'It's got too b*tchy now. I've lost the love for Twitter' - Happy Pear twins on what trolls fling at them
The perma-smiling twins behind The Happy Pear have become household names, but can they possibly be that joyous in real life? A decidedly cynical Chrissie Russell meets the clean crusaders at their café in Greystones, and discovers their positivity is real - and infectious. Photography by Mark Nixon
Did you spend New Year's Day wrapped in a duvet, vegged out on the sofa in front of The Sound of Music, nursing a bottle of Lucozade and a hangover the size of the Alps? Or, were you up before day break, meditating, training, considering an icy dip in the sea and devising new soup recipes?
It seems safe to assume that only a very small minority will tick the latter box, in fact it might be a minority of just two: Stephen and David Flynn, aka The Happy Pear.
"I naturally wake up at 5am now!" says David in defence of their ridiculously early starts. "I don't even think I could lie in until 7am. And we swim every day at dawn, it's the best time!"
Alas, a dip in Irish waters was out of the question this year as both lads were out of the country, Stephen in Poland with his wife's family and David in Berlin (yes, they do actually occasionally do things apart) but neither brother expected to see midnight when we spoke about raucous NYE plans in December.
"I'm usually in bed by 9.30pm or 10pm," laughs Stephen. "I tend to fall asleep when I put my kids to bed." "Since we get up so early, we're pretty useless by the time evening rolls around," agrees David. Neither had they any intention of popping open a bottle of bubbly or going overboard on the shandies to celebrate the season. "We both gave up alcohol when we were in our 20s," explains Stephen. "Being 21 and Irish males we used to drink like fish but then we gave up to train for a marathon and realised we felt good, were saving money and could meet girls sober during the day. There were much fewer barriers - it opened up a whole new world!"
The good-living, the impossible good looks, the unendingly upbeat YouTube videos… There are many reasons why The Happy Pear might leave a lot of people rolling their eyes. In the car on my way down to our meeting in their Greystones café, I'll admit I was already composing pithy intros to this article in my head about how it was 'ironic that two brothers who eschew the world of processed sugar could turn out to be so sickly sweet'. But the reality is that The Happy Pear are just really, really nice guys.
The exterior of their café and shop is an eye-wateringly bright orange, while inside it's cosy, if a little kitsch. The walls upstairs are bedecked in inspirational quotes like lines from Kipling's If and wisdom from Ghandi which, big hardened cynic that I am, may have produced a (small) amount of eye-rolling.
It's about 3˚C outside and I'm wrapped in approximately six layers while the twins bound up the stairs both wearing shorts (another mental eye-roll) but within seconds my handshake is swept away for a hug, a hot coffee has been placed before me and I'm assured it's to be 'Steve' and 'Dave'. By the time I'm offered a falafel wrap I'm already putty in their hands.
The hugs and the falafel kindness are all genuine, I'm sure, but niceness will only get you so far in the food industry and it swiftly becomes clear that there's also a savvy side to the 37-year-old twins that has helped see them progress from a corner shop to an internationally recognised brand with rarely a bad word written about them on the way. In total The Happy Pear empire now encompasses 12 different areas of business, including three cafés, two shops, the farm (run by their younger brother Darragh) and Pearville, where they produce their 21 products. In the past 12 months their staff numbers have soared from 100 to 160 with revenue up around 50pc. There's no reason to suggest that 2018 won't see even more growth.
Except that the brothers aren't entirely sure that more growth is what they want. In November they visited a business guru in the UK to try and better understand what they want from their career trajectory. "We talked about what is enough and what is success and he said that we could find ourselves in five years with 15 shops and being so busy that it might not actually be what we really wanted in the first place," reveals Dave. "So, through those discussions we kind of decided we wanted to grow better rather than to grow bigger and to optimise our quality of life…
"To make sure the business can support us so we can get up in the morning and go to swim in the sea and have brekkie with the family, take the kids to school and then go play shop, but make sure that those pillars that bring joy to our life are still there." It's Steve who concludes the latter part of the sentence, something that becomes a theme throughout the interview, endearing in conversation but something of a nightmare from an interviewer perspective when it comes to transcribing.
The 'twin thing' is very real with them, they know what the other is thinking and reckon that the fact that there's two of them is what has helped fuel their zest for doing something new.
"I think when you have a twin that supports your curiosities and idiosyncrasies then you've a safety net," explains Dave. "We've always been a 'we'," agrees Steve. "Most non-twins or singletons are always looking for their other half. I was born with my other half.
"I was born with someone that understands me and has always loved me unconditionally and, generally, if there's an issue, the first person I'll turn to is him."
Girlfriends and partners along the way have "learned to live with it" but no-one gets the connection like other twins. Some years back the Flynns were in a London station when they spotted other identical twins beside the track. "We looked at each other and just went 'twins!'" recalls Dave grinning. "We ended up going for coffee and lunch and we're still in touch with them!"
