Friday 20 October 2017

Sweet smell of success as family bakery rises again

THE smell of sugar beet and the aroma of fresh bread from Crottys Bakery are two unmistakable odours that wafted through Carlow town for decades.

Crottys was the first to go in November 2001. The reason for the closure was simple -- rising costs and competition from supermarkets.

It was an institution in Carlow for 47 years. A visit to the bakery was a treat. Children would stand with their noses stuck to the glass eyeing up sumptuous chocolate eclairs, cream buns, apple pies and gingerbread men. But the family business was swallowed by the Celtic Tiger with the proliferation of large supermarkets and their in-store bakeries.

A few years later, in 2005, Greencore delivered another devastating blow to Carlow when it announced the closure of the sugar factory. The industry had saved thousands of men from the boat when it opened in 1926. Hundreds of children were educated thanks to the generous factory wages of their fathers.

But the boom was kind to Carlow too. The construction industry employed somebody in almost every family in the good times. Many families had new cars and enjoyed five-star holidays abroad.

The unemployed builder standing in the dole queue on Kennedy Avenue on Thursdays will tell you how he paid €270,000 for his modest three-bed semi. He'll also tell you he'd be lucky to get €140,000 for it now -- that's if he ever managed to sell it in the first place. The banks wanted to lend him enough for a five-bed but he's glad he didn't bite now.

Unemployment in Carlow has more than doubled since the recession. In the south-east region, a massive 60,149 people are without jobs. Carlow has managed to secure a number of recent investments despite the tough times. Global pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme announced a €200m project for the town with the creation of 170 jobs -- 50 of which are already in place.

Tom Crotty grew up bagging breadcrumbs and making cake boxes. His father, Tom Snr, was a baker and showed him the ropes. After the bakery closed he worked as an estate agent. "It was a lovely job," he said. But once the recession took hold two years ago, Tom knew his days were numbered in auctioneering. "Nothing was selling; we were surviving on rentals."

Accident

He decided to revive the bakery "by accident" after he called to his friend, Patrick Purcell's house for tea 18 months ago. "He was making scones in the house and that's how the whole thing started."

Patrick had just been made redundant from his marketing job with local manufacturer of soldering equipment Oglesby & Butler. "I had the practical knowledge and Paddy had been doing marketing and he started to delve into baking at home," said Tom.

Patrick said the pair had to "beg, borrow and steal" to get their business off the ground without so much as a bank loan initially. "My brother had a unit and he said we could work away. We turned it into a production facility. We had to get a health officer to come out and inspect to certify the unit as a working bakery."

The two men travelled the country to buy second-hand equipment and financed everything themselves. The gamble paid off when Tom and Patrick opened a shop in Potato Market.

"To see the queues of people outside on the street for the first few months was fantastic. Everyone was so nostalgic about Crottys."

Next to the bakery in Potato Market is PJ Hickon's Centra store. PJ is the vice-chairman of Carlow Town Centre Traders and he is also passionate about protecting the core of the town. "With the growth of the shopping centres and the sprawl, we find the town centre is being forgotten about. We need to concentrate our efforts back here," he said.

Tullow Street is the traditional main street in Carlow where there are 150 units and 330 jobs. However, the development of Carlow shopping centre and, more recently, the Fairgreen, has hit the high street retailers.

To combat the drop in footfall, PJ Hickson said they were hoping to reverse the pedestrianisation of Tullow Street. "We'd only close it for special events," he added.

Devastating

Carlow developer Johnny Harmon is struggling to get back on his feet. The property slump and last November's devastating floods have made business extremely difficult for him.

Mr Harmon's family pub lost its tenant after the floods hit. The premises, which had only been renovated, needed to be completely gutted.

He is critical of the local authority for "not listening" to businesses and for charging high rates. A building close to Harmon's Bar on Kennedy Street is empty.

"The council wanted in the region of €187,000 to develop it. Nobody can afford that. I know somebody who would have moved into it in the morning if the charges weren't astronomical."

Mr Harmon doesn't know "how much longer" his business will survive.

"I can't get it across we don't have money, nobody is listening to us. I'm gone beyond anger; I'm frustrated. The worst part is the people being paid the big salaries don't seem to be capable of coming up with solutions."

The father of three wants an amnesty on local authority rates and development charges for two years for struggling businesses.

He wants the banks to "back off" for the time being -- and he would like parking fees in Carlow town centre to be abolished.

"I'd also like to see a blanket ban on all junkets and our politicians should have more business experience."

Irish Independent

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