Quirk of fate leads couple to start Irish-themed business

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jonathan Sullivan pours his wife, Nicole, a cup of  tea at their business, Forget Me Not Ireland, a gift shop, Irish dance accessory store and tea room in Raleigh Hills.As a late 20-something in 2001, Jonathan Sullivan left his native Ireland for a three-week trot around the world.

As much as he took in from the many locales, including London, Malaysia, Los Angeles, Amelia Island, Fla., and Australia, no place turned out to be as life transforming as Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. There he hit it off with a local stranger who he asked to take his photo in front of the directional-sign array.

“It was just one of those stopovers,” the unassuming 38-year-old says in his easygoing Irish lilt. “I was young and traveling. It could have been anybody.”

Instead, it was the future Nicole Sullivan. After marrying Jonathan in 2002, the friendly picture-taker went on to become the mother of Jonathan’s two children as well as his business partner at Forget Me Not Ireland, a Raleigh Hills business that combines a Celtic-themed gift shop, dance accessory outlet and Irish tea room and lunch cafe.

What started as an Internet-fueled business out of the couple’s home around 2007 turned into a little slice of Sullivan’s homeland when they opened the little Leprechaun-spirited oasis at 4640 S.W. Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in 2010. In addition to an array of green, whimsical trinkets, the business deals in wigs, dresses, socks and shoes used in traditional Irish dance, which happens to be one of the styles taught next door at the Murray School of Irish Dance.

Located up front by windows facing the busy thoroughfare, the 15-seat tea room features offerings such as corned beef and Irish cheese sandwiches, Irish soda breads, tea cakes, scones, coffee by Bewley’s of Ireland and 25 different types of tea from Ireland and the United Kingdom. by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jonathan Sullivan and his wife, Nicole, enjoy a cup of  tea at their business, Forget Me Not Ireland, on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in Raleigh Hills

Home away from home

Jonathan got the idea to sell such goods from his mother, who operated a store in his native Waterford, Ireland. The former information technology specialist with AOL-Time Warner took a leave of absence and moved to Oregon while his new bride completed her college education at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.

“I wasn’t doing anything here for the first year,” he says of the transitional period. “My mother has an Irish dancing store back in Waterford. I had all the intentions of going back. Then we decided to have a baby and started looking at our options.

“I started to like it here,” he adds. “My mother always said, when people leave Ireland, they become more Irish.”

The prominent Irish population in and around Portland, including a large contingent of employees at Washington County-based Intel Corp., helped inspire the newlyweds to try a heritage-based commercial venture.

“We were (selling accessories) out of the house for a couple years,” he says. “Most of our business was on the road back then, going to competitions and setting up a vendor booth. From there, it evolved.”

The tea room provides not only an ethnic-minded alternative breakfast or lunch option, but a gathering place for parents of dance students as well as local groups such as the Red Hat Society.

“Irish dancing (students’) parents sit down and have a cup of tea while waiting for their kids,” Jonathan says, noting the Hillsdale Ballet Company is renting space from the Murray School. “A lot of people from Intel. They have a lot of Irish employees. When they are here, we have all the products, the sausages, the (pork bacon) rashers, black and white puddings.

“We have all the products they miss from home,” he adds, “and all the foods they miss.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Traditional Irish jig shoes are among the merchandise Jonathan and Nicole Sullivan sell at Forget Me Not Ireland in Raleigh Hills.

Where they should be

While the location may not be ideal for foot traffic, the Sullivans find the spot more than meets their needs as well as those of their customer base.

“It’s a good area for us,” he says. “Being a niche market, people will find you.”

Nicole, a Wilson High School graduate who studied to be a teacher before going into retail, is content to let Jonathan be the face of Forget Me Not Ireland while she toils behind the scenes.

“Jon’s kind of the front of the shop. He’s who you first see,” she says. “People like him for his accent too. It makes it seem more authentic, because it is.”

She’s enjoyed the social benefits of moving out of the house into a higher-profile storefront.

“It’s pretty social,” she says. “We see some of the same people and meet new people. They come in off the street for the tea and stuff. People like to come in and trace their (Irish) family lines. I like the social part.”

In addition to the business and taking their Irish wares to dance competitions and culture-oriented events, the Sullivans keep busy raising their two daughters, Niamh, 10, and Ciara, 5, both of whom are cutting their teeth on Irish dance.

“You don’t realize how (popular) Irish dance is until you get involved in it,” Nicole observes.

Acknowledging how the couple’s onetime plan to settle in Waterford took a different turn, Nicole likes to keep an open mind about future possibilities.

“It worked out well,” she says. “It’s never off the table that we could go back.”

For his part, Jonathan doesn’t spend too much time thinking about where he would be had he not asked Nicole to take his picture in 2001.

“The way we met was a bit unusual. It was obviously meant to be,” he says, adding, “Wherever I’ve been in the world, Portland feels like home.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jonathan Sullivan sells Ireland-centric soccer and rugby jerseys at his business, Forget Me Not Ireland, on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in Raleigh Hills.

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