By Cathriona Murphy
Nestled in the heart of Killorglin, O’ Sullivans family bakery has been providing award winning products for an amazingly successful 70 years. Recently I sat with proprietor, Helen O’ Sullivan who is the third generation at the helm, leading the business into the future for the next generation.
Helen, firstly congratulations on 70 years in business! Can you tell us a little about how it started and how you became involved in it?
My Grandparents, Thomas and Margaret O’ Sullivan, they set it up in April of 1952 in Langford Street, Killorglin. My Grandfather had previously been managing a local public house, however, that was sold off and led him to getting into the bakery trade. They set up the original bakery in their garage area at the back of their house. My Father always had a keen interest in baking so he went off to college in England to study bakery, all of his siblings would have been involved in the bakery along the years but in the end it was my Grandfather driving the delivery van and 2 bakers. When I came along, I decided when I grew up I was going to go into the food business. My Dad would have always been insistent that I had something to fall back on, so he encouraged me to go and get a degree which I did. In 1999 I joined the family business permanently after I returned from a year of travels in Australia. I’ve been there since, making me the third generation of our family business. I have three daughters myself who all like baking, but whether or not they want to be self-employed and manage people remains to be seen!
In 70 years you have been sure to have seen some hardships in the world as business owners, how as a business have you navigated the difficulties?
We have gone through some very strange times in the last while. We have seen recessions, extreme weather conditions and lockdowns in a pandemic but it has really made people more reliant on local business. The beast from the east weather event for example, how it affected Kerry was that the national players were unable to come to Kerry due to the extreme road conditions. So, because the supply was reduced, they created the demand within Kerry. That has become one of our selling points, that we can deliver locally.
Have you had to make changes along the years to how you operate the business?
We do modernise, but not through production. We still have six bakers because we feel there is a lot of craft involved with it. Our deliveries have changed with technology which has really sped up the administrations side of things. It’s not easy to implement change, our staff have been with us for a very long time. One staff member that retired 6 years ago, he had been with us for and incredible 51 years.
When some businesses are currently finding it hard to retain staff, you have successfully built a model where you retain staff for decades at times, all the while never losing customer loyalty, how do you manage it?
We have grown up with a lot of the staff, they really are like family to us. All of the staff were guests at my wedding. Even customers have become good, close friends. I would have previously been on the road a lot delivering and it gave me the opportunity to really get to know our customers and form good, lasting, relationships and friendships. I think every business goes through cycles, you have good cycles and bad cycles. But my management style is that I try to be as accommodating as possible and I get stuck in myself. The staff see that I’m not afraid to do the job myself, I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. The hours aren’t very long and it allows them time to do their own thing outside of the bakery. For example, one of the bakers has his own farm and he finishes at 1am in the bakery, that still gives him time to get a good sleep and be up for 9am. Its offering them flexibility in the times they work and the social aspect of it. This past year was particularly difficult with absences due to covid and injuries sustained outside of work but we got through it thankfully. We are very lucky that the people here in Kerry are very loyal to local products and local producers, but with that said, we would have always had good quality. People know that about our product, its good quality bread, real bread that isn’t full of preservatives or additives. That’s why our bread is best on day 1.
What plans do you have for the business for the next 12 months and do you see yourselves delving into the gluten free market?
This year actually we have a good few plans! We will be doing a renovation on the bakery to make it a little bit more flexible with different ovens which will hopefully lead to new products and new developments. So, we have a few ideas of different things that we will do and hopefully working with some fantastic local Kerry suppliers. At the moment we do sliced pans, soda bread and wholemeal bread which would a high fibre product. We have a range of spelt bread, we were actually one of the first bakeries in the country to use spelt flour, having a lot of other companies then follow our lead. We featured in the European Baker at the time for our spelt bread when we first brought it out. Our barn brack is one of our most popular products, we have won a lot of awards for it. There are no current plans for gluten free because if you want to produce a gluten free product you need to have a separate area, machines, staff and storage to ensure there is no cross contamination with gluten products. If we were ever to go down that line we would realistically have to build a second bakery, it’s not something I would rule out but at the moment it’s just not a part of our plans.
Have you any celebrations in mind to mark your 70 years in business and celebrating 70 years of a strong family working relationship?
Yes, 70 years can you believe it! I will have a party including family and staff, past and present, I just have to organise myself! We are very lucky that all my Father’s siblings are still with us so they will be there which will be amazing because they are the ones that will have the old stories of the business, along with staff members of past. Mom and Dad still pop into the bakery whether it’s for a cup of tea or for dad to calculate the baking. I have a brother who works in the slicing section but I have remained the sole owner of the company. I am fortunate to have a great relationship with both my father and my brother, I have always said that the personal relationship finishes at the door and it becomes an employee situation, it’s the easiest way to do it.
You have three daughters yourself, have you found it difficult to raise a family whilst running a successful business?
My husband is also self-employed in a completely different industry so for the two of us it’s certainly not easy. I have 3 daughters and they would have all come to work with me from 5 weeks old. We got them christened very young and they were in the bakery every day, they know all the staff, all the drivers and all their routes, they know it all! I can do a lot of my work remotely but if I need to go in, I have a room set up for them upstairs that they can do their homework if needs be. I remember, Orla was 5 weeks old and I needed to get a van serviced in Castleisland but Orla also needed her BCG. I dropped off the van, brought her to get her injection and back down to collect the van, so really you could catch me doing any kind of work!
Finally, Helen, what would you like to say to our readers today?
For anyone that has ever bought from us, be it an individual or a shop, to all our staff past and present, we are so extremely grateful for the years of loyalty. We are so thankful that we are still here, there has been a number of family bakeries across Kerry who have unfortunately had to close their doors. It’s not easy to be self-employed and run your own business so we are forever grateful to everyone who supports us in any little way and hope to be around for another 70 years!