James Fennelly & George Peet of Dinners for Winners
Business partners James Fennelly and George Peet founded ‘Dinners for Winners’ two years ago. They and their team of seven employees have had a busy time of late feeding healthcare workers through the ‘Feed our Heroes’ campaign. Currently they are catering for the front line staff in Kilkenny’s St. Luke’s Hospital and University Hospital Waterford. They have three vans on the road making sure the healthcare staff get their meals in time.
I spoke to both of them over the weekend, on the telephone, to find out how their business has suddenly had to evolve since the pandemic.
Chef George Peet is originally from Greystones in Co. Wicklow. He grew up in the family business which was a nursing home and that’s where he started cooking. He studied a BA in Drama, Television and Media Studies. He then had a career change and went onto study a BA in Culinary Arts in Cork. He feels it was his destiny that he ended up going back into cooking.
George then stayed in Cork and worked as a full time chef. He has cooked for the Bayview Hotel in Ballycotton, Suttons in Rochestown Park and the Silver Spring Moran’s Hotel.
James Fennelly is a Kilkenny native from Tullaroan, but today he lives in Kells Co. Kilkenny. Many people would be familiar with James from the fitness side of his business – Fennelly Fitness and his new gym James Fennelly Fitness.
James set up his first gym Fennelly Fitness ten years ago. His fitness ethos is not just about changing your exercise routines, it’s about working together to re-wire bad habits and establishing a new ‘normal’. James is an experienced and highly successful Personal Trainer. With over 20 years’ experience he has built a results driven reputation training people.
His new studio is conveniently located in Kilkenny’s Rugby Club but he had to close it two weeks ago due to Covid19. He is now training his clients on line using whatever equipment they have at home.
How did they business idea of Dinners for Winners come together?
George: About five years ago, I was in the old chef trap of working long hours, not eating properly and my blood pressure was bad. On top of that my cholesterol wasn’t good and I was making bad food choices.
I met a nutritionist and changed my eating habits and it worked. I knew if I wanted to keep it going I would have to change my job and lifestyle. So I was looking for the opportunity to get a healthy, wholesome catering business going. I wanted it to be customer focused, as well as making everything fresh from scratch.
James and I have a mutual friend who introduced us and thought we would work well together. James was coming to the business with health and fitness experience and how the right foods can benefit us. So it was a natural blend for us to work together.
We launched Dinners for Winners at Savour Kilkenny Food Festival 2018 and now we are happy to say we employ seven people out of our state of the art kitchen off the Callan Road here in Kilkenny.
What is Dinners for Winners?
James: its healthy food delivered to your door. Our ready-made meals are sent to you fresh with deliveries twice a week. You can choose from the full menu which has three meals and two snacks per day or you can tailor make your meal choices. Our website has all the options and the menus are changed regularly so you don’t get bored of eating the same thing.
George: Our ethos is to find nutrient rich food and food that will give you a calorific target. It’s also important for us that it is locally sourced and seasonal. In keeping our supply line local as much as possible we use Julian Hughes for vegetables, Goatsbridge Trout and Country Style Foods.
I’ve had some of the meals and was surprised how homemade and wholesome they are. Is everything made from scratch?
George: Everything is made from scratch, even all our sauces. We have control in what goes into them as opposed to ready-made sauces used in catering which contain a lot of sugar, salt and hidden preservatives. Making everything ourselves gives it that taste of a home cooked meal and of comforting food. Especially when you are watching your diet and trying to lose weight you need that comforting feeling from your food, otherwise you won’t stick to it.
What is ‘Feed our Heroes’ about?
James: Cian O’Flaherty in Dublin started a Go Fund Me page for all the staff working in the health services fighting COVID19. He was hoping to raise €250 but it has gone viral and nationwide and he has raised over €500,000. This fund supports money that is paid to restaurants and kitchens to deliver food to our hardworking frontline staff.
Nurses are going to have to do go through long shifts, it’s going to be really hard on them so it’s good to know we are delivering a good nutrient balanced meal to help them through these times.
No one is making a profit out of it, we are just clearing our overheads.
George: It also helps us keep our staff employed too, as we don’t want to let anyone go. Hours have been reduced but we are keeping things on the road. We are all helping each other.
How has the customer profile changed since the virus started?
George: We are delivering to a lot of customers in their senior years, health care workers and the Gardaí.
James: Families have being placing orders with us for their elderly loved ones. We are travelling all over with deliveries at the moment, from Kilkenny, Carlow, Waterford and Tipperary. People are also hearing about us through word of mouth e.g. Mary phones her neighbour and tells her about the nice chicken pie or dropped scone she had from Dinners for Winners.
George, how have you tailored your menu for older people and health care staff?
We are making the meals more towards Irish traditional dishes with more potatoes. Not so many curries or spicy food. There’s more of beef cottage pies, chicken and ham pies, bacon & cabbage, spaghetti Bolognese etc.
For the hospital staff, we are providing free extra snacks to keep them going during the long days. We also change up the menu regularly to give them a good variety so they don’t get bored of the dishes.
The menu on our website is just a guide, they can make suggestions too. We are a small operation so we have the ability to be flexible.
What’s your working day like?
George: On production days, we have a 5am start and I finish up about 7pm in the kitchen.
James: I’m try to get a run in at 5am when I can. I arrive at the kitchen at 6am and based in the office doing a lot of admin work, organising orders and deliveries etc. These days I am also helping the drivers with the deliveries and I like to meet the new elderly clients myself, even if it’s through a closed window.
James, you and your drivers are on the front line and delivering to people. How lonely are the elderly out there?
I think this crisis is after bringing the whole of the Irish community together. I can see first-hand how people have embraced what they have to do, but they also want to keep helping too.
We are doing noncontact delivery, but when we deliver to the houses people are coming to the windows for a chat. It’s hard on them, they are not seeing anyone. They do appreciate a friendly face and fresh food being delivered to their doorstep. Even when they are on the phone putting in their order they are looking for a chat, people are definitely lonely.
The staff in the hospitals are all really appreciative of the deliveries and we are getting great feedback from them.
Finally guys any tips on how we can stay healthy and fit during the period of staying at home?
James: Try to have a structure, keep a daily routine going. Get up the same time every day, go to bed the same time every night. Have your meals prepared and know exactly what your plan for the week is. Don’t be eating crap, if you do, you will feel like crap and it’s a vicious circle and you can put up weight very quickly. The positive is that everyone is in the same boat, so we can all help each other.
George: Grazing is the worst thing that everyone tends to do while they are at home all day. Everyone in the first week were cooking gourmet dinners with tonnes of butter. Now the reality has kicked in and we need to get ourselves into a routine. Try to have your main meal midday and your lighter meal in the evening. If you eat too much of a big meal late at night you are not going to have a chance to digest it properly.
Our ancestors knew what they were doing, so go back to their ways and have the dinner in the middle of the day. Also if you can support local businesses, a lot of the restaurants are doing take aways too.