Tuesday 19 November 2019

Bondings: For all the tea in China

Lily Chen and Dom McGroddy got off to a shaky start, but are now married with children and a flourishing tea business

When Dom McGroddy was asked his opinion of colleague, Lily Chen, by her manager twelve years ago, he said it would be great if her English was better. To quote Julia Roberts's character in Pretty Woman - big mistake. Huge!

"Lily's manager told her she needed to improve her English at her performance review, and she found out quickly that it came from me," says Dom, sheepishly. "I was working in the English branch of Hilti, which supplies to the construction industry, and she was in the Irish office, so the next time we met, she let me know what she thought of that opinion. Her English was very clear for the next couple of sentences, and it included certain words that I didn't expect her to know that well. So for the next three months, we were more or less fighting and not getting on, and I decided to invite her for a coffee to smooth things over. And now we're married with two children!"

When he and Lily met, Dom was on the cusp of getting divorced from his first marriage. What attracted him to the stunning Chinese woman? "She was beautiful," he says. "She was way out of my league and I knew that." Dom and Lily were married in 2006 and now live in Termonfeckin, Co. Louth, with their daughter, Aoife, 10, and son Aoidhri, 7. Aoidhri, pronounced Eedree, is a name they devised themselves as a phonetic spelling of his Chinese name, Yirui.

Lily (whose real name is Xuehong) is from Jhaoan in the Fujian Province. Her mum and dad are Youfeng and Jheseng Chen, and she has three sisters and one brother. Sadly her sister Xuejian passed away very young from leukaemia. After becoming a civil engineer, Lily worked at Hilti in China, but left twelve years ago to complete a master's in business at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, and then worked at the Hilti branches in Dublin and England. "I love Ireland, but I miss my family and friends, the hectic social life, Chinese food and the weather," she says. "I was attracted to Dom as he is very funny, friendly, open and optimistic. I am very impatient and he is calmer. He is the nicest, most generous guy you could meet, and I couldn't possibly find anyone nicer to be with."

Dom, 50, grew up in Swords as the eldest of Nell and John's five children. His dad was a former garda, who set up a timber and hardware business called Big J. When he left school, Dom worked with him, but the business closed down in 1988 following a downturn in the construction industry. He went to work in sales and marketing at Hilti, and after 16 years of working between England and Ireland, he became marketing director for Wavin Ireland. He lost that position in 2008 when the recession hit.

As Lily, 42, was always passionately interested in tea, they decided to set up a tea business together, Lily's Tea Shop. "We always had at least a hundred different types of teas in our house because I am fascinated by it," says Lily. "We source the tea from the best tea farms in China, and visit them when we go there to visit my family."

They started selling at farmers' markets four years ago, and there was such a great reaction, they knew they had something special. Dom called around to local health stores and independent shops, and many took the range. They now sell a wide selection of teas in shops and online, including puerh, known for its slimming qualities, and matcha, which has 137 times the amount of antioxidants as regular green tea. They moved to another level when they became part of the SuperValu Food Academy, where the retailer works with Bord Bia and small enterprises to develop their range. Their four pyramid teas are now sold in 30 SuperValu stores.

The pair will be taking part in the forthcoming West Waterford Festival of Food, where they will give a talk called Fifty Shades of Tae on the different types of tea and how to prepare it. This will take place in the Blasta wholefood store in Dungarvan, which is special to them as owners Rob and Anne Whinnett have supported them from the beginning.

The festival, centred around Dungarvan, promises to be a fun affair for food-lovers and families alike. As well Dom and Lily's show, it includes farmers markets, chocolate masterclasses, cake-decorating, and the intriguingly titled Three-Course Wheel. Dom and Lily will also give a talk at a foodie evening on April 24 in Tankardstown House. They plan to expand their range to the UK later this year.

While they are both quite easygoing, Lily is very driven and passionate while Dom's attitude is more relaxed. This is where their occasional clashes come from. Mind you, their son Aoidhri was born in the car on the way to the hospital, and while we're not pointing the finger of blame at Dom, the fact that he didn't think they had to rush to the hospital when Lily went into labour may have been part of his "Ah, it'll be grand" philosophy.

"I thought we had plenty of time, but Aoidhri popped out in the car and luckily he was fine," laughs our hero. "Lily is a bit of a 'tiger mom' who keeps the kids on their toes. They both speak Chinese, and swim and play piano at a reasonably advanced level, which is wonderful. Becoming a dad was something that I didn't think was ever going to happen for me, but when it did, it was everything I ever wanted. I chased my career for a long time, but we have two beautiful children now and everything is pretty great."

They have a great relationship, and Dom says he doesn't take anything for granted and gives his marriage 100 per cent. He loves that Lily cooks fabulous Chinese food, and the family eats with chopsticks most nights. The culture clash comes when they don't get each other's sense of humour on occasion. "I am so lucky," says Dom. "I love her dearly, so it's not a hard job to be married to her."

Dom and Lily's 50 Shades of Tae talk takes place on Sunday April 12 at 3pm in Blasta Wholefoods, as part of the West Waterford Festival of Food running from April 9 to 12.

Sunday Independent

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