Sean Gallagher: An apple tart like mammy used to make
The key ingredients at Maura and Siobhan Kearney's thriving bakery are dedicated staff, loyal customers and passion for the product
SOME weeks ago, I received an email to this paper from John Ambrose, suggesting I write about how his wife Maura and her sister Siobhan, had set up and grown their own very successful business. He wrote about how hard they worked, the employment they had created and how proud he was of what they had achieved.
So I took John up on his suggestion and headed to the countryside that borders the village of Ballyhahill, Co Limerick, to meet the hardworking duo. It's early morning when I arrive to meet Maura and Siobhan Kearney at their purpose-built bakery.
Set up in 1992, Kearney's Home Bakery manufactures and wholesales a range of traditional breads, pastries and tarts. Production is in full swing when I arrive. For some of the staff, it might seem like the middle of the day because, for them, work starts at 4am each morning.
Throughout the bakery, teams of men and women, decked out in customary white coats and hats, move around the floor. There is a certainty and co-ordination to their busyness. Some are working at stainless steel benches where they are mixing and kneading flour and ingredients for the next batch of products. Others stand, oven gloves at the ready, set to leap into action once the alarm goes off in the large ovens.
Without hesitation, the doors swing open and trays of piping hot breads and apple tarts are quickly pulled out. Here, timing is everything.
Nearby, trolleys full of freshly baked scones, soda breads, rhubarb tarts and tea bracks are being moved to the cooling area where they are quickly chilled before being packed into the company's fleet of vans that are waiting to take them to shops in the region.
The smell that fills the bakery is familiar and quietly comforting. For a moment, I am transported back to my childhood. I am watching my late mother, her hands white with flour, having just finished baking an apple tart in our small kitchen scullery. Like a magician, she lifts the kitchen cloth that covers her new creation to show it off to the waiting audience of salivating children.
"We are a scratch bakery," Maura says, bringing me back to the present moment. "We don't use pre-made mixes or liquid eggs. Everything here is made from scratch, using the freshest ingredients available. We even peel the apples here on site," she says.
"The apples come from an apple farm in Cahir, in Co Tipperary," explains Siobhan. "The rhubarb comes from Sunnyside Fruit Farm in Fermoy and the oatmeal comes from Flahavans in Co Waterford.
"Our objective is to make our cooking as close to home baking as you can get. People often say to us that it tastes just like their mother used to make," explains Siobhan.
"I get that," I tell her, smiling to myself.
The company supplies a range of stores within a 40-mile radius, from Tralee to Limerick, including Supervalu, Centra, Londis, Mace, Gala and Costcutter as well a host of independent outlets.
The business employs 22 staff. Some of these have been with the company since it started almost 21 years ago.
Maura and Siobhan grew up locally. In fact their parents Michael and Daisy still live on the family farm on which the bakery is built.
Growing up, they were well accustomed to hard work. Their father, Michael, would start the milking each morning. "But he had to head to work in the nearby Wyeth baby food factory in Askeaton," explains Maura. So Siobhan and her sisters would help their mother, Daisy, finish the milking and attend to other farm chores before heading off to school.
Growing up, both sisters shared a love of baking. During their Christmas and summer holidays they used it as a way to make pocket money. "Neither of us realised that we would ultimately make it a career," says Siobhan.
After finishing school both women did a three-year full-time bakery and production management course in Dublin Institute of Technology.
Maura headed to Switzerland where she worked in a bakery and gained valuable experience. When she returned home, both she and Siobhan worked for a period with Lir Chocolates before deciding it was time to start their own business.
Maura and Siobhan's aptitude for business was evident from the outset, even during the planning phase of the business. They were fortunate to receive a site from their parents but instead of building a typical industrial-looking production facility, they designed the bakery in the shape of a modern bungalow.
"We felt that if, for any reason, the business wasn't successful,, we could simply convert the building into a house that one of us could live in or alternatively we could sell it as a house," explains Maura.
"In 1996, the business was going so well," says Maura, "that we were bursting at the seams for space." They built on an extension to give them extra capacity. However, such was the demand for their products, that they were again forced to extend the premises in 2004 to cope with production.
Last year the company generated an impressive turnover of more than €1.2m. What are the key challenges in running a business like theirs, I inquire.
"Our products have a short shelf life because we use only fresh ingredients," explains Siobhan. "But that is part of the attractiveness of our products," she insists. "The downturn in the economy has also impacted us," explains Maura. "People are more cost-conscious than ever now and so we have to continue to differentiate ourselves on quality while at the same time remaining competitively priced," she adds.
"While some customers might be tempted to try cheaper products they soon realise the difference in quality," insists Siobhan
"The cost of our raw materials has risen sharply in recent years too, such as flour, sugar and sultanas. Poor weather has led to a scarcity of apples and so the price for these has risen. In addition, increased transport and fuel costs have all added pressure on competitiveness."
However, the determined duo tell me that while they have to compete on price they refuse to compromise on quality because that is what allows them to stand out from the competition "Our ethos," explains Maura, "is that, if we are going to do it, we are going to do it right."
On a personal note, they are both grateful to their parents, their husbands and their families for their support. "We work long hours and spend a lot of time away from our families," Siobhan says, "but we really love what we do."
Approaching their 21st year in business and having achieved great success to date, I ask what's next.
"We're focused on developing new products while maintaining the traditional products that are at the heart of what we do," says Siobhan.
"We also keep abreast of the trends within the food industry, particularly the move towards more health-based products such as spelt breads, and so we will continue to innovate and meet this demand," adds Maura.
The pair recently began working with a distributor in the Kerry area as a way of growing their market geographically. Currently proving to be a great success, it's an avenue they would like to pursue in other regions in order to expand their reach.
Before leaving, I am invited to the purpose built tearooms upstairs. As I sample the colourful array of the morning's produce of scones, apple tarts, chocolate covered buns and butter cream cakes, I can clearly see how running a successful business, like baking, requires a number of key ingredients.
For the two Kearney sisters, these include a focus on producing only quality products, a dedicated staff who care about the place as if it was their own and a loyal customer base.
However, it is their passion and love for what they do, that is the key ingredient binding it all together.
The roads have gotten quieter around Ballyhahill in recent years. There are fewer delivery trucks now. The vans that once ferried construction workers to building sites around the county have all but disappeared.
What remains now are the lorries delivering ingredients to the bakery, the bakery's own vans that leave every morning packed with fresh produce and the cars that bring the bakery's 22 staff to their place of work.
At a time when there is so much talk about large and hi-tech businesses being the solution to our employment needs, let's not forget about the many thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises, whose courage to start and grow their own businesses has led to the creation of meaningful and sustainable employment within our communities. And let's not forget about Maura and Siobhan Kearney.