FiFi Garrett, owner of Slothy Coffee, is behind the initiative.
A County Derry coffee shop has begun hosting weekly parent and toddler sessions as it looks to provide a safe place for them to socialise. Liam Tunney caught up with owner FiFi Garrett to find out why.
The sound of excited children floats down the steps of Cumber House and echoes off the high wall of trees that flank either side of the laneway leading up the hill.
Cars are parked around the gravel that surrounds the house, most pointed towards the trees and away from the village of Claudy that lies further up the hill to its rear.
At the top of the ornate steps sits a small sign that gives some clue to the source of the excited voices and laughter.
The popular coffee shop is based in the historic Cumber House, Claudy.
FiFi Garrett opened Slothy Coffee in July 2021. It marked the next step in a personal journey that was given a significant nudge by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I was on universal credit pretty much since the pandemic started, and it was really hard,” she told the County Derry Post.
“I was an unemployed artist; I do a lot of digital art, but obviously, that doesn't pay the bills. My partner was working from home at the time, and we both just said we couldn't go on like this.
“We knew we needed to do something, and we'd noticed a lot of these small coffee shops popping up, so that was our original business model.
“We approached the council, but getting licences was really hard, so they suggested we went for private land.”
As luck would have it, a postcard-perfect stretch of private land lay just a stone's throw away at Cumber House.
Picturesque surroundings at Cumber House.
Owned by local GAA club John Mitchel's GAC, the building already had a commercial kitchen in place, which meant FiFi and her husband's plans would have to change a little.
“We suddenly had to change our model from very small to something a lot bigger, but it's been really exciting,” she said.
“We put together our business plan and opened in July. We had to get a personal loan, because we didn't qualify for any funding.
“It has been a case of one hand in, one out, for buying more furniture. We got a really good deal to get the machine that we rent.
“We knew we had the customer base, but the problem here is that you don't get the passing trade, so that's what started us off with running events.
“We have to find inventive ways of getting people in, so that's where Tots n' Toast came in.”
Tara Craig and Roisin McCloskey enjoying the morning with sons Dylan and Adam.
Now in its second week, the Tots n' Toast initiative has drawn in a healthy crowd of local parents and toddlers, and is proving a big hit.
FiFi says she had hoped to bring some of the calming atmosphere of the house's surroundings into the event.
“I have a five-year-old daughter who has special needs, and I found a lot of groups that were popping up around Derry were very loud and very noisy.
“They're great, but they're not necessarily for every child. She hated noise, she'd just sit there covering her ears.
“I wanted to do something a bit more serene, because you have the relaxing surroundings of the forest here.
“I wanted to do books that would inspire them to explore, so we did 'The Gruffalo' last week. You can imagine them all going round afterwards looking for it.”
Ann and Michael Feeney, Claire and Islay Donaghy and Catherine Mullan with sons Aodhán and Oisín enjoyig their morning out at Slothy Coffee in Claudy.
With the local area not qualifying for the SureStart programme, there have been limited opportunities for parents and toddlers in Claudy.
Two local parents, Roisin McCloskey and Tara Craig, tell me the weekly event is providing them with a safe space to socialise.
“This is my first time here. Since Covid, all the wee toddler groups have stopped and it's hard to get spaces.” said Roisin.
“It's lovely and it's great for the children. It helps, because there has been nothing for the weans this last while, nowhere to bring them.”
“It's a space where they can be themselves and you can actually enjoy your coffee, because everyone is doing the same thing,” said Tara.
“People are still quite cautious about getting out and about, but it's nice to be able to do that. Every week I've come in, I've met someone new.”
As well as the safety and openness of the space, other parents mentioned the beauty of the house's grounds and the peaceful atmosphere.
“It's a lovely, relaxing, pleasant wee morning, and it's great for the weans to get out as well,” said Claire Donaghy.
“There are no real places like this in the village. Round here is nice, with the setting and the walk way, and the children love it.”
Catherine Mullan said her sons Oisín and Aodhán loved getting to see the other children.
“It's a great place; I'm surprised there has been nothing in here before,” she said.
“It's nice that the weans can go and play with other children and you get to meet other parents as well.
“Plus, the coffee is great,” she added.
FiFi says meeting the parents has emphasised for her just how important socialising is on the back of the last 18 months of Covid-related restrictions.
“Depression and anxiety is a real problem at the moment,” she said.
“There are many parents whose partners may be going back to work again, and suddenly, they're isolated on their own.
“It's good to get people out and talking to other parents who are in the same boat that they mightn't have met yet.
“It's been really popular. We get the same people coming back too, which is really nice. The feedback has been good.
“They enjoy that they get nice coffee and treats and can relax knowing their little ones are listening to a story and having fun.
“Claudy is such a nice, close community and it's trying to get it out there that we're open, warm, cosy and ready for people to take part.”
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