From Hillbilly’s to Messy Buns

With customers aged five to 75, Leigh Dalton says cupcake mania shows no signs of waning. He chats to CHRIS DUNNE about starting work at 3.30am, his time at the deep-fat-fryers in Hillbillies and how he’s wowing his customers using his granny’s secret cake recipe
From Hillbilly’s to Messy Buns
Leigh Dalton at Sunny side House Midleton, who runs Messy Buns

LEIGH Dalton went out of the fryer and into the frosting of cup cakes.

Sunnyside House in Midleton, where he is based, has the warm, fuzzy feeling of your granny’s kitchen fresh from baking.

“Messy Buns is opened two years now,” says Leigh, 28, who served his time at Hillbilly’s, Grand Parade.

“The fad of cupcakes hasn’t gone away. They have mass appeal. My customers range from age five to 75.

“The one product serves a hundred different purposes. It is all about quality ingredients, the old reliables; real butter, free range eggs, home-made caramel, lemon curd and fruit compote. There are no additives or preservatives in the cupcakes; nothing comes out of a bottle. I make small batches to ensure quality and freshness.”

Sifting, stirring, whipping up the butter and the sugar, waiting for the golden mixture to rise... Leigh transforms a bunch of sloppy ingredients into mouth-watering cupcakes and — shazam! It’s magic.

“I have it down to a fine art now,” he says.

Leigh is no slouch when it comes to his baking. He is on site in the kitchen between 4am and 4.30am six days a week. Since he’s got busier and the queues are getting longer, he is often at work at 3.30am.

Something has to give?

“My social life is pretty much non-existent!” says Leigh, laughing.

“For two years, I pushed the business, then it pushes you. The business is growing at a rate of 20% to 40% a week. The plan is to increase the business and employ more people. Kate is my helper at the moment. She started off as a regular customer. That’s how she got the job!”

What are Leigh’s plans when his business expands and he’s making big bucks?

“Then I can buy my Ferrari and point it in the direction of the South of France!” says Leigh — spoken like a true car enthusiast.

As a young lad, growing up in Cork, he was keen and enthusiastic, learning the workings of the family businesses. Hillbilly’s on Grand Parade, previously John Graces Fried Chicken, and Twenty café, sandwich bar, on Anglesea Street, are where Leigh served his apprenticeships.

“My great-uncle, Pat Grace, met the original ‘Colonel Saunders’ who perfected the KFC fried chicken recipe,” says Leigh.

“KFC was set up in Ireland and when it was bought out in the ’70s, it became John Grace’s Fried Chicken. My uncle, Michael Grace, living in Tipperary, did his research when he started doing burgers. He minces his own meat every morning. Not many people know that. In an organisation that big the attention to detail is still very important.”

Leigh digested every morsel of his on-the-ground training.

“When I opened Messy Buns, I knew I had to replicate that level of quality.”

Leigh didn’t feel very important at the kitchen sink at the back of Hillbillies.

“After school, I went to work in the kitchen, being general dogsbody, doing food prep and then manning the deep-fat fryers,” he says.

“I went on to work on the tills, selling the product. I loved the interaction and the sociability with people.

He went up the ranks.

“Then I worked as store manager, doing the administration, eventually becoming area manager,” says Leigh.

“I came full circle. I learned all the aspects of the food trade in the process.”

His social life was on hold back then too?

“It was. I worked long, unsociable hours, often well into the early hours of the morning,” says Leigh.

There was no nepotism.

“That’s for sure!

“I didn’t get any family privileges,” adds Leigh.

“It just wasn’t the case! I got no extra breaks and no weekend lie-ins. I often did all-nighters, often working 48-hour shifts.”

What kept him motivated?

“I fed off the energy.”

Not everybody is willing to work very hard. But Leigh was a hard grafter.

“I did a Business course in CIT, but working in the food environment every day, that’s where I learned my trade.”

He learned that he must have a business plan in order to go into business on his own.

“My aunt had opened a café, and I was interested in baking,” says Leigh.

“There was no bakery in Midleton. I saw an opening for a good quality popular product at an affordable price.

“I drew up a 60 page plan when I went looking for a loan.

“I knew I had to have my margins and projections estimated properly. That was my focus. It had to be a structured business model.”

He knew something else that he won’t disclose.

“Granny May had a secret recipe for light, fluffy, foolproof Madeira cakes. I got the recipe from her.”

He got something else from his grandmother.

“I got the work ethic,” he says.

He was a banker for a successful business. Leigh secured his loan within 24 hours.

Sunny-side House became a bustling, busy cupcake coffee house, saturated in the wonderful scents of butter, flour, vanilla and chocolate. Each creation, topped with its individual frosting, is difficult to resist.

How to choose? How many calories?” I ask, eyeing the Red Velvet cupcake that has my name on it. Forget that nonsense about a minute on the lips.

“You’d be surprised how light and fluffy each cupcake is,” says Leigh.

“The gym-bunnies come here after a work-out to have their treat. It is their only treat and they are fine with that because they know it is a quality product with the freshest, best-sourced ingredients gone into it.”

It’s not surprising then, that at mid-day, the shelves are bare.

“I run out of cupcakes regularly,” says Leigh. “I make small batches to ensure freshness. People stop by and put in an order and come back later to collect. Of course, for special occasions like weddings and First Communions people order their signature cup-cakes well ahead of time.”

What’s his bestseller?

“The Red Velvet and the Oreo Crush,” he says without hesitation.

The Red Velvet is indeed a taste of heaven — smooth, creamy and so light it might never reach the hips!

Can he not divulge any part of the secret recipe he uses?

“Well, the texture is everything,” says Leigh. “I batter the butter and sugar to incorporate as much air as possible. That’s what makes the cupcakes so light.

“You never get that squeamish feeling after eating one of my cupcakes.”

But you do get a more-ish feeling.

“That often happens!” says Leigh, laughing.

He has a refreshing approach to his business, hands-on and present behind the counter with a word for everyone.

“I don’t put up false pictures or use social media to impress anyone,” says Leigh.

“For my two-year anniversary everyone got a free cupcake that came in to the shop. I prefer gestures like that, that mean something.”

What you see in Messy Buns, is what you get.

Leigh has to get back to work — he shifts in excess of 2,000 cupcakes a week.

So the Ferrari is looking good?

Leigh grins.

“The social life might get going eventually too,” adds the young entrepreneur with an age- old work ethic.

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