ONE of the defining characteristics of the extraordinary female entrepreneurs on the current New Frontiers programme at the Rubicon, MTU, is that they are all driven by an unshakeable determination and passion for their work.
For Claire Keane, of Second Street Bakeshop, developing her new business has been a veritable labour of love.
“Sugar is literally coursing through my veins”, she laughingly admits.
A far cry for the geography and environmental science graduate from Cork who emigrated to San Francisco in search of a career tackling the climate crisis.
“I spent five years in an environmental consultancy, effectively just writing reports. The climate crisis was my passion but there was no creative element to what I was doing.”
Claire felt she was having very little impact and became jaded and bored. So, she decided to switch gears and take a break. She needed the quiet time to consider her options.
“I took some time out to go travelling and I had this voice in my head telling me to start my own business.”
One of the ideas that refused to go away was the idea of starting a cookie business. In San Francisco? It was so far-fetched. But nobody else was selling artisan Irish baked goods. Thanks to the encouragement of friends and family, Clairesquares was born.
“I had to go to business classes and apply for a business licence,” she explains. It was all so new to her but Clairesquares became a thriving business and a huge success.
Fast forward to 13 years of Clairesquares, and Claire felt she had reached a crossroads in her life.
“I had been in the States 18 years in total by then and felt if I didn’t move back to Ireland, I would never get back. The window of opportunity was diminishing so I decided to sell the business and move home, without a plan or a pathway to the next stage in my life.”
It took two years to wrap things up in the US before Claire arrived home to decompress and find a new career.
“When life gets boring, you just have to shake it up and I genuinely thought it would be so easy to settle back in Cork. It was the place I grew up. What could be harder?
“But, actually, it was very different. The landscape had changed, the layout and geography. I had no link to it. And no idea what I was going to do.”
Claire decided to study web design and food photography while she considered her options.
“I had come home burnt-out, having run a demanding business for 13 years. I wondered what was my next North Star? It wasn’t clear, but I knew in my heart that food was in it.”
Claire realised that making sweet treats has always been her real passion.
“I have been making sweet treats since the age of six. The first book I picked out was a kids cookbook so the seeds were sown from a very early age.”
As was an innate entrepreneurial flair.
“When I was in Mount Mercy secondary school, I wanted to visit my sister in Las Vegas. The flights were very expensive so I baked cookies and caramel tray bakes, and sold them to my classmates until I had raised the funds for my airfare.
“There has never been a time when I wasn’t really in touch with food.”
Claire was home a short time when lockdown kicked in.
“I was in such a negative mindset. I felt lost. I needed a strong game plan. What the hell was I going to do. So, to rescue myself, I went back into the kitchen to soothe my soul.”
Baking has always been her salve so she started experimenting. Her paternal grandmother used to make chewy toffee so Claire decided to explