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A business recipe still working after 50 years

HAVING spent 50 years at the helm of the family-run O’Connor’s Bakery, Pat and Mary O’Connor would be forgiven for taking it a little easy these days.
However, when The Clare Champion visited the bakery on the Tulla Road to speak about their upcoming golden year celebrations, 78-year-old Pat was hard at work with his baker’s cap firmly on, while his wife, 75-year-old Mary, was up since 6am that morning making sure that everything was spick and span to her exacting standards of excellence.
It is that hard work and attention to detail that has seen O’Connor’s grow from a small bakery in Parnell Street to a business with shops in Clare, Limerick and Galway as well as a large modern bakery. However, while the O’Connor’s brand has grown over the years, some things never change, with many of their 145 staff working there for over 40 years, while most of the breads and confectionary are still handcrafted like they were in 1961.
Pat and Mary first met while working at Pat’s aunt’s bakery in Kilkee. Pat later went on to work as a pastry chef in Shannon Airport, with the pair getting married in 1960. According to Pat, Mary was constantly on the lookout for a business of their own and that dream came true the following year.
“We went to lots of different towns looking for places and then the place on Parnell Street came up for sale, the good will of it. Mary came up on the bus and she bought it and we moved to Ennis in the spring,” Pat recalled.
O’Connor’s Bakery opened in Parnell Street in 1961, the same year their first son was born. Pat was still working in Shannon at the time, getting up in the early hours to work in his own bakery before heading to his other job.
He remembered, “It was hard that time, we used to get up at five o’clock in the morning and work in the bakery. Then I got the seven o’clock bus to Shannon and Mary kept working, while my younger brother was doing the shop. When I came home in the evening, we used to start all over again. Some nights we’d be working till about one o’clock and get up again at five.”
“We opened the bakery on August 11, 1961 and we were only open a month when Hurricane Debbie came. After that, there was so much damage done to the town that there was plenty of work there to be done and things got better.”
The business started out with a solid-fuel oven, “That was the one mistake we made, that we didn’t have an electric oven and paid for it on the bill every month. We would have to bring in the fuel from under the arch and store it down the back. It took so long for the oven to heat up in the mornings, if we got an electric one, it’d just switch on and that would be it.”
In 1964, Pat left his job in Shannon to concentrate on his own bakery, eventually expanding to open a shop on the town’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street.
As the business grew, the O’Connor family felt the need to expand their bakery. “We had no space and the lorries were getting bigger. There would be flour flying around the neighbourhood when it was being brought in, so we had to look for some place else,” said Pat.
In 1978, the family bought a site on the Tulla Road, eventually opening their new bakery, next to their home, in 1981. This bakery doubled in size in 1998 and supplies shops in Ennis, Shannon, Limerick, Gort and Galway, as well as a number of retailers. It isn’t just breads and cakes as O’Connor’s has gone into the coffee shop and sandwich business.
Three of Pat and Mary’s children are actively involved in the bakery, with eight of their 11 grandchildren working in the bakery and shops on Saturdays and school holidays.
However, they aren’t the only family involved in O’Connor’s. “We’ve people working here nearly since we opened. All of the people working here, they’re like family to us.”
According to Pat, customers’ tastes have changed quite a bit in the 50 years since O’Connor’s first came into being. “The first thing we did that went really well when we started was brown bread. And that is still a good seller all these years later. We didn’t do any fresh cream when we started and it was later on again, when we had good people and my daughter, Ann Marie, who is a confectioner, that we started doing fancy cakes, wedding cakes and novelty cakes. Before, it was just make a sponge, ice it and write happy birthday, that was it. It’s very different now.”
When asked why he thinks O’Connor’s has stood the test of time, he laughed, “I suppose we’re so long here people are used to us.”
“However,” he added thoughtfully, “We try and please the customer and we always try to put in the best of ingredients. When we started out, people used to come into us from the factories, like Braids, on a Friday evening, while they were passing. The people of the town have supported us and we have to thank them, all of those who have come in through the years.”
He made a very special mention of his wife, Mary, who still works six days a week in the bakery. “She is the backbone of the place, only for her, there’d be no bakery.”
While the 50th anniversary is a chance to look to the past, it is also an opportunity to plan for the future of the business. The bakery now has a facebook page, along with their successful website, which has proven invaluable to many a bride choosing her ideal wedding cake. O’Connor’s are currently undergoing rebranding and next weekend, there will be celebrations in their stores marking the milestone birthday.
John O’Connor, Pat and Mary’s son, explained, “We want to emphasise the fact that we’re a craft bakery, differentiating ourselves from the multiples who may have frozen products. We’re emphasising the fact that we do things the slow way, the old way. I suppose we maybe are perceived as being a bit bigger than some of the other bakeries, we might be seen as a mass producer but that’s not the way we operate. There are a lot of people working here but it’s mainly highly skilled confectioners and bakers that are producing the stuff. There is very little machinery used and nearly all of the products are hand finished.”
Where possible, O’Connor’s are conscious of keeping things as local as they can, buying milk from a local farmer in Barefield and their boxes in Killaloe for example.
“But of course, there are certain things you can’t source from here. For instance, we buy our flour from a miller just outside of Paris. If you want to produce French bread, obviously you need French flour,” said John.
Naturally, the current economic crisis is of concern, however, according to John, O’Connor’s are optimistic for the future.
“We’re lucky in a sense that we’ve let no staff go. There is no doubt about it, there is an awful lot less spending money out there. People are extremely conscious about how they spend their money, those that have it, and they are looking for value. What we are trying to do is give them a combination of quality and value as best we can. It is difficult because in the current market, the raw ingredients we use are going up in price. What you have now is places like China competing for these materials. It’s amazing how global markets can affect a small little bakery like ourselves.”
It is the bakery’s ability to keep up with trends, along with a time-honoured customer-orientated service that has helped establish O’Connor’s as a favourite not only in Clare but across the Mid-West. In 2001 the company was the first bakery to apply for and achieve certification by the National Standards Authority of Ireland in Food Safety Management.
“You have to be able to move with the times if you want to survive and we’re blessed with the staff we have. They are capable of meeting all of the challenges and producing new products,” said John.
When asked if he thinks that O’Connor’s will still be around for another 50 years, John emphatically answered, “We aim to be. We are most thankful for the support we have got from County Clare and from the town of Ennis, it was crucial,” he concluded.

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