From accountant to baker, Richard O'Connell shares his story of how he ended up with his own bakery in Abbeyleix, County Laois, down the road from the family home where his mum baked bread every day.
Richard O’Connell is one of the nine O’Connell siblings who grew up in Cullahill, County Laois in a home where it was normal to have a weekly rota of ‘jobs’ on the wall, you had to go down the road to fetch ‘spring water’ for drinking, and your mum was the kind of woman who raised her children while running the family business which included a gastropub, grocer and post office, among other things, grew her own vegetables and fruit, made and mended clothes for everyone, and still found time to bake soda bread every day.
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A passion for baking
Richard is among the younger group of the siblings and retired recently after a successful career as an accountant. However, his passion has always been food, in particular, bread. In 2015, he set up a baking business, which has since found a home in an old AIB building on the main street in Abbeyleix.
“Our family are very competitive, as you might have gathered… I’d say I definitely ended up with a food business because of my upbringing and my mother’s ethos towards food. You were marinated in it at every turn, whenever we used to assemble it was always around food. All the talk was food, just everything really was always about food.
Over the years I started to focus on breakfast, in particular I developed an interest in bread. I did a lot of courses in baking and so on and I used to bake all the time. I would go down to Declan Ryan in Arbutus Bakery to visit and see what he did; the first time must be 10 years ago or more. I was an enthusiastic amateur, so to speak. I always had the ambition to start a small bakery."
"In 2015, I met Adrian Mueller, a Swiss guy who lives in Portlaoise and is a professional baker. He was an apprentice at 16 years old and so has studied and practised the art of baking bread for years; he’s the real deal."
"Adrian and I teamed up and we started the baking business in November 2015. We started in the kitchens in the MDA (Mountmellick Development Association), which is a fantastic facility. Effectively, we paid out €80, bought our ingredients and we were in business. We stayed there for 15 months, doing markets in Abbeyleix and Tullamore. I had a full-time job until recently, as an accountant, but I have retired. I used to go over on a Saturday to the MDA and do it, but gradually I started to do more until fully retired. We then decided to go to the next stage and we set up our own retail bakery in Abbeyleix called Mueller & O’Connell Bakery. I look after the finances for the bakery, Adrian does the baking and it has worked so far."
"It’s a retail bakery, so we sell bread and pastries, for takeaway but do also have some seats if people want to sit in. We also serve coffee; Adrian has his own coffee brand called Craic Coffee. We classify ourselves as a bakery/café rather than the other way around because it is just a small café. We do a range of sourdough breads, yeast breads and then some sweet stuff too. Anything we do in there, we produce, it’s all effectively done on the day."
Plans for the future
“There is a lot more we can do in Abbeyleix, which we are working on at the minute, and then we’ll see after that. It’s been a good success. The town has supported it well. I think lots of towns are ready for something like it.
For me, it was a test. Originally in Abbeyleix, there were 4-5 bakeries and then when we started up, the question was would it support our bakery? Well, it does. It’s only a small town, about 1,700 people, and I think it’s a good test that if it can work in Abbeyleix it can work in a lot of other places. It means you don’t have to go further to cities, you can go to smaller towns as well.”
“I know that Mum would be happy that I’ve ended up with the bakery. She used to slag me. She called me ‘Pat the Baker’, which is funny because she used to rarely slag us at all, but it was the one time I remember she did. So, I think I would have proved a point to her at least that I eventually got there! That feels good."
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