Thursday 19 April 2018

A thundering good lunch

From doing the books to buying the firm, Sinead Heffernan tells Sean Gallagher of a soaring business trajectory

Sean Gallagher enjoys afternoon tea with Sinead Heffernan of Thunders home bakery and deli in Liffey Valley. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher enjoys afternoon tea with Sinead Heffernan of Thunders home bakery and deli in Liffey Valley. Photo: Tony Gavin

In recent years, there has been an explosion in the number of cafes, coffee shops and bakeries that have sprung up across the country.

But running a successful cafe or bakery business is about more than just offering tasty treats. It's about choosing the right locations, offering quality products in an enjoyable and friendly atmosphere as well as managing staff and cashflows, and complying with increasing amounts of food and safety regulations.

This week's entrepreneur, Sinead Heffernan, has seen the business from both sides. Having looked after the books for Thunders Bakery in Dublin, she and her husband Stephen, bought the business in 2008. Today they run two production bakeries, two sit-down cafes and 10 retail stores.

With an annual turnover of €5m and almost 100 staff, the business has grown to become one of the leading cafe and bakery businesses in the country.

Last week, I caught up with Sinead in one of her cafes - in the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre.

For someone who loves cakes and pastries, it's a heavenly place to be. The smell of freshly baked breads and cakes fills the air as my eyes fix firmly on the colourful trays of creamy delights that stretch out across the counter.

"While we specialise in making our own artisan cakes, breads and confectionery, we are probably best known for our black forest gateaux, coffee slices, batch bread and brown soda breads," explains Sinead as she hands me some goodies to sample. "And everything here is made from scratch using locally sourced ingredients," she emphasises.

Their customers are as wide as they are varied. Business starts in the morning with commuters looking for a coffee and something to go. This is followed immediately by the mammies and babies who call in once the children have been dropped off to school. By 11am it's the turn of the locals, who drop in for their daily bread or cakes. Many are older and enjoy having a friendly chat with the staff and other locals.

Next, it's the turn of the office workers who come to collect their box of sandwiches and bites for the staff. By noon, the lunchtime trade has kicked in. There is a steady stream of regulars from nearby offices and business as well as a growing number of high-vis vests from nearby construction sites. Then, come afternoon, it's back to the locals. Weekends are equally busy, with customers calling in to pick up personalised cakes for birthdays and special occasions.

While this all sounds challenging, hard work is something that comes naturally to Sinead.

Sinead Heffernan grew up in Rolestown, in North County Dublin. As a child she picked fruit on local farms for pocket money, and then in college she worked in a pizza restaurant to pay the rent. It was while studying Business and Accounting in Portobello College in Rathmines that she met her future husband and business partner, Stephen. In 1997 and fresh out of college, the pair set up their own accounting practice - AAP - and began looking after accounts and doing bookkeeping for small and medium-sized businesses - everyone from local builders and retailers to newsagents and manufacturing firms.

"One of the companies we did the books for was Thunders Bakery," explains Sinead. "I remembered them because I used to go to school in the Loreto on North Great George's Street, and I'd pass by their bakery every day on the bus on my way to and from school," she recalls.

The business had originally been set up in 1969 by Liam and Mary Thunder, and consisted of a small bakery and retail shop in Drumcondra. By the time Sinead and Stephen became involved, it had been taken over by their nephew, Tony Lonergan - who had trained as a pastry chef in Switzerland. He had, by then, expanded the business to include two new shops in Clontarf and Phibsboro and was employing 28 staff.

However, his health had begun to deteriorate and he decided it was best to sell the business.

Keen to see the staff keep their jobs, he wanted to sell it as a going concern - but with the only interest in buying the business coming from property developers wanting to demolish it to make room for new apartments, Tony didn't have the heart to sell.

"It was then that Stephen suggested we should buy it," explains Sinead, who admits: "My first reaction was: 'Are you having a laugh?'"

But having thought about it some more, she began to realise that it made sense. The figures for the business were good, and because the pair had been doing the accounts, they knew there was plenty of room for expansion.

"In the end we went for it - and in October 2008 we became the proud owners of a bakery and confectionery business. And we have not looked back ever since," she adds.

"There was a trend emerging at the time, where many bakeries began simply adding water and eggs to bought-in mixes," explains Sinead. "While this provided consistency of product and removed the need for a skilled baker, we decided that was not going to be our business model.

"Instead, we decided to continue to do scratch baking, where our qualified bakers would make everything themselves, using only quality ingredients and based on our own recipes. We felt that this gave for a much higher quality product with a more authentic look and feel. We also decided not to use any life-extending additives - something that people appreciate in this era of allergies and food intolerance," she adds.

Once they got to grips with their new venture, the pair began looking at how they might expand the business, and the following year they opened their first new store in Dundrum.

Others quickly followed.

Sinead then joined the Going for Growth women's enterprise programme. Run by Paula Fitzpatrick and supported by Enterprise Ireland, she discovered that while others on the programme ran different businesses, they all faced similar challenges. With the support and encouragement of her fellow entrepreneurs, she realised that she needed to take a more strategic (rather than operational) role in the business, and immediately began looking for opportunities to grow the business.

Over time they added a second bakery and grew their retail stores to 10. In 2013 and 2014, and on the back of feedback from customers who wanted seating added, they opened two sit-down cafes - one in Mespil Road and the other in Liffey Valley. More recently, they bought an existing bakery company, called Mardi.

"The owners had been running a very successful wholesale bakery and were supplying other cafes and coffee shops. They had developed a very good reputation but wanted to retire - and they also wanted to make sure that their staff were kept on," explains Sinead. "We thought this would be a great fit with Thunders and provide us with the opportunity to expand into the wholesale sector," she adds.

Looking back now, does she still think it was the right decision to buy the business?

"Absolutely. I love the business," explains Sinead without hesitation. "When I worked in bookkeeping, it was all about looking back and about the retrospective. Today, I get the opportunity to look forward, to have a vision for the business, and to actually create our future," she adds with a smile.

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