Their joie de vivre and self-confessed high energy has seen the Flynn twins earn frequent comparisons with another of Ireland's famed twosomes. But the 'foodie Jedward' moniker does them a disservice. Not only have they a flair for studying (Steve loves figures) but they also spent their 20s learning to meditate in silence for up to 14 hours a day - something that's hard to envisage Jedward embracing. "We're high energy but we also know how to focus," says Dave. "I got into meditation about 15 years ago," reveals Steve. "We were travelling around doing anything weird, whether it was tree-planting in northern Canada and getting a helicopter to work or hitch hiking around America and living in caves. I guess I was always interested in spirituality and I heard about a course where you could reach a sense of high without taking any drugs and I…"
"Anyway, without going too deep on it, we went to 10 days of silent meditation where you meditate for 14 hours a day, so it was pretty intense," interjects Dave. "I think meditation is an eastern word that there's a lot of confusion about but all it is really is focusing your mind and reaching a calmness."
That morning dip in the icy waters down by the Ladies' Cove at the back of the old La Touche Hotel in Greystones is their morning meditation. "We'll often use the analogy that you're going down to drown the miserable man," says Dave. "You'll go down in one frame of mind then you get in the sea and you're a totally different person. I don't always like the person getting into the sea but I love the person getting out."
Alas, it was their morning tradition that brought them in for widespread criticism recently when they posted a snap on social media that showed them bathing in the sea on the morning that ex-hurricane Ophelia hit Irish shores.
"We swim every morning and we did it on the morning of the storm," explains Dave. "It didn't hit here until much later in the day and the sea was like a lake when we went in. I can understand from one perspective that it's 'giving a bad example' but at the same time, we'd used our brains, there was no storm at that time. The only thing the response showed to me was that people will really take any opportunity to throw a punch if they want to."
"I used to be really into Twitter and I'd respond to everything myself," adds Steve. "But it's got too bitchy now. I've lost the love for Twitter. You can't have an opinion, you're much better just being neutral because otherwise it's just trolls flinging stuff at you."
Sometimes they'll send personal video messages to the keyboard warriors that post abusive messages. "It's amazing how once you personalise it and say, 'Hi, I'm a human, I care about my business and I'm trying to do my best here, I'm not trying to be mean to anyone', then, generally, they'll reply and say, 'Sorry, I didn't really mean that'," says Dave.
They refer to it as "Irish syndrome". "There's a story about an American going to a lobster restaurant and he looks in the tank and sees that one of the lobsters is going to climb out," explains Steve. "He tells the waiter and the waiter says, 'Don't worry, they're Irish lobsters… if one gets above the rest, the rest of them will pull him down!'"
Both laugh recalling one Tweet they read that ran along the lines of, 'I'm only going to bed now at 4am and those fecking Happy Pear lads are probably out swimming'. "I guess we make people feel guilty, I don't know…" Dave tails off.
Yet while I can confirm that one might feel somewhat dumpy and under-achieving when faced with not one but two very attractive, extremely toned, successful entrepreneurs, making other people feel guilty is very much not on The Happy Pear menu.
"Our whole message isn't about anyone being vegan or a vegetarian or being anything," explains Dave. "It's about being happy, healthy humans. We all want to feel good and what we eat has such a massive impact on that, but it's about meeting people where they're at."
"We champion eating more veg, but for some people it might mean eating meat 11 times a week instead of 12 or having porridge once a week - that's a win," continues Steve. "People aren't robots. There's no point sitting eating a bowl of kale through gritted teeth thinking 'I hate fecking kale'. You can be happy and healthy and still enjoy your sausages or pizza."
Refreshingly, this mantra extends to their own kids. Stephen, married to Justyna, has three children: May, Theo and baby Ned. Dave has two: Elsie and Issy. Although he and Janet have been separated for over three years, they're still very much a family and go on holidays together every summer. Jan even wrote the 'feeding children' section in the latest award-winning Happy Pear cookbook, The World of the Happy Pear.
When it comes to what their offspring eat, both boys are in agreement. "Kids need to be kids," says Dave. "They'll go to parties and eat whatever the hell they like and just go be kids but then I'll definitely do my best to get them helping in the kitchen and interested in what I'm interested in. When they're with me, they'll eat what I'm eating and when they're with their mam (who's not a veggie) they'll eat what she's eating. I think if they come to it themselves they're more likely to embrace it."
He continues: "But you've got to meet kids where they're at," he chuckles. "I remember one day we were walking up the main street, I had my two daughters and Steve had two of his kids and the butcher's shop was handing out cocktail sausages. Me and Steve are total advocates for plant-based eating and there we are with all our kids walking up the street eating sausages," he laughs again. "That's life. When you've got kids, you realise they're not you. I think they've got really good attitudes to food and that's the most important thing. They'll try everything, they'll eat everything but they're kids - they love chocolate and crap just like everyone else. All you can do is your best and they'll make their own decisions."
