Change, challenges and new chapters for traders at Cork's English Market

In part two of our series on English Market traders, KATE RYAN chats to three more workers there about what the future holds
Change, challenges and new chapters for traders at Cork's English Market

Tom Bradley of Stephen's Bacon, The English Market, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins

Stephen’s Bacon – Tom Bradley

For 32 years, Stephen Landon was the familiar face that greeted customers to Stephen’s Bacon. But in September he finally hung up his apron after selling the stall to Tom Bradley, a long-time friend, customer, and supplier.

Tom knows the bacon industry inside and out. For 15 years, he worked in his family’s business, Irish Bacon Slicers, as Sales Director and supplied Stephen for many years.

“I’ve known Stephen since 1992,” says Tom, “and I was one of his biggest suppliers for years, so there is a level of continuity there.

“Every single thing we sell on the stall comes from Cork, and by that, I mean born, reared, slaughtered, cured, and sliced in Cork.

“We slice all our bacon on an old-fashioned bacon slicer, and we slice fresh – about four or five times a day - so when someone comes to by bacon from us, it’s been sliced in the last couple of hours, and that makes a huge difference. Our bacon is local; fresh – never frozen; cut thicker, and the eating quality is incomparable.

“We do a roaring trade in bodice and bacon ribs. Bodice is a real Cork tradition. I have a stream of people buying bodice – they love the cure we use, and I’m following Stephen’s lead there. He always had a fantastic cure; he’s taught me how to do it and that’s what I’m continuing now.

Tom Bradley of Stephen's Bacon, The English Market, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins
Tom Bradley of Stephen's Bacon, The English Market, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins

“I have no retail experience, I have never run a shop in my life, I’ve never stood on a stall, but I’ve always had a massive grá for food. I’ve always been a fan of The English Market; I’ve been in and out of here since I was a teenager – and to now have the honour of being a part of it is a real buzz for me.”

Working with Tom in the English Market is Kayla O’Shea. A chef since her mid-teens, he says her experience has been invaluable.

“Kayla’s coming up with ideas, she’s able to advise customers on cooking times and how to cook things, so they’re getting real bang for their buck when they have a question. She has a great personality, gels really well with the customers, and has great knowledge in preparation, butchering and presentation of our bacon, too.”

With Christmas hot on our heels, the challenge is to be organised and ready with hams for customers. “Stephen has said to me to get ready for a tsunami! I’m hoping to do a good trade in hams – it’ll be the same ham Stephen always did.”

Alongside preserving the three decades of bacon traditions, Tom is putting his extensive experience in curing and smoking to work creating exciting new products for his customers.

“I’ve started doing my own dry cures, they’ve gone down really well and I’m doing a great trade in them,” says Tom. “I recently cured pork bellies (streaky bacon), in a Cork stout and black treacle - that’s flying off the shelves!

“I’ve also cured bacon in Red Earl Irish Whiskey from Kinsale Spirit Company, and a local raw honey sourced from The Roughty Foodie. I like to buy what I can from the market.”

So, is market life everything he thought it would be?

“I’m absolutely loving it. I’m loving the people in the market, they’re friendly, helpful and it’s a great atmosphere. I feel extremely comfortable here, as though I’m doing what I want to be doing.”

Marc O'Mahony of The Good Food Shop in Cork's English Market.
Marc O'Mahony of The Good Food Shop in Cork's English Market.

The Good Food Shop - Marc O’Mahony

Marc O’Mahony opened The Good Food Shop in 2001 to sell his own organic produce. Twenty years in business, it remained open throughout the pandemic, employing six people.

Marc says when he started out, “organic was a real niche market, but I found it interesting. I always thought it would be great to have somewhere in the city to sell my organic produce. As luck would have it, there was a small stall in the market run by a couple of people keen to sell up. We did a deal, then two years later the neighbouring stall came up and I was lucky enough to end up with a nice unit.

“I do still grow a little bit still, but mostly as a hobby for myself and for my three small boys. I grow a few beetroots, beans, carrots, tomatoes, sunflowers - just to get them interested.”

Panic buying in the first few weeks of lockdown gave the stall a boost, but after that, things returned to an even keel.

“Even though we were a lot quieter, we kept everybody on and paid everyone as usual; we didn’t reduce any hours or pay. We just felt we owed it to our staff, to invest in the people we had working with us, and I think that worked out really well.

“Customers that came in were doing proper shopping. Often on Fridays and Saturdays people would have to queue to get in, and those that took the time to queue were buying more.”

