Friday, September 1, 2006
British Baker Magazine
After moving to Ireland from New York, the Sheehans missed the taste of a good bagel so much that they started baking them themselves, reports Hugh Oram
When Des and Rosie Sheehan set up the Broadway Bagel company in Dungarvan, Co Waterford in Ireland, they had little or no baking experience - merely a passion for a product they missed. The couple, who had been living in New York, moved to Dungarvan six years ago, with little idea of what they were going to do. For Dublin-born Des and New Yorker Rosie, it was a case of 'reverse immigration'.
Rosie had seen several members of her family move to the country over the years. Her father and brother live in Dublin and her sister also married an Irishman. When her mother and grandmother also moved to Ireland, it seemed logical for Rosie and Des to follow suit, but they still had not decided what career to pursue.
A Taste Of Home
An idea did not take long to present itself when the couple found they could not get the one staple of their diet they missed the most - the authentic New York bagel.
"Neither Des nor I have a background in baking. In fact, I don't think Des knew how to turn on an oven' says Rosie. "And I had just baked for pleasure - cookies and brownies for the family."
Des had previously run a construction company in New York, while Rosie had worked for the Transport Workers' Union. But in Ireland, bagels seemed like a sure-fire winner, what with the shift towards healthy eating and convenience foods. So they decided to take on the challenge.
To begin with, Rosie made a batch at home. While they tasted pretty good, she says, it took four hours to make just a dozen. Undeterred, however, the couple opened a bagel shop in Dungarvan in 2001, but closed it a year later when they realised that, given the location, they were ahead of their time.
"At that stage, it was sink or swim," says Rosie, "so we concentrated on the foodservice market, bringing samples to coffee shops and sandwich bars."
Broadway Bagels are now listed with all the major retail multiples in Ireland and the couple distribute to foodservice outlets, such as cafes and coffee bars. There is a network of national distributors for foodservice and retail symbol groups, while, for multiple retail outlets, the products go straight to central distribution. They have recently appointed a distributor for the London area, who will soon start supplying a number of high-profile shops in and around the British capital.
As part of their steep learning curve the Sheehans readily admit they have had help from a number of sources along the way. The couple are signed up to the First Sales Programme run by Enterprise Ireland, the government agency for encouraging home-grown businesses. Run in conjunction with retail grocery player Musgraves, the programme is designed to support high-potential food businesses in winning retail listings. With no background in the food business, the Sheehans acknowledge that approaching the retail sector was intimidating. "It helps to have a programme like First Sales to prepare us for dealing with buyers and train us to support listings," says Rosie.
The recent Bord Bia buyers event in Dublin, which introduced food producers to buyers, was also very successful for the firm. "We've done a few trade shows, but the Bord Bia event was by far the most beneficial," says Rosie. "Most trade shows are a bit frenzied, like an after-Christmas sale at Bloomingdale's! But the Bord Bia event, in the gorgeous setting of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin, meant meetings could be pre-scheduled with buyers and allowed suppliers to give tailor-made presentations. As each meeting was 20 minutes, you had time to shoot the breeze."
Broadway Bagels' product development work is done in-house, but again, the Sheehans had plenty to learn. Rosie says the first time they heard of focus groups was from Tessa O'Connell, a marketing consultant with Brand Edge Marketing in Dublin. "We showed her our package designs and she asked us about feedback from market research and focus groups, which were new to us. Tessa said: 'Guys, wake up and smell the coffee.' So we took her advice, did the focus groups and the tastings, and the packaging changed significantly as a result."
The company has also invested in HACCP accreditation for its bakery and it is working on British Retail Consortium accreditation.
In terms of marketing the products, Rosie says that the firm's greatest marketing tool is product quality and a reflection of New York authenticity. But word of mouth is equally important, supported by the promotional activities of the various multiples. Broadway Bagels also has a well-developed website.
The biggest obstacle to growth is a lack of time. "We are multi-taskers, but there is only so much that can be accomplished in a day. Maybe cloning isn't such a bad thing!" she says. "Des and I have three little boys, aged three, five and seven, so we cannot work all hours. We need time to devote to our family."
Ireland now has 60-70 bagel shops, but the Sheehans have never returned to retailing. Instead, their l0,000sq ft bakery churns out the bagels for their retail and catering customers. While the bakery is equipped with traditional bagel machinery, sourced in Ireland and Belgium, the Sheehans have re-engineered these to suit their needs. And, after just six years in the hot seat, they're already taking the first steps towards building a new plant.