WHEN I WAS in school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a farmer or a shopkeeper, and I certainly didn’t see myself owning a line of bakeries.
I had been accepted into the Mountbellew Agriculture College in Galway, but once I was out in the real world I ended up working in supermarkets.
Through my father, I got work in a SuperValu, and I suppose I learned the basics of retail there. They gave me a good grounding in how it all operated, and I worked hard to build the rest of the way up.
After four years, I got a chance to franchise a Spar shop in Kilmainham since my father knew Paschal Taggart – one of the businessman behind bringing the Spar brand to Ireland.
Even though the opportunity to have my own store was on the table, I was still unsure about what to do and if retail was the best path to go down. But Pascal said to me, “Luke, farming is fine to one extent, but maybe you should try something else and see what happens.” So I did.
From the start, I didn’t really think of it as a franchise. I went in and ran it like it was my own, obviously paying Spar a fee, but whatever profit I made was mine. That’s how I started out and now I have a two Eurospars, one Spar shop and have been in that business for nearly 20 years.
My own business
I always knew when I got into managing the franchises – actually even when I was in the supermarkets – that the goal was to have my own shop.
I was brought up in environments where people worked for themselves. My father was a self-employed builder and my grandparents owned a farm, so from an early age I saw if you worked hard you got rewarded.
It’s kind of ironic that I’ve ended up in the bakery side of things, because my wife’s family are actually all bakers from Galway.
She lived above a bakery in Eyre Square and after generations in the industry, her family sold their business to Pat The Baker – so she and her family have been through it all when it comes baking. I often tell my kids that they have more baker’s blood in them than I do.
My own journey in the bakery business started three years ago when a business cleared out of a lot next door to my Spar in Kilmainham. Since we couldn’t extend our Spar into it, I looked at it and said to myself, “What else can I put in?”
I thought to myself that I needed to create something that wasn’t out there already, so I looked around Dublin to see where I could make a gain.
I looked at the likes of Cuisine de France, and from studying the retail trade I could see there weren’t any quality bakeries. There was nobody making real bread or proper brown bread in Dublin, so that’s when I decided to start The Natural Bakery.
We’re just trying to be a bit different than everyone else and, in my mind, that’s why we’re doing as well as we are. Not a lot of bakeries can say this, but we mill all our own wholemeal and we even grow it all with a farmer down the country called Mick McBennett, who I spent the summer working for when I finished school.
We were also lucky we found a nice location in Kilmainham to launch and the second spot we opened in Donnybrook also hit the ground running.
This was in the middle of the recession when we were launching these stores, which actually helped us because it meant there were more places to choose from when we were expanding.
The fact we had the first shop up and running helped a lot because landlords could see what we were trying to do. The further we expanded, the more people got to know us and then it got to a stage where places were approaching us to set up shops in empty lots.
It would be a lot harder to expand the business if we were starting out in the current climate. The high-street rents are getting very high, and there aren’t as many good locations to pick from.
We still have a number of locations we are looking at, so there is still the chance to expand, but we have to be careful not to grow too fast. The fact we are making everything ourselves means we have to develop a new store slowly.
We can probably put on five to six shops every year, but we’re not the type of business that can add on 50 shops in one year. I have the locations in mind for new shops, but the logistics and manufacturing stop us expanding too fast.
I’m very proud of what we’ve created over the past few years. We have over 100 staff and built teams across many different stores. All that was created out of nothing.
I had never built up anything like this before. Everything from the systems to logistics to logos to shop plans to the website has been guided by myself and a couple of other key people in the business.
It has been all my own funds from the start with nothing from the banks. They probably wouldn’t have looked at us anyway considering we set up in the recession.
While setting up, I didn’t want to go down the franchise model and since I’ve been able to finance the business myself, I haven’t had to. But you never say never. Franchising the business is an option and there has been a lot of interest from different people.
If I was to go down the franchise model though, I would probably do it through partnerships with the big players in Ireland since a lot of the large multiples and supermarkets struggle on the bakeries front.
Touch wood, there has been nothing that has happened which has been detrimental to the business so far – I’ve never been down to my last fiver in the bank.
There have been some bumps along the way, but that’s just business. Little hiccups are especially part of the bakery game because a lot of it is about trial and error – that’s where every baker starts as they’re working out what they’re trying to sell and what the people want.
After three years, I feel we now have our systems spot on. We understand the product we are doing and we know what it takes to get a shop up and running.
Right now we’re aiming to launch about five to six stores a year and grow that way, but we’re not just looking at Dublin as a place to grow the business – I’m looking further afield than Ireland to be honest.
The way I see it, the next aim is to open a joint in London and realistically that’s on the cards for next year. And sure if it doesn’t work out, it was worth the try.
Luke Creighan is the owner of The Natural Bakery. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.
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