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The Great Irish Surf Café

When you mention Strandhill (a small holiday village in Co. Sligo, Ireland) to anyone who has been there, I can guarantee one of the first things they will say is – ‘you have to go to Shells’. Situated on the seafront in the idyllic seaside town, Shells combines beautiful, healthy food (the café) along with an outstanding collection of desirable things from makers all over the globe (the little shop attached to the café). After hearing all the hype about this place I had to pay them a visit; luckily whilst there I caught up with owners Jane and Myles, who very kindly answered some questions especially for Thing.

Thing: Where did the inspiration for Shells come from? Both for the style of the cafe/brand and also for the food you serve.

It might sound a bit lame but both Myles and I love café culture. We love everything about it, the smell of baking, the coffee grinding and also the style and look of places. We met over 10 years ago in Cornwall and in that time we have lived, worked, travelled and eaten in over 20 countries. I think that exposure to all sorts of styles, menus and interesting cafes has really inspired us. Before we even decided to open a cafe we were so in love with all things cafe, cool and coastal that we started a folder of business cards, menu’s, pictures, logo’s- all things we loved about different places. I reckon over time things just fell into place. When we got the chance to take over Shells – a cafe right on the beach, close to surf we knew exactly what we wanted to achieve. We had to be true to ourselves – our love of food, but keeping it simple and not pretentious and our love of surf – creating a casual place serving home made food , that welcomes everyone from all walks of life. We also aim to inspire people when they step into our world in Shells. Say when we do up a new menu design, we always say – how would we feel if we walked into a cafe and saw it, we put ourselves in the shoes of the customer all the time and really we keep it simple – we play to our strengths by loving the elements that we use.

Thing: The use of hand drawn illustration is a constant throughout the cafe’s branding and decor. What lead to choosing this style and who creates the beautiful illustrations?

I’m so glad that you picked up on that and of course asked this question! Myles sister Paula Mills from http://lovelysweetwilliam.blogspot.ie/ has done all our illustrations. There is so much we love about her work; like our food and ethos it’s homemade, it’s playful and it’s full of love. We have worked very closely with Paula to get the right feel for Shells and every time she does an illustration it far exceeds our expectations. It’s lovely for us to have family involved in the project too. Last year Paula made her first visit to Shells and got stuck in hand painting a mural on our wall in the cafe – how cool is that. For us Shells is all about personality, home made, being unique and having a story; and Paula’s work totally embodies all those characters.

Paula was also the lead illustrator in our books The Surf Café Cookbook and The Surf Café Living (out in August) www.thesurfcafecookbook.com

Thing: Your ‘little shop’ stocks dozens of beautiful, luxurious things. Do you think the digital age has increased desire for well made and hand-crafted tangible things?

Yep I do to be honest. I know a lot of mainstream shops find it hard to compete with online but we have chosen a different route – we curate bespoke pieces, quality, hand made, visual. We like to watch people get stuck in a corner, uncovering all sorts of beautiful treasures. I also think the whole Internet shopping craze is good for owners – it forces you out of your comfort zone, pushes you to be one step ahead and to source products that aren’t stocked all over the world. So for us it’s a challenge but one we love.

Thing: Any plans to expand Shells further, possibly more stores in other locations?

Now that would be telling…..
We are just going into our 5th summer and in that time we have established Shells and created a really loyal and cool following. Then we produced our first cookbook, after that we opened the Little Shop, completely renovating the space and have now just finished our second book. So we are pretty maxed out. We decided we would take a year out of new projects and keep the focus strongly on Shells and what we have going…. but like all good things we do have a lot of ideas and dreams still to fulfil. Our problem is sifting through them and deciding which one to grab. Much and all as we feel we are going to take a year out a part of us both is bursting at the seems with plans… our problem really is to stand still! But if you love what you do, you want to do it more, do it better and keep doing it.

Thing: Would you guys be able to pick a favourite record cover(s) of all time?

I have to ask Myles for that, He’s a total music guru and actually wants to produce music (in another life perhaps).. if you ask me the first cover that comes to mind is B52’s…. Myles on the other hand…. Beck’s Odelay with the funny dog doing the hurdles.

Thing: And a favourite design icon of all time (coke bottle, Eames chair, VW beetle etc…)?

Again I have to hand this to Myles, he loves the Bauhaus movement but right now he is loving Philippe Starck – he’s always doing interesting things. He’s not necessarily our style but he’s got some different designs.

Big thank-you to Jane and Myles for answering my questions in such wonderful detail.

Shells really does live up to the hype. Why?  Well, apart from the incredible food (fresh/local/healthy), what struck me most about this place was the genuine atmosphere and the lack of pretentiousness. Often places that get this popular can often be consumed by the hype, this doesn’t seem to be the case at Shells. It’s clear that Jane and Myles really care about great food and beautiful things; you only have to look at the attention to detail in the branding, menu design and in the curation of quirky gifts stocked in the shop (from hand made catapults and organic baby grows to screen prints and beanies for boiled eggs!). Paula Mills’ illustrations are stunning and really fit the personality and ethos of the café, the visual identity of a business is the first impression we get and when done right it really goes a long way in making a place even more alluring.

This surf café is refreshing and oozes personality; personality that has been lovingly injected by Jane and Myles. Mix that together with a ring-side view of the Atlantic Ocean across Strandhill beach and it’s quite easy to see why this café is one of the ‘must sees’ on a trip to the West coast of Ireland. Really, really cool place. (Oh, and by the way.. ‘they don’t do fast food, they do good food as fast as they can’!)

Check out Shells online here or follow them on Facebook.