Cork's English market trader: We feared our business was going to die a death

In the fifth part of her series on Cork’s English Market traders, KATE RYAN writes about wine, chocolate, cheese and charcuterie
Cork's English market trader: We feared our business was going to die a death

Billy Forrester (on the left) of Bubble Brothers in Cork's English Market.

We continue our series on Cork's English Market, with another three interviews - Bubble Brothers, The Chocolate Shop and On the Pigs back.

BUBBLE BROTHERS

WINE merchants, Bubble Brothers, experienced shuddering losses from the closure of hospitality during the pandemic.

“There was a big fear our business was going to die a death,” recalls co-founder Billy Forrester.

But Bubble Brothers tuned into changing demand, overhauled operations to find better ways of working, and is now ready to capitalise and move its business in a direction that’s exciting and relevant to our changing times.

“We adapted to changing demand we saw in The English Market. With no restaurants to go to, people became more adventurous with what they were cooking at home, and that had a knock-on effect on wines they chose.

“We sold a bigger variety and customers were prepared to spend and experiment a little more - a bottle of wine that’s €30 in a restaurant is considerably cheaper when bought in a retail environment. We developed and enhanced the range of wines we offered, and that strengthened relationships with our suppliers and our customers.

“The English Market experienced great support from the people of Cork. Everyone wanted to keep it going and support the traders – it’s such a wonderful resource in the heart of the city. It’s been very good to see how people have gotten together to help each other within The English Market community.

“Traders supporting each other, recommending each other to their customers, traders buying from each other.

“We had a little more time to reflect on how we operate and look at different ways we could become more efficient. When we were working remotely or separate to each other, one person might be doing the job of three people. We developed new systems to make things happen more quickly and easily.

“We really reaped the benefits of that, especially when we were back up to full capacity again and working together - which we need to be now on the lead up to Christmas. It’s a bit of a running joke in retail that, if you weren’t ready for Christmas in 2021, when would you ever be ready!”

Bubble Brothers are pushing to be more environmentally sustainable in the business.

“We’re working hard to support green issues,” says Billy. “All our packaging materials are made from 100% recyclable and recycled cardboard. We’re working with an Irish transport company that is 100% electric powered, too. With every package we deliver, we’re removing 380g of carbon emissions. We’re trying to reduce impacts on the environment wherever we can.”

To that end, Bubble Brothers festive offering takes Green to the Extreme…

“We have a special triple pack of red, white and rosé organic wine from Sicily in a special gift pack made from 100% recycled card and delivered with our Green Delivery Service when ordered online. We’re calling it ‘Green to the Extreme’, it costs €50 including delivery.”

Next year will see Bubble Brothers capitalise on the hard work of 2021, extend the range of wines available, and make inroads with on-trade wholesale.

“It’s been a time to take stock,” says Billy, “to offer a better service to our customers and improve relationships with suppliers; to talk to each other more. Many conversations have been had in this time which has led to interesting developments, and there’s no better place to meet people and talk with people face to face than our store in The English Market.

“That’s where we got a lot of useful positive feedback and it influenced a lot of the decisions we’ve made about wines we offer.”

Readers may be pleased to know the Bubble Brothers Crossword has returned! It promises to be a head-scratcher with plenty of chances to win a Green to the Extreme wine set too. Visit www.bubblebrothers.ie.

Rose Daly from The Chocolate Shop wearing an apron by artist Linda Quinlan in the English Market Cork as part of Graft, a citywide exhibition of temporary installations across Cork presented by the Glucksman, UCC, and the National Sculpture Factory. Picture. John Allen
Rose Daly from The Chocolate Shop wearing an apron by artist Linda Quinlan in the English Market Cork as part of Graft, a citywide exhibition of temporary installations across Cork presented by the Glucksman, UCC, and the National Sculpture Factory. Picture. John Allen

The Chocolate Shop – Rose Daly

The Chocolate Shop at The English Market is perfect eye candy! The displays delight at this time of year, too, with beautiful marzipan fruits, liqueur chocolates, and Cork traditions like Hadji Bey.

Established in 2000 by Rose Daly and her husband Niall, who sadly passed away in 2016, it’s a glistening jewel of the market. Its confections have kept Corkonians in delighted comfort these past two years.

“It has been a very busy year,” recalls Rose, “especially from the first lockdown, because it was Easter time. People had so many reasons to buy comfort food for themselves or to thank somebody else - so many reasons to send a gesture of ‘Thinking of You’, that’s really what kept us so busy.

“Because of social distancing, we kept a skeleton staff of excellent people who worked very hard, working in shifts, with the same two people working together all the time, keeping the bubble going.”

The diminutive space houses the shop and a production kitchen; space is tight!

“It’s frenetic and busy, but we do everything here,” says Rose. 

“This year, we did have to take on an extra stall at The English Market for packing, storing, and to facilitate social distancing, but our main stall ensures there’s a personal touch in everything we do.

“What got very big for us was Click and Collect, people had the option of buying what they wanted from the comfort of their own sofa and then come by to pick up and go. The extra space facilitated that, and we’ve kept it going.

