The Monday Interview: Sheila Fitzpatrick, founder, Alternative Bread Company

From Richard Branson to small business network Plato to the traders of the English Market in Cork city centre, owner of the Alternative Bread Company (ABC), Sheila Fitzpatrick says she has taken much business inspiration from many avenues in the past 20 years.

After working in the burgeoning food and drink sector of London, Ms Fitzpatrick relocated to Cork in 1996 with her five children aged from five to 17, and spotted a gap in the market for artisan bread.

“I worked in London though the 1970s and 1980s when it was a really exciting time because it was just at the cusp of when chefs were becoming celebrities.

“I was Brian Turner’s personal assistant and we ran Turner’s Restaurant together in Knightsbridge. When I came over here, I knew I would work in the food industry in some capacity.

“There was a fantastic tradition of bread in Ireland, bread that we didn’t have in London. Breads like the traditional brown breads and the soda breads — breads that are so particularly Irish. Yet there was no sign yet of the new types of breads that I had been getting used to in London. I felt I could marry the best of Irish and some of the wonderful bread from various cultures,” she said.

What began with 15 varieties has expanded to an average of 75 kinds of bread every Saturday, with more than 100 types — marking the seasons and special dates in the calendar for countless nationalities — appearing over the course of the year. ABC has built up a significant presence around Ireland, being brought in as the first speciality food concession under its own name within Dunnes Stores.

ABC is part of Dunnes Stores’ new food hall concept, which launched in Cornelscourt in Dublin in 2016, and is now in several stores in Dublin and one in Limerick.

It is set to expand through the country in the coming years with ABC as the prominent bakery in-store, alongside Sheridans’ cheese and James Whelan butchers.

Queen Elizabeth II meeting Elizabeth Fitzpatrick at the ABC stall in the English Market in Cork on her visit to Ireland in 2011.
Queen Elizabeth II meeting Elizabeth Fitzpatrick at the ABC stall in the English Market in Cork on her visit to Ireland in 2011.

Ms Fitzpatrick says she wasn’t a particularly hard-nosed businesswoman, but that a willingness to learn from others — especially fellow businesswomen — and emphasising a team mentality was key to ABC’s rise.

“I never thought of myself as a great businesswoman but I have always been lucky enough to surround myself with people who are. I’m an ideas person but I need to have a really good team around me to carry them out. There will be difficult times and you can’t be good at everything. We joined Plato when we set up and it was a wonderful operation to learn. JJ O’Connell from Plato was an inspiration, they were able to put us in touch with established people who we could learn from.

“Richard Branson’s autobiography, which I remember reading — all the gaps in his knowledge and skillset, he managed to surround himself with people who could fill those.

“I’ve been lucky enough in the English Market to have magnificent people for guidance and inspiration, particularly a lot of great women traders.

“Kay Harte, Isabelle Sheridan, Jenny Rose Clarke, Catherine O’Mahony — we are a very like-minded group of businesswomen and they have taught me a lot. That has continued over the years. It’s so good to share our stories and our problems and the ups and downs of business,” Ms Fitzpatrick said.

The English Market, one of Cork’s most famed business arteries, has changed with the times but has remained true to its values of family and community, she added.

“It was for purely economic reasons we went to the English Market. It is the heart of the city centre and it was just beginning to change. We were part of a new wave that came along with the likes of The Pig’s Back, and Farmgate and Iago. We were the new kids on the block and you could sense the change happening, but the traditional food offering of excellent fish, meat and veg was still there. We were very lucky because we got the lease for the stall from butcher Tim O’Sullivan, who is still there today. We couldn’t afford a shop but this was a great opportunity to get immediate cashflow going,” she said.

For the 20th anniversary, which saw the day’s takings donated to Cork Simon, it meant reconnecting with familiar faces.

“My five children grew up with it, they barely remember a time without ABC. What’s always wonderful is to see faces who have worked here down through the years. I never had to advertise for staff.

“CVs were never important for me, it was people with warmth and openness who could relate to customers. Special mention must go to Evonne McMahon, the current manager.

“These two decades have had their ups and downs for so many of us — between the recession and everything else — and I feel so grateful to all those friends in the market who have held us up and encouraged us when times were tough and applauded our achievements when things have gone well,” she said.

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