He confesses to occasionally nabbing the odd chipper chip off them if the kids are sharing a portion but otherwise his 'treat' indulgence is a few squares of something much more on-message: 80pc or 90pc dark chocolate.
It makes me strangely happy to think of the little Happy Pear kids munching on cocktail sausages and I wonder if my reaction is symptomatic of a wider changing tide towards 'clean eating'. Just recently social media went into raptures when culinary queen Nigella Lawson used her spiraliser not for creating the now ubiquitous courgette pasta but to make deep fried potato curly fries.
The lads agree there's a move away from overtly 'virtuous' eating, but reckon it's only because more people are embracing healthy eating as a way of life, not as part of any cliquey movement.
Dave says: "Our parents' association with the word 'vegan' would have been that it was horrific, like some kind of cult! The word alone would make you think 'I don't want to touch that', but they've probably been eating vegan for the last five years or longer, they just don't call it vegan, to them it's just porridge."
He continues: "'Clean eating' got slated because I think there was a moralistic attachment to food there but now…"
"I think because it's so rooted in the environment and the planet and people see that much less resources are used in plant-based eating," says Steve, taking up the train of thought. "There's far more education in terms of personal health and the health of the planet."
The evidence to show a growing interest in eating more veg is certainly there. When The Happy Pear launched their first cookbook in 2014 it was without fanfare and with no TV show to boost sales, yet it went on to be the best-selling cookbook in Ireland two years in a row and, to date, has shifted over 100,000 copies. "That shows the appetite for healthier food," says Steve. "Not everyone who bought the book was a vegetarian."
Their Happy Heart Courses have seen a similar uptake. "We started those about seven years ago," explains Steve. "People were doing healthy eating courses but they weren't really changing so we went and we got a nurse onboard and we put up signs saying 'reverse heart disease in four weeks' and 20 people signed up. We measured their cholesterol, blood pressure and weight and we taught them to cook porridge and chillies and dhals and soups and move away from meat and two veg. After the four weeks, there was an average drop in cholesterol of 20pc, blood pressure regulated and people lost loads of weight."
They've both started talking at once at this point and pretty fast. "Sorry! We both get excited about this!" they exclaim almost in unison by way of explanation. Their course now runs online with the newest one starting on January 8. "We've had 10,000 people through it in 50 different countries," beams Steve.
Their enthusiasm is infectious and, as we've been talking, I've happily wolfed down a delicious bowl of bean chilli. But I'm still not wholly won over that everyone feels they can 'do' healthy eating. Perhaps I've just got a bad case of 'Irish syndrome' but I'm not sure, particularly when one looks at the price point of some of their own-brand produce, that €4.99 for a tub of pesto says 'accessible eating for all'. Nor would it be fair to consider their café's customer base in the beautiful seaside village of Greystones (recently revealed as the most expensive area outside Dublin to buy a house) as representative of the average joe-public shopper.
They take my cynicism with good grace. "We've also got one [a café and food store] in Clondalkin, so that's a different market," Dave points out. Rather than defend their own prices they tackle my (mis)belief that eating well means spending more.
"People always say healthy eating is so expensive, so we shot a video at SuperValu, setting ourselves the goal of €20 a week, for one person, one hour prep - can we get enough food for the full week? So we shot it and we got enough for eight days and it cost us €19.60."
They've been delighted with their working relationship with SuperValu, now in its third year, despite initial concerns that it would mean 'selling out to The Man'. "Originally I thought 'they're going to crush us', but they're so nurturing and supportive and they're coming from the same place. They're genuinely into community ethos and good food," says Steve.
Deciding what offers to say yes and no to is a skill they reckon they're becoming more adept at. But if a twist of fate meant they could afford to retire in the morning, neither reckons he would. "Even if there was no obligation to work, I would because I love it," says Steve. "I'd hate to win the lotto."
He laughs, registering my look of utter bafflement, before drawing my attention to one of Gandhi's famous 'seven blunders': Wealth without Work. "You don't appreciate it," he insists. "We're total idealists as you can tell," grins Dave. "I feel really happy and comfortable and fulfilled by what I do."
Looking ahead, The Happy Pear are focused on scaling their product range (there's an eye firmly fixed on the UK market) and building their YouTube following where they're notching up more than half a million views a month. "I guess previously we'd have been very focused on TV and thought that was the be all and end all," says Dave. "But I think times are changing."
For the week that's in it, I ask about New Year's resolutions. It proves to be only the second time in the interview when silence descends - the first being when the pair found themselves stumped by the question: 'What are your main differences?'.
"Hmmm," muses Dave. "Don't know. We both already exercise and eat well... maybe to be less reactive and spend a bit more time planning my weeks and being more proactive about the time I spend with my children?"
Now, at the start of our interview, I'd have rolled my eyes at that, but now I just want to hug him and tell him what a lovely way that is to start the year. I might still roll my eyes occasionally (and I definitely still want to eat cocktail sausages) but I'm also a convert to The Happy Pear's way of thinking, that's the positive influence of a genuinely happy pair.