First comes love, then comes... sticky buns, chocolate eclairs, custard tarts
How a Monaghan couple grew their small back-room bakery into a successful coffee shop chain
Dinkin's Bakery is a family business set up by husband and wife duo, Anthony and Margaret Dinkin over 40 years ago. With a flagship restaurant and coffee shop in Monaghan town - plus seven additional outlets throughout counties Cavan and Monaghan - their shops have become a recognised part of the community. Today they employ 75 staff and have a turnover of over €2.5m.
In Monaghan, they have outlets in Castleblayney, Carrickmacross, Ballybay and Clones, while in Cavan their stores can be found in Cavan town, Cootehill and Belturbet. They also run the food outlet franchise in both Cavan and Monaghan bus stations on behalf of CIE and provide lunch and coffee shop facilities at the Monaghan Education Campus in the town, catering for over 600 students.
Anthony shows me around the store. A jovial and friendly man, he has a word for everyone.
"Our target market is very varied," explains Anthony. "Other than bus tours and some tourists, most of our business is local," he adds.
As we talk, a small queue has formed at the bakery counter. Behind the glass display, two shop assistants are busily boxing up everything from homemade wheaten and soda breads to scones and fresh pastries. The glass display case is packed with a colourful and tantalising fusion of chocolate eclairs, coffee cakes, apple and cream slices as well as muffins, iced cupcakes and every manner of gateaux imaginable. Secretly, I can't wait to tuck into one of these mouth-watering treats as soon as our tour ends.
At the other end of the counter is where the occasional cakes are. Beautifully decorated, these celebrate everything from birthdays and anniversaries to christenings and weddings. While I am there, an excited mother arrives to collect a cake for her daughter's upcoming wedding. The coffee shop is also busy, with families enjoying time out together, groups of women and students chatting away to each other. And there are even a few men and women in business attire who must have dropped in for a coffee between their sales calls or business meetings. It's a place that definitely seems to attract a wide range of clientele.
As we take the stairs to the first floor to where the carvery lunch is being served, Anthony explains that this upstairs area is used as a separate restaurant from Thursday through to Sunday evenings and is called The Taste of Tuscany. There we are joined by Margaret. She has come from the bakery which is located about a mile outside the town in a purpose-built facility.
As I sit down with the couple in a quiet corner (and eventually tuck into my much- anticipated mug of coffee and delicious slice of carrot cake and cream), I wonder how they manage to run a business with so many moving parts.
"We've had lots of practice over the past 40 years," says Anthony with a hearty laugh. "And we now also have lots of help," interjects Margaret, as she introduces me to the couple's three sons who have also joined the family business.
Darren is a chef and, among other things, looks after The Taste of Tuscany restaurant. Kristen manages the home bakery while Damien takes care of the outlet in the Monaghan Education Campus. And Kristen's wife, Aprilanna, looks after the office and general administration and marketing.
However, when the couple started out in business there was only the two of them.
Anthony Dinkin grew up in Tyleadon, on the outskirts of Monaghan town. He left school at the age of 15 and got a job as a postman where he stayed for the next 12 years.
I ask what it was that made him leave to set up a home bakery.
"He fell in love, that's why," says Margaret playfully.
Margaret grew up in the village of Scotstown in Co Monaghan. When the couple met, she was working in a local home bakery in the town. The pair had regularly talked about the idea of starting their own business - and in 1970, they decided it was time to give it a go. They bought a small gas cooker and a second-hand food mixer and immediately went about setting up their new venture in a small room in the back of Margaret's family home.
They can still remember the very first order they received.
"It was for three dozen of queen cakes and iced buns," remembers Margaret. "But it meant that we were officially in business for ourselves."
They then began to supply more shops and as orders came in, the old car they had at the time was proving less and less suitable for the task in hand - and they took the brave decision to invest in a small van.
"A grand blue Bedford," recalls Anthony proudly.
Gradually, word spread about the new bakery and orders began to flow in from more and more shops. Over time, the pair built up a thriving wholesale business supplying shops throughout Monaghan and Cavan. By 1974, they decided it was time to expand, and secured a lease on a small premises in Monaghan town. They relocated their home bakery to the town, as well as opening a small cake shop to sell their products directly to the public.
Self-taught, Margaret had a natural talent for baking and cake decoration. Many of the traditional recipes she used had been handed down to her by her mother and she loved to tweak and improve the recipes as she went along.
"Because we always make everything from scratch and don't use any additives or preservatives, our products are of the highest quality. And wherever possible, we source our ingredients from local or Irish suppliers," insists Margaret proudly.
Anthony too was discovering that he had a real flair for business and a strong entrepreneurial drive.
Four years later and determined to keep progressing, the pair decided to build their own purpose-built state of the art home bakery on its own site in Tyleadon -where the business still operates from today. This increased capacity meant that they could service even more customers.
However, start-up capital was in short supply at the time.
"It was a time when you just couldn't get bank finance. So everything we did had to be financed from what we were making in the business," explains Anthony.
However, with these extra overheads they began to realise that the model of wholesaling to shopkeepers who sold their products on to customers was not very profitable, and that they were in fact working hard for very little return.
"We found that our margins were becoming increasingly squeezed and wholesalers and retailers were looking for prices and conditions that left very little for us. Some of the multiples were becoming very hard to deal with, in terms of getting paid in a timely fashion. Some began forcing special offers on us," explains Anthony.
"The result of all of this was that it impacted seriously on our cash-flow in the business, as well as exposing us to increasing bad debts," he adds.
In 1982, the couple decided to change tack and open their own coffee shops where they would sell their own breads, cakes and pastries. While it meant a crash course in employee law, pay roll and rent negotiation, it also had an upside for the bakery owners.
Now a cash business, they were receiving cash daily across the counter - eliminating previous cash-flow problems, so bad debts became a thing of the past.
Starting with one coffee shop in the centre of Monaghan town, they soon opened others in Castleblayney and Ballybay and the business began to take off.
Growth in the business continued steadily until the downturn in the economy. Like most local businesses, the increase in unemployment and emigration had a dramatic impact on turnover.
"Factories were closing and those who had a job, had less disposable income," explains Anthony. "Customers who used to come in every day were now only coming in once a week. Others who came in more often were spending less. We had to cut our overheads and reduce costs, while at the same time reinvesting in our shops to keep them attractive. We also ran special offers to provide increased value to our customers. We had to just soldier on," he adds.
They are confident that things will improve. In the meantime, they are continuing to diversify their product range and include more specialised products to appeal to those with health issues such as diabetes or coeliac disease.
They have also recently launched a new e-commerce enabled website to help drive a new type of business and bring new customers.
"Finding and retaining good staff has also been critical to the business's success over the years," insists Margaret. "Some of our staff have been with us for over 30 years. Some have had children and taken time out to rear their families and are now back with us. We simply could not be running the business we are without such as committed and loyal staff," she adds.
How have they found working together over the years?
"We make a good team," responds Anthony confidently.
Anthony and Margaret Dinkin are examples of great local entrepreneurs.
Wanting to progress in life, they began modestly by making a few dozen pastries for a local shop owner.
Such a simple yet courageous move gave them confidence not only in the market opportunity but also in themselves.
From a small home bakery, they grew to a purpose-built facility and then to a chain of coffee shops, restaurant and college food services.
When things got tough, they dug in.
And today, they continue to work hard to sustain the business they created.
With 75 staff employed, Dinkin's Bakery and coffee shops have become an important creator of jobs in Cavan and Monaghan and are an established and essential part of the social fabric of these communities.
Sunday Indo Business