu’s signature offering of ‘good quality food, on the go, served in a great way’ fell into place. Keeping dishes simple and building them around nutritious ingredients is made possible by collaborating with Registered Dietician Orla Walsh, who analyses all dishes on the Cocu menu to ensure they are balanced and pack in as many benefits as possible.
As for calories on menus, a controversial topic which has garned much attention in the Irish restaurant world in recent times, Emilia says she is ‘not mad about it’, preferring to make that information available online should diners wish to access it, while offering guidance symbols on the menu such as high protein, high fibre and low FODMAPS.
I’m more into ‘this is good for you because of this’ guidance rather than calories. Calorie counting doesn’t make sense for me. It’s all an education for everyone, if we can steer clear of calories to an extent and focus on eating a natural, colourful diet with lots of fruit and vegetables than that is ideal. Hopefully we are making it easier for people.
I had to wonder, with the ‘clean eating’ phenomenon gathering backlash and given how fickle the public can be, is Emilia worried that the health food bubble will burst? “I wouldn’t call it health food. Eating good quality, unprocessed, whole food that isn’t a fad. People are now more conscious about what they put it in their bodies so if we can be that kind of place where they know as soon as they walk in the door they’re going to get whole food that is tasty and easy – there you go”, she says, affirming that “we’re not health food, we are just what you should be eating every day.”
Undeniably the goal of offering quick and easy nutritious food has been achieved, with office crowds forming queues outside the Baggot and Hatch Street branches at noon daily and Chatham Street capitalising on the brunch obsession of the capital. But it would appear that Emilia and Cocu have no intention of slowing down just yet. Having just started the Women in Business Going for Growth program run by Enterprise Ireland, Emilia is setting new targets and ensuring she is armed with the arsenal for success.
Networking with her peers in this elite group, Emilia finds great comfort in seeing that they share the same problems and issues – ‘just realising we’re all going through the same things helps.” Their support and the pressure of meeting monthly under the guidance of an accomplished mentor means “they are the ones there on your shoulder pushing you to think strategically.” It is clear that for Emilia pressure makes diamonds, as she laughs telling me “when you get there she goes around the table and asks what have you done I want to have things to tell her! I feel like she’s my Mum!”
Noting that as a Culinary Arts graduate she never studied business, it is clear that Emilia has developed business acumen as she has gone along and found her way – “I am learning something new every day and that is how I have stayed happy in this – I need to be constantly learning.” But it certainly isn’t all boardrooms and business networking as Emilia finds herself having to be a jack of all trades at this stage in Cocu’s development, from manning the tills to getting behind the wheel to make deliveries. That said, Emilia is clearly in her element, “I wouldn’t give it up for anything, I am mad about it. I love going to work in the morning!” she smiles.
Between dinner pop ups such as Jack Rabbit in Cocu Chatham Street to expanding their corporate catering offering, Emilia ensures Cocu is constantly striving for more. Seeing just how successful she has been to date at building a fantastic brand up from the ground up and assembling a team who clearly feel as passionate about Cocu as she does, I had to ask what advice she would have with the dream of someday owning somewhere like Cocu. “Come talk to me” she says, “I am so grateful for the support that I am getting that I filter that down. Get in touch with someone, people are so willing to give anything they can to you. People gave it to us and it definitely helped, it helps you avoid all those mistakes you are so likely to make.”
Emilia is bubbly, down to earth and exudes positivity, a fantastic ambassador for her brand of vibrant feel good food that leaves you better than it found you. While Emilia speaks of being inspired by her Women in Business peers, a coffee (or matcha latte, as it were) with her was a genuine inspiration for me. Young, determined and willing to put her all into her business, it is difficult to see how Cocu won’t go from strength to strength with this powerful woman at it’s helm. R.E.S.P.E.C.T indeed.
For more information on Cocu click here.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.