Being able to stay open meant Marc could continue to support small organic growers for whom independent outlets like The Good Food Shop, are a lifeline.

“A lot of growers were really stuck, they had a lot of produce growing, all the restaurants closed, but we were able to continue trading and buying in from them. It would be heart- breaking to spend the time and effort to grow crops and then to not have a market for them.”

A noticeable change in his customers’ buying habits saw shopping baskets loaded with more adventurous and exotic ingredients.

“People were looking for ingredients they never looked for before – unusual spices, herbs or vegetables not popular before. We do a big variety of mushrooms, but the more exotic ones, such as Chanterelles, King Oysters, and Hedgehog mushrooms, got very popular.

“For a lot of people, it was a difficult and scary time; we were just shopkeepers trying to provide what people were looking for. Older people, people in single households, The English Market was one of the few places in the city where you would have been known to the individual stallholders and could have a chat.”

With a little more time on his hands during lockdowns, Marc made plans to update his stall.

“We have over 3,500 products in a very small space, so the idea is to make the space more customer friendly, to stock an even greater variety of products, and to display them well.”

Having a flair for making the niche a success, Marc is open to new customers seeking out foods of their home nations.

“We have a lot of customers come by who are from South America, so we stock real tortillas, masa harina to make tortillas with, as well as tortilla presses and pans.

“Also, cactus leaves and tomatillos - South Americans get very excited about those products!” Marc says.

“People make a huge effort to come into The English Market, so we do have to offer a really good service.

“We’re very grateful that people come into us and shop in the market, and we do our best to make it an interesting and pleasurable shopping experience for them too.”

Barbara Hegarty of Heavens Cakes. Picture: Denis Minihane
Barbara Hegarty of Heavens Cakes. Picture: Denis Minihane

Heaven’s Cakes - Barbara Hegarty

Joe Hegarty established the patisserie in 1996 and was joined a year later by German-born Barbara. They married, and have four children aged 13, 12, 9, and a two-and-a-half-year-old, who is being kept entertained by a biscuit as Barbara and I shoot the breeze about the last two years.

“Everything just stopped – not like in the past when storms closed us down for a couple of days. Things stopped and didn’t start again, that was odd. We fell a little without a purpose,” recalls Barbara.

Easter became their motivator.

“We considered that maybe people were by themselves, didn’t have access to family, or that they found themselves having to feed people they didn’t have before. For us, that meant we had to keep going, do what we do best: bake fresh, make our handmade cakes and bakes with the butter and ground almonds, and people loved it!

“People would say they had come especially because they heard we opened, that they had missed us. The business has been running for 25 years, but it was really nice to hear people saying to us: We’ve missed you.

“It was emotional. The conversations we were having with our customers were like we were sharing our experiences and sharing from the heart.

“Coming home after a day’s work then, it was lovely to bring a special energy back home – I was able to say to my kids: Guys, do you know what happened today? and, I spoke to someone about bees today! Just a little bit of normality.

“Customers were buying differently; the biggest example was birthdays. We hadn’t made a birthday or celebration cake in such a long time; people didn’t want big cakes; they wanted a lovely cake but only for four people. And that’s tricky, but as a businessowner, as a pastry chef, you must adapt and have those things in your repertoire, to be able to say: Yes, no problem - I can do that.”

Everything at Heaven’s Cakes is handmade, which makes Christmas a particularly busy time of year.

“At Christmas, our mince pies are popular. Ours are a lovely butter-nut crumble topped mince pie, and we have customers that come back every year for those, including cafes, restaurants, and hotels. They’re all handmade - we cut out the pastry, fill, top, and unmould by hand.”

Once the rush of Christmas is finished, Joe and Barbara are looking ahead to a complete renovation of their stall at The English Market.

“We had architects’ drawings made in 2020 to update our stall. Everything was lined up, including the contractors, but then it all stopped. Next year, we will finish the renovations. There will be bigger counter space, which will allow me to expand our range of products a little bit: brownies, biscuit cake, muffins, doughnuts, sandwiches, coffees, teas, smoothies, morning pastries, cut sliced cakes…

“We had time to think, can we do better, and what do people want?

“Everything has changed so much, and we have to adapt all the time.”

In October, Barbara travelled to Germany with two of her children to visit her family for the first time in three years.

“I thought it was going to be weird, but the love just poured out - I just wanted to hug them so hard. There’s a beautiful old cathedral in my hometown of Erfurt, to be there and look at it and think I’m home – that was just lovely for me.”

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