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Bakin' & Eggs: the Irish food businesses cooking up a comeback

Our restaurant critic celebrates new approached and resilience at a challenging time

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Adrian Mueller and Richard O'Connell, Mueller & O’Connell, Co Laois

Adrian Mueller and Richard O'Connell, Mueller & O’Connell, Co Laois

Barry Canny, Peploe’s, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Barry Canny, Peploe’s, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Suzanne and Ronan O'Sullivan, Seaview House Hotel, Ballylickey, West Cork

Suzanne and Ronan O'Sullivan, Seaview House Hotel, Ballylickey, West Cork

Kylie Magner, Magner’s Farm, Co Tipperary

Kylie Magner, Magner’s Farm, Co Tipperary

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Adrian Mueller and Richard O'Connell, Mueller & O’Connell, Co Laois

This week, I'm talking to a pair of hotshot bakers, an egg-producing clan, a Canny restaurateur and the latest link in Seaview's family chain.

The Bakery

Mueller & O'Connell Bakery & Cafe was started in 2016 by Swiss baker Adrian Mueller and Richard O'Connell. Describing Adrian as "the pro" and himself as "the enthusiastic amateur", Richard says: "I was a member of a local craft beer brewing club here in Abbeyleix. Adrian joined and within half-an-hour of meeting him, I said to him that we must set up a bakery."

Kicking off from a development kitchen in the Mountmellick Development Association, they supplied local markets and food service customers, including the prestigious Ballyfin Demesne.

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Adrian Mueller and Richard O'Connell, Mueller & O’Connell, Co Laois

Adrian Mueller and Richard O'Connell, Mueller & O’Connell, Co Laois

Adrian Mueller and Richard O'Connell, Mueller & O’Connell, Co Laois

In 2017, they moved forward with their bakery and cafe, where they blossomed with their breads and pastries, along with what Richard says is "probably the best ham, cheese and onion toastie in Ireland".

When Covid-19 struck, they lost their wholesale business overnight but the team adapted brilliantly and were determined to keep the operation going. An idea they'd looked at previously of selling a box of four sourdough breads beyond their local market came back to the table.

"With help from a nephew, we had an online shop set up and our first 30 orders shipped to Dublin in a space of four days. It has grown since to be a key part of our business."

They also increased production of small pastry products as people rewarded themselves with little treats while adjusting to the new reality. "The crisis forced us to rapidly adapt and that has energised everyone in the business. We've a very positive outlook on the future."

mocbakery.myshopify.com

The Producer

In 2017, Kylie Magner and her husband, Billy, started their small pastured egg farm near Fethard in Co Tipperary, with just 20 hens. Now, they have more than 800.

"It's really satisfying to see the eggs we've hatched grow up to be laying hens," Kylie says. "We love the diversity of the different breeds and the multicoloured eggs they lay."

Seeing another gap in the market, they began raising meat chickens on grass for bone broth, and in October 2018 their chicken bone broth was awarded the Chef's Choice at Blas na hEireann. They followed this up with a 2019 Gold Star in the UK Great Taste awards.

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Kylie Magner, Magner’s Farm, Co Tipperary

Kylie Magner, Magner’s Farm, Co Tipperary

Kylie Magner, Magner’s Farm, Co Tipperary

"Our business was 50pc local retail and 50pc restaurant and cafe trade. When restrictions were put in place, our hospitality sales fell away overnight. Thankfully as people stayed at home, they also began to bake, and our local sales increased within a week. Eggs seemed to be the new toilet paper!"

With the local farmers' markets in Cahir closed, they began a 'Farmers Market Drive Thru' on the farm and uploaded products from the various stallholders to their own website.

"We're lucky to be surrounded by a fantastic network of other food producers in the Tipperary Food Producers Group who have banded together to offer solutions. The Apple Farm in Cahir has been a hub of activity - dropping off orders to be collected and transported to other areas of the county."

The whole family has pitched to help with the business throughout this difficult situation. "The children have been a fantastic help the past few months. My mum and dad were both from farming families and I guess a lot of my love and interest in farming and good food came from them."

magnersfarm.com

The Restaurant

Barry Canny opened Peploe's in a former bank vault on St Stephen's Green in 2003, since when it's been a bastion of good food, great wines, and fun. But it hasn't all been 'beer and skittles'.

"People used to joke that to make a million in the restaurant business, you needed to start with two million. Now you'd better start with three," says Barry, in the wake of Covid-19.

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Barry Canny, Peploe’s, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Barry Canny, Peploe’s, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Barry Canny, Peploe’s, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Having got through the last recession, Luas construction work began. "This turned the city upside down with daily upset from trucks, diggers, and concrete tanks pumping diesel fumes around St Stephen's Green. It was a very challenging three years, but again we got through it. During that time, we spent a half-a-million euro on a redesign, acquiring a full alcohol licence, reinventing our offering with a new look, uniforms and menus, and we returned with a super restaurant focused on our customers.

"Our business increased year on year which put us in a position to remain competitive in an ever-growing market."

In the 2019 Budget, the Government increased VAT on food from 9pc to 13.5pc, which was a huge blow to the industry as a whole. Even with this, in the first two months of trading in 2020, Peploe's showed a 4.5pc increase in turnover on the same period of 2019.

Since the lockdown and closure in mid-March, Barry, along with his longtime GM Frederic Pelanne and executive chef Graeme Dodrill, has launched their high-end Home Dining Experience, which is absolutely superb, and are now planning their reopening for July 2.

"Roll on, we can't wait."

peploes.com

The Hotel

"Our family has been in hospitality at Seaview House Hotel in Ballylickey since the early 1950s and in Bantry for over 90 years," says Ronan O'Sullivan. He and his wife, Suzanne, took over the famous Seaview a couple of years ago, from his aunt, the legendary Kathleen O'Sullivan, who ran a tight ship here for four decades.

Seaview is a unique property. It's a grand country manor house, in the petit chateau style, but at the same time you can feel the warmth that's woven into its tapestries - a beautiful place, where you're spoiled from the minute you arrive.

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Suzanne and Ronan O'Sullivan, Seaview House Hotel, Ballylickey, West Cork

Suzanne and Ronan O'Sullivan, Seaview House Hotel, Ballylickey, West Cork

Suzanne and Ronan O'Sullivan, Seaview House Hotel, Ballylickey, West Cork

"We have lots of space here with wonderful gardens, and a fabulous new Organic Seaweed Bath House." Their restaurant too is spacious and superb, with the emphasis on prime local ingredients wonderful seafood - crab, scallops, black sole, as well as rack of lamb and duck.

"The international tourist will be scarce this year. We are fortunate to have many loyal repeat customers built up over the years, which will be a lifeline for us this season. We must remain positive, the hotel industry will have an opportunity to impress new customers that routinely head abroad, and other customers who will explore new areas of Ireland. Hopefully, we can convert that customer to a repeat customer - that should be our goal."

Ronan and Suzanne look forward to welcoming guests from Friday, July 3, and have great opening offers.

seaviewhousehotel.com

Sunday Independent