'I quit my job to follow my sweet dreams' - Mother-of-one who started 'a Willy Wonka dream'
From launching Limerick's first gay club to having her luxury lollipops grace a Dolce & Gabbana shoot... for Nicole Dunphy, the woman behind Irish confectionery company Pandora Bell, life has been one long sweet adventure, writes Orla Neligan
It's a hot July day and Nicole Dunphy is knee-deep in Christmas planning. As owner of luxury confectionery company Pandora Bell, she always has her eye on the next season; if not Christmas, then Easter or Mother's Day or some other celebratory event. She's currently finalising new flavours and packaging for its bestselling pâtés des fruits - vegan jellies made from 70pc fruit pulp and currently her favourites from the company's long line of sweet treats (although she's partial to the almond and pistachio nougat). It's certainly a long way from the nightclub scene in Limerick, where Dunphy cut her teeth. She remembers those early years fondly, setting up the city's first gay club and Alternative Miss Limerick Pageant when "Panti came down to help".
"I knew in my heart I always wanted to run my own business and I loved working in the entertainment scene but there came a time when I felt I had to do something a bit more grown-up," she laughs.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
In 2009, after 10 years working as production co-ordinator with RTÉ's Lyric FM, she finally took the proverbial business leap, spurred by the economic crash and a willingness to discover her creative side.
Even at a young age, Dunphy was honing her creative skills, something she attributes to her Irish education. "I went to a private school called St Philomena's, which really was like a Swiss finishing school. We baked, we knitted, we crocheted," she laughs, "all the things my own daughter, Beth (11), has to do after school these days. I know we did subjects like history and geography but all I really remember is sewing tea cosies."
When she left RTÉ, she pursued her love of cooking, in particular gelato and chocolate-making, only to discover the market was saturated with very good producers making those products. "I spent a lot of time in Italy and I remember sitting in a square in Rome one day, sipping a cappuccino and being so impressed with how incredible this coffee was," she says excitedly. "It was so different to what we get at home: the creaminess, the froth, the taste. I was so taken with the simplicity of the food there and how well they execute it."
Similarly, a trip to Fauchon in Paris inspired her love of confectionery - "beautiful little delectable treats, nearly too good to eat, all lined up in the window". She also recalls a holiday to London with her mother when she was young and how walking through the Harrods food hall felt like a fantasy. "I could just imagine people in their bowler hats buying their boiled sweets and beautiful biscuits and there's still that historical element to it - I love that."
A gap in the Irish market for luxury sweets and her desire to create something timeless led to Pandora Bell. There were lots of mass-produced, low-quality sweets but nothing that could be defined as luxury that didn't compromise on quality and environmental standards - something she is passionate about. It's no surprise she gives cheap, mass-produced sweets short shrift. In the same way there is "chocolate" (a confection of sugar, artificial flavours and milk powder) and chocolate (real, authentic ground cocoa beans), there are "sweets" and sweets. But in an industry where sugar is currently a dirty word, having a sweet business must present some challenges, whether they are vegan or not.
"I think we're successful because we focus on good ingredients," she explains. And, before you try to assuage your guilt with a large bar of Dairy Milk, it's not all bad. "I also think it's OK to have a treat, just not all the time; sugary treats should be occasional. There are lots of traditional recipes that have been the same for hundreds of years and I made a conscious decision to focus on the more traditional, classic confectionery and make it of the highest quality. I didn't want to be a retro sweet company or follow trends; I wanted something old-fashioned and vintage, something people could trust."
Instead of using gelatine in their jellies (which is technically pigs' innards which have been coloured and flavoured), they use real fruit. All eggs are free-range, no palm oil is used in any products, and all the colours and flavours are natural as opposed to the azo colours so often considered to be the reason for your child's post-treat meltdown. Production, too, is considered and as authentic as it can be: the nougat is made by a relative of the original family who invented it in the mountain town of L'Aquila, outside Rome; the salted caramels from Brittany, close to the salt marshes - where the fleur de sel is harvested. Dunphy is hands on, meeting with producers, developing flavours and ensuring it meets the highest standards.
