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The ladies who lunch

Yes, they really do exist! On the third day of our special series Kerry McKittrick meets the women who love to dress up for a spot of mid-day female bonding in a very fine restaurant

Ladies lunching is arguably one of those time-honoured, traditional rites of passage such as going to the hairdressers, shopping or girl talk.

The phrase may have been coined by composer Stephen Sondheim in the 1970s musical Company. The moniker does indeed produce visions of well to-do matrons, perfectly coiffed and dripping with Dior, toasting each other with champagne and oysters.

In modern-day Northern Ireland one doesn't need to be from a particular social strata in order to ‘do lunch'. In fact age, means or marital status is irrelevant these days as the point of the exercise is female bonding.

The emphasis is on a nice meal, in a nice restaurant and if possible, a nice glass of wine.

The time-out is used as a catch-up with friends away from the stresses of work, family and whatever else life wants to throw at you.

The Grill Room Restaurant at Ten Square in Belfast recently hosted two groups of ladies and we found out why they are proud to be ladies who lunch.

Lunch date 1: The working girls' treat

Maeve Marrell (34) runs the charity Food For Thought Africa and lives in Crawfordsburn with her husband Eamon. She says:

We all used to live close to each other in Crawfordsburn and we've known each other for 10 years. If we can we get out roughly every couple of weeks — usually at weekends as we'll have more time.

It's a catch-up, time to find out what's been going out in everyone's lives. It's a great wind-down as everyone has such busy lives. It's also nice to be able to sit and have such a nice relaxed lunch. Normally in the course of my working week I'm grabbing something on the hoof because I don't have the time to sit down.”

Lindsay Workman (32) owns Luxe Day Spa at Blackwood Golf Club. She lives in Crawfordsburn with husband Neil and their daughters Reily (5) and Lainey (2). She says:

“It's very important for me to get out to lunch — these are the days I live for. We catch up with the news and talk about everything from shopping to holidays to business.

Each of us is a businesswoman in her own right so we talk about that too. Everyone gives advice as well as constructive criticism.

Having kids didn't stop me going for lunch with the girls for a moment and they even come along sometimes. It's not a girl-only thing so sometimes the other halves join us, too.”

Caroline McLean (30) is director of Absolute Marketing Communications. She lives in Bangor with her fiance Andrew. She says:

“I'm Lindsay's sister and I've known the other girls for 10 years. We have our usual haunts like Grace Neil's in Donaghadee or the Salty Dog in Bangor.

We'll come up to Belfast sometimes for a bit of a treat too but we don't go too fancy — we save the Michelin stars for when someone is having a birthday!

We talk about anything and everything but at the moment we mostly spend time discussing my hen weekend which is coming up next month — we're off to Puerto Banus.”

Gayle Williamson (30) lives in Crawfordsburn with her son Brandon (4) and runs a modelling school. She says:

“We've all lived close to each other at one point or another so we've been doing the lunch thing for the last 10 years. Lunch is easy. You can sit down and hear each other talk properly and find out what's going on. You can't really do that if you go to a nightclub or a bar.

It means you can enjoy yourself over lunch and then you have the rest of the evening free for yourself. It suits our lifestyles with work and kids.

We still have nights out but it's very important to all of us to keep this wee friendly lunch going. I really look forward to our chats. It's relaxing and we always have a good time.”

Lunch date 2: A monthly catch-up

Diana McClean (60) is a childminder from Belfast. She is married to Jim and they have five grown-up children. She says:

We go out for lunch once a month and for special occasions — someone's birthday and that sort of thing. It was an organic thing that has just sort of developed over the last three or four years. We started primarily to get our friend Lynda Robinson out of the house when her husband went into respite care. We tend to juggle lunches around the children. We all look after some kids, some of us as childminders or grandparents. Sometimes they come with us so it can be a bit noisy.

Lunch can take any form. We can go to a cafe and grab a sandwich or we can go somewhere a bit swanky if it's someone's birthday — we went to the Culloden for the last one. Sometimes we might have a glass of wine, too, but that depends on who is driving.

There are never any men around so we can talk about feminine things. Evelyn is the youngest in the group so we tell her what's coming next in her life.

We occasionally go out in the evenings to Abba nights and that kind of thing, but generally it's all about lunch.”

Sandra Patterson (61) is a childminder. She is married to Alvin and lives in Belfast. She says:

“We went out for lunch once and had such a nice time that we just did it again and again and again. It was originally supposed to be just for birthdays but eventually we stopped making excuses to meet up and did it on a regular basis. We can meet up as often as two weeks or not for six weeks sometimes, it just depends on when everyone is free.

Lunch for me tends to be local so I can be handy if the little boy I look after has to leave school early. Otherwise I'm mostly free during the day. Sometimes I hop into the van with my husband — he makes deliveries for the anti-corrosion company he runs with our son.