“It’s not the perfect solution but because everything is constantly changing, every week we’re looking at how we work, doing certain things differently to how we had always done. That’s not entirely a bad thing either - to pull it all apart and stick it back together.”

People still associate chocolate with comfort, and The Chocolate Shop enjoyed a boost in sales.

“There was definitely an uptick. And even though it’s always been possible to buy from us online, that only became a reality for people when they absolutely needed it and they had no other option, because coming to the market is such an experience. It’s functional of course, but there’s more to coming to the market than just buying food!”

Rose also found customers became more interested in Bean-to-Bar chocolate.

“People had time to research Bean to Bar chocolate in a way that they hadn’t before. They had time to understand what chocolate from Madagascar or Brazil tastes like. It’s a lot like listening to music with different versions of the same song.

“In the Bean to Bar world, there is better access to cocoa beans and people are making amazing chocolate with new bean origins. Some chocolate makers work with tiny batches so when I order they make it specifically for me!”

Christmas is coming. What do Corkonian love to see at The Chocolate Shop?

“Customers love to have their liqueurs, the festive chocolate figures and marzipan. People want good quality at this time of year, and every house needs a box of chocolates - and some Hadji Bey, too!

“Hot Chocolate is a big thing at Christmas - especially for breakfast - and there are some amazing chocolate spreads available now too. Domori do an amazing Pistachio and Chocolate spread. We’ve got the best chocolate brands available, and that’s what we’ve always aimed to do from day one.”

Looking ahead, Rose plans to keep doing what she loves with the support of her fellow traders. “There’s a great Meitheal here. It’s fun. I love the job, I genuinely enjoy working here. There’s a great supportive atmosphere from traders, and customers are lovely. There’s an immense amount of goodwill and it’s just a nice place to be.”

Challenges will come and go, but Rose’s philosophy is simple: “Keep calm and carry on - eating chocolate!”

 Isabelle Sheridan of On the Pigs Back in the English Market, Cork. Picture: David Keane
Isabelle Sheridan of On the Pigs Back in the English Market, Cork. Picture: David Keane

On The Pig’s Back – Isabelle Sheridan

“There was a really big question mark in the beginning if The English Market would stay open. We were very lucky it did, as a trader I was delighted and very thankful.” So says Isabelle Sheridan of On The Pig’s Back.

“We deal with a lot of small producers and when restaurants closed, their earnings had gone completely. But milk was still flowing. Some cheesemakers have a maturation period that could be six or nine months and they were able to build stock, but for those selling fresh produce a lot was going in the bin. It was a bit of a challenge for everyone and for us the pressure of trying to support those people was huge.

“We did very well at The English Market, selling cheese and charcuterie. We were open, people were able to come safely, and they became more interested in local food.

“We did up the website and restarted Douglas NeighbourFood as well. That really kept us going in Douglas and meant we were able to keep two chefs employed.”

On The Pig’s Back isn’t just a seller of fine cheeses and meats, they are a producer, too, making charcuterie, and are especially well-known for their terrines and pates.

“People were a lot more selective about what they were buying. They were interested in getting really good ingredients and spending a bit more money on quality food. I’m sure that will stay on. People gained a different insight cooking from home.

“That was a good changing trend, it was a reset button for a lot of people. It doesn’t compensate though – for art, for music, for socialising, all those things. OK, people went back onto good food and tried to get a better diet for themselves, but we missed a lot from socialising and art.”

The Douglas café hosts exhibitions and events, and now the art, music and socialising that Isabelle yearns for is back!

“We opened our first exhibition since Covid called Begin Again, featuring four really great artists and running until January 11: Eileen Healy, Donncadh O’Callaghan, Martha Cashman and Sinead Ni Chionaola. I’m excited, nervous, but we have to keep going. It’s important to have these uplifting things!”

Earlier this year, Isabelle struck gold with awards from Blas na hEireann for her Chicken Liver Pate.

“We’ve been making that pate since I started in The English Market in 1992 – that’s 30 years next year! I used recipes from my mother and my grandmother, and we made terrines at home.

“When we opened in Douglas in 2009, every year since we submit pates and terrines to Blas na hEireann and Great Taste Awards and every year we have won something. It’s a great achievement, after 12 years, that we are still good at what we do because we use local produce, local livers, genuinely good butter, really good ingredients and good recipes!”

I ask what recent additions to the cornucopia of cheese sold at The English Market she finds exciting.

“There are three cheeses that I think are incredible. Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese from County Galway is matured for a minimum of 10 months old, more like a Gruyere.

“Carrignamuc from The Lost Valley Dairy in Inchigeela, West Cork, produces a Tomme-style cheese – it’s amazing; they keep a natural rind on it and the flavour coming from that cheese in incredible.

“Clonmore Cheese, also from County Cork, a beautiful hard goat cheese, again has incredible flavour! I’d love to get tastings back at The English Market.”

The order books for festive ham and spiced beef are well and truly open…

“Our spiced beef is from Jack McCarthy in Kanturk, we sell it raw or cooked and it makes a nice pastrami; homecooked ham, also from Jack McCarthy, which we glaze with honey and mustard; French foie gras, a great selection of cheeses, and our beautiful hampers.”

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