"Less is more" informs much of what Dunphy does. Even her approach to packaging is as sustainable as possible. Everything that can be recycled is reused and she invites her suppliers to do the same. Back in 2009, when she started the business, the recession forced her to work from home, developing an online business as opposed to opening a shop - a decision that she has never regretted. The office is still her home, a gorgeous cottage in Limerick, where she has a designated outdoor space for Pandora Bell shared with her four employees, and littered, she tells me, with lollipops. It must take some sterling willpower to abstain from eating your surroundings all day long. "I do tend to nibble a lot," she confesses. "But I relieve my guilt by reminding myself that I'm not scoffing radioactive fizzy sweets; they're much healthier than that."
Her daughter, Beth, is of a similar disposition. "I think she's become immune to them," Nicole laughs. "When she was little, she used to think that 'Mum works with boxes' because that's all she saw. Now she comes in to use the computer and doesn't even notice the gigantic yellow lollipop on the desk. But when her friends come over…." she trails off, laughing. "They must think our house is like that scene in Elf when he sits down to a breakfast of cornflakes and candy." It's still cool to have a mum who owns a sweet company, it seems, but she's quick to add that they are both healthy eaters and big on veg.
Lollipops are reserved for the masses, and the fashion industry, apparently. It wasn't long after the company's Real Eggshells with Praline appeared in British Vogue that Dolce & Gabbana used their colourful candy canes to decorate their stores, and some of the lollipops in a photoshoot. Vivienne Westwood then hopped on the fashion confectionery wagon, choosing the lemon lollipop to launch her fragrance Sunny Alice. How confectionery becomes a fashion accessory is lost on Dunphy but it's clear she's adept at reading the industry. Not one to follow trends, her focus is on what's not widely available, paying close attention to ingredients, aesthetics and packaging. That, she admits, is the best bit.
Being desk-bound is not so exciting but "all part of the job". The biggest challenge is the constant development. "Sometimes, it feels like you're running to stand still. We spent a long time developing a relationship with a big supplier in Russia and, when the spend in Russia dropped and there was less desire for luxury products, we lost them. It's like Snakes and Ladders," she sighs. "When I started out, I was naïve to think it would gather its own momentum but you're required to invest your energy all the time."
Despite leaving a pensionable job for what some might consider a Willy Wonka dream, she doesn't consider herself a risk-taker. It's more philosophical than that. "I think we only have one shot at being alive so you may as well make yourself happy and engaged while you're here. I feel that more acutely now that I'm in my 40s."
Is that a philosophy she shares in both her personal and professional life? "Yes, I suppose, but when it comes to work, I try to focus on creating a happy team and environment. When everyone is happy, they are more engaged and we all achieve so much more."
It's a good panacea for business but can be difficult to balance in times of adversity. It's the reason she hires people who are better than she is and isn't afraid to admit it - advice she garnered from a meeting with the owner of Links of London a few years ago.
"Be the conductor of the orchestra, but know your limitations. You can't be great at everything." For example, she falls short on social media. She knows it's "unsexy" to admit it but she just doesn't feel the love for it on a daily basis. And while we're on the subject, she's doesn't always listen very well. "And I'm useless at gardening," she laughs. On the other hand, she quite likes roller-skating and regularly escapes to the local rink with Beth. When she's not shipping out orders, answering emails or travelling for work, you'll also find her doing yoga or listening to trashy '80s music - a hangover from her "gay club days".
She is trying to claw some personal time back after years at the desk, building the business. "It can't run you and if you're not looking after yourself, it can feed negatively into everything you do. You have to let go sometimes and step back." The same rule applies when developing products: she has often become too close to an idea that wasn't working and had to let it go. "I was mad about these rainbow amaretti biscuits that came in lots of different flavours but each time we baked them, the colour faded. We couldn't keep adding colour so eventually I accepted their fate," she laughs. "But things often come back around in another guise," she adds cheerfully.
Dunphy is clearly not one to stay down, bringing a special moxie and can-do attitude to her métier. It's no surprise that Pandora Bell's future involves a stronger foothold in the UK (says no other company on the eve of Brexit). Clients like Fortnum & Mason and Ocado have secured her confidence in Brexit's uncharted business territory and she's confident her vegan range will prove successful.
According to Dunphy, there are lots more "doors to be opened"... and she's not afraid to keep knocking on them.