We're all around the same age and we've all know each other for years so there is a lot of girl talk around the table. We might sound a lot like grumpy old women sometimes but we always have a laugh.”

Lynda Robinson (61) is married to Sam. They have two grown-up daughters and live in Belfast. She says:

“My husband Sam had a brain haemorrhage 21 years ago which has left him partially paralysed and in a wheelchair so I'm his full-time carer. Six years ago I started to get a little help with Sam and now one week out of every six he goes into Foster Green Hospital for some respite care.

Diane and I grew up together and the others have been close friends for years so meeting for lunch was supposed to be a way of getting me out of the house when Sam was away. In the early days I don't know what I would have done without them — all of the ladies have been such a big help to me. We all have such different lifestyles but we get on really well.

We discuss anything and everything and have such a great laugh every time. I also do a creative writing class once a week when Sam goes to a day centre. That's also a real pleasure because I love writing poetry.”

Rhona McBride (57) lives in Dundonald with her husband Martin. She says:

“You name it, we talk about it. It is a bit like Sex And The City and we don't care who hears us after a couple of glasses of wine. We try to sit there for as long as we're free but often someone will have to dash off to deal with a child or grandchild or husband.

We all have our own interests, of course. I like sewing so Sandra and I have done a couple of courses in that.

Everyone has children and husbands and there are a lot of grandchildren around, too. Generally though, it's a man-free zone and we have the chance to be ourselves and relax with our friends.”

Eveline Mullan (50) is married to Brendan and lives in Belfast. She says:

“I'm the youngest of the group so they all try to warn or scare me about what's going to come next. Sometimes it works but at least I'll be prepared for whatever life throws at me now.

I can't keep up with the others — they're all so rebellious. Diana is the ringleader and comes up with the most unusual ideas. She gives us all tasks, like wearing skirts on a Thursday.

We always make an effort to include Lynda for lunch just to get her out of the house a bit. The craic is hilarious though, so it's never an effort.”

Best Belfast lunch dates

  • The Merchant Hotel — Choose from fine dining in The Great Room Restaurant, more informal dining in the cocktail bar or enjoy the relaxed experience of the Cloth Ear. Tel: 028 9023 4888
  • Ten Square — A colonial setting specialising in locally-reared steak. Tel: 028 9024 1001
  • The Ivory — ideally located in Victoria Square you can choose from a comprehensive lunch menu or opt for the casual cafe bar selection. |Tel: 028 9032 4577
  • Coco — beautifully cooked and sourced food in a relaxing environment. Tel: 028 9031 1150

The man behind on-the-go sarnies

Jamie McDowell finds out how one local firm unwrapped an opening in the lunch market

Richard Irwin (28) is field marketing manager for Hungry House Foods, a company based in Craigavon which makes sandwiches and wraps for shops and businesses in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He says:

I've been working with Hungry House for four years now. It's a family business that was started in 1989. My father started making sandwiches after owning bread shops through the early 1980s. He realised that busy people were looking for food-to-go, as well as their usual loaf.

By the end of the 1980s, the bread shop side of the business had fizzled out and my father was concentrating wholly on sandwiches-to-go.

We provide the bulk of our sandwiches to forecourts and convenience stores around the country, but we sell to places like schools, hospitals, universities and even airlines as well. Industries such as the airline industry are obviously seasonal. We adopt our sandwiches to suit the season. In the summer we tend to produce more salads to accompany our sandwiches, and in the winter, we introduce some favourites such as turkey and cranberry.

Our best-selling sandwiches over the last 10 years or so have generally stayed the same. Sandwiches like chicken and stuffing, egg and bacon and our BLT consistently sell well. Over the last few years with the recession, we've also noticed a rise in popularity for our more basic sandwiches like plain ham or chicken.

People have also become a lot more health conscious and vigilant about what they eat. We have daily guidelines on our products now, so people know what they're eating. We have a healthier line of sandwiches, but some of the ‘normal' ones are still our biggest sellers.

In terms of ingredients we try to get, for example, the best quality chicken we possibly can and locally source ingredients where possible.

All of our sandwiches are made in our production facility at Carn, Craigavon, by our team of around 70 staff. We have a fleet of 10 refrigerated vans that will leave the factory at around 4am or 5am with our freshly made sandwiches, so they reach the shops as quickly as possible.

The majority of our customers are based in Northern Ireland but we sell to some companies in the Republic as well.

Some of those companies will buy the sandwiches and sell them under their own brands.

We're always looking for new recipes and ideas. Our management team meets once a month, so if anyone has a new idea we'll talk about it then. It's tricky because you can have a great sandwich with plenty of ingredients, but it has to be commercially viable as well.

Belfast Telegraph


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