Cork’s Alternative Bread Company marks 20 years in English Market

24 November 2017
By Elaine Murphy

This coming Saturday 25 November, the award-winning Alternative Bread Company celebrates its 20th anniversary in the heart of the historic English Market on Grand Parade, and will be marking the occasion with a fundraising day for the Cork Simon Community. ABC will be donating the day’s profits to the charity, which provides not only accommodation but such significant care and support to the city’s homeless, as well as taking an additional collection so market customers can contribute directly to the cause.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, founder of the company which pioneered the concept of “speciality” artisan bread in the country when it launched its shop in the market in November 1997, and which won the accolade of Ireland’s Friendliest Business in 2012, explains that, for her, it’s a time for celebration but also for reflection.

Exterior of English Market, as seen from Grand Parade. Photo: by Gerard McCarthy

“It was such a joy to be welcomed in the market back in 1997, and a great privilege to be trading alongside families who have been there for many generations,” Sheila says. “I’ll never forget Paul Murphy coming over from his butcher’s stall opposite and giving me a ‘hansel’ to put into our till, so we would always have money coming into the business, and Mrs. Kathleen Noonan assuring me that, like her, I would still be in the market in 50 years! 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.”

“Simon was the first place we donated the bread that was left at the end of the day, and we’ve had an association with them ever since. It’s a sad and sobering thought that 20 years on, the need in Cork is greater than ever, and – particularly approaching Christmas – we just wanted to stop and recognise how fortunate we have been when so many people are still facing such hardship.”

ABC, as it is more commonly known nowadays, has become renowned all over Ireland for its artisan bread, for anticipating the need for food that caters to allergies, intolerances and dietary preferences, and for essentially redefining what bread could be about. “Back then we really were very alternative,” Sheila recalls. “I was the strange lady who was talking about putting tomatoes or prunes and chocolate in the dough, and now no-one bats an eyelid at our pints and half pints of Guinness bread. We have evolved as our customers’ tastes have changed, and I hope we made it an exciting journey.”

“Above all, the ‘ABC family’, the wonderful members of our team who are the face of the company, have contributed hugely to make ABC what it is today. Special mention must go to Evonne McMahon, the current manager, whose smile and energy have graced the stall for many years.”

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 – the latest addition to the range is a selection of 100% organic sourdough breads. 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.

“Even as we have grown, the shop in the market, where it all began, has remained the very heart of the business – and it’s a joy to me to see our unbelievably loyal customers returning week after week, year after year, with their families,” Sheila says. “We have so many customers who used to come in as students who now bring their own children every weekend, and families who have made our bread – and mince pies – part of their own traditions. I’d love to encourage everyone who has supported us over the years to come and say hello on Saturday so we can thank them not only for their loyal custom, but for their friendship – it would mean so much for all those familiar faces and friends to be part of this milestone for ABC, and hopefully together we can give the Cork Simon Community some serious support.”

Sheila, who moved to Cork with her five children in 1996 after 20 years working in the food business in London – many of those years spent as personal assistant to celebrity chef Brian Turner – continues: “Above all, I feel extremely lucky. As someone who was a ‘blow-in’, to have ABC described as a Cork institution (because we’ve been part of this very special and unique place for so long) feels very emotional. My five children, who were aged between 5 and 17 when ABC was getting on its feet, grew up with it, and they are all coming home this weekend with their own families to man the shop… you’ll have to bear with them if the service is a bit slower than usual!”

“We’re most grateful to the Alternative Bread Company for their generous support over the years,” says Dermot Kavanagh, director of Cork Simon Community, “and as the number of people turning to us for help continues to increase, we’re very appreciative of their most recent support in the form of a day-long fundraiser this Saturday. It’s only with thanks to such conscientious and generous support from the community that we are keeping our doors open around-the-clock, every day of the year, for everyone who needs our help. We congratulate ABC on 20 successful years in business and their generosity over those years, and we wish them every continued success.”

Speaking about the Alternative Bread Company and the impact it has had on The English Market, Órla Lannin, Manager of The English Market said: “Sheila and her family have brought a breath of fresh air into the market since day one, and are a testament to themselves and the market that they are still going strong 20 years later. This weekend will be a great celebration and it will be so lovely to see all of Sheila’s family here working on the stall as many of them have done over the years.”

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