Thursday 27 October 2016

A third generation family bakery that makes one million buns a week

Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30

Aidan Comerford of the family bakery, Comerford Brothers: “Next year we’ll have our first line with Lidl in Britain. That’s a huge market to be in.” Photo: Tony Gavin
Aidan Comerford of the family bakery, Comerford Brothers: “Next year we’ll have our first line with Lidl in Britain. That’s a huge market to be in.” Photo: Tony Gavin

A deal with Lidl in the early 2000's transformed the Comerford Brothers from a small local family bakery into a big employer and exporter of cakes, writes Louise McBride.

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Being in the right place at the right time can turn around a business's fortunes - and one man who knows all about this is Aidan Comerford, one of the men behind the family bakery, Comerford Brothers.

Mr Comerford is the grandson of Dan Comerford who set up the bakery in the 1950s.

The bakery has stayed in the family since then and Mr Comerford currently runs the business along with his father, Aidan Snr, two brothers - John and Fintan, and two uncles - Peter and Danny.

A deal with the German supermarket Lidl in the early 2000s transformed the bakery from a small traditional family business into one that exports to Britain and Europe - and is now one of the biggest employers in Newbridge.

The roots of the bakery were sown in the 1930s, when Dan Comerford worked for Cunningham's Bakery in Naas.

"My granddad drove a horse-drawn van back then - to deliver bread and cakes," said Mr Comerford. "He learned his trade there and got a good feel for the bakery business."

Dan decided to use this knowledge to set up his own bakery in the small Kildare town of Ballymore Eustace in the 1950s.

"As a child, I remember my granddad sitting around the table with his sons discussing trade - with me listening in," said Mr Comerford.

Mr Comerford also remembers delivering cakes around the country when working for the bakery during the summers. He was a young boy at the time.

"Wexford was my favourite place to deliver cakes to," said Mr Comerford. "I remember driving down the coast in the summer - people were always very easygoing and friendly."

In some ways, things haven't changed that much. "My granddad worked in the bakery with his three sons - and my dad is here now with his three sons," said Mr Comerford.

The business has, however, moved three times since it was set up - to Naas in 1964, Newbridge in 1988 and to a new 30,000 square foot factory in Newbridge in 2007. With each move came changes - some major, some minor.

"My grandmother's recipe for brown bread was used to make bread for the bakery in its early days - but that's not the case anymore," said Mr Comerford.

The company also used to make doughnuts and fresh cream cakes in the 1950s - but it has long stopped making these. When the business was in Naas, it was a small bakery which delivered locally. "We had shop bakeries back then in Kildare Town, Tullow and Baltinglass," said Mr Comerford. "These shop bakeries were almost like coffee shops - and were run by the family. We eventually got more into nationwide delivery - to convenience stores and so on. We pulled away from the shop bakeries then."

One of the biggest turning points for the bakery was in the early Noughties when Lidl first came into the country.

"By luck or by chance, Lidl's main warehouse and office was in Newbridge," said Mr Comerford. "Maybe it was due to proximity but Lidl came to us and said it wanted to buy Irish and support local manufacturers. At that stage, we were only doing van sales around the country."

So the Comerford Brothers struck a deal with Lidl, originally producing a 12-pack of iced queen cakes for the supermarket. The bakery now has 12 product lines with the German supermarket.

"Lidl is our biggest customer," said Mr Comerford. "Dealing with a big international customer like that has kept us on the ball. We work hand-in-hand with Lidl on new product development."

The amount - and standard - of cakes which the Comerford Brothers had to produce as a result of its work with Lidl was behind a move by the bakery to a new and larger premises in 2007.

"The old factory in Newbridge wasn't suitable anymore, so we started to build a new factory in 2006," said Mr Comerford.

The timing of this move was a huge bonus to the company. It allowed it to expand its business when many other bakeries were laying off staff or making cutbacks.

"When we were moving into the new factory in 2007, we had no idea the economic crash was coming," said Mr Comerford.

The Lidl deal had also given the Comerford Brothers a foothold into the discount grocery market - which thrived during the recession as people cut back on the amount they spent on their weekly shop.

"There was a time when spending €2 on a cake to bring home was a cheap kick - and a boost for people during the recession," said Mr Comerford. "That kept the market afloat over the last few years. We are now very close to hitting capacity in the new factory - and we didn't expect to be. So we're adding a 20,000 square foot extension which we hope to have ready by the end of the summer. We have more than doubled our turnover to €16m since moving to the new premises in 2007. We're producing one million buns a week and 200,000 whole cakes - such as loaf cakes - a week."

The company's best selling cakes are its iced queens, Swiss rolls and Madeira cakes. It plans to sell some new cakes over the next two years - though Mr Comerford is tight-lipped about what they could be. "Irish people are very traditional when it comes to cakes - they don't like anything too new," said Mr Comerford.

One of the most unusual cakes which Mr Comerford has come across is a Philippino cake called 'binka'.

"Our staff like to bake at home and sometimes bring in cakes for special occasions like birthday's," said Mr Comerford. "One of our staff members is from the Philippines and he recently baked one of their national specialities - the 'binka'. It is a kind of rice bun which is wrapped in a banana leaf and baked in a clay oven that's heated with wood coals. It's different and very tasty but you might have to travel to the other side of the world to get one."

Although the company weathered the recession well, it still has its fair share of challenges - with the fluctuating cost of raw materials one of its biggest ones, according to Mr Comerford.

"We use a lot of sugar, eggs and sultanas," said Mr Comerford. "A fluctuation in the cost of raw materials is the biggest scare. If you have a drought somewhere, the price of sultanas goes through the roof. The price of eggs went up recently after Britain changed its regulations on laying chickens - that was a bit of a shock. We use about 15 tonnes of eggs a week."

The deal with Lidl changed the company from a small family bakery into a modern one - but the Comerfords are keen to hold onto as much of their traditional ways as possible.

"We try to make cakes that were the same quality as the old-fashioned cakes - but at modern-day prices and with better shelf life," said Mr Comerford.

Mr Comerford, who is 31, has always worked for the family business - though he did a "small stint" with Domino's Pizza at one stage.

Mr Comerford's brother, Fintan, looks after production while his other brother, John works in operations and finance. Mr Comerford himself is in charge of sales.

The company now exports more than half of its turnover. It employs 120 staff, making it one of the biggest employers in Newbridge. When the Comerfords first moved into the new factory in Newbridge, the bakery employed between 35 and 40 staff.

"Over the last year, we've delivered seasonal goods to Norway, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria - through Lidl," said Mr Comerford.

"Next year, we'll have our first line with Lidl in Britain. That's a huge market to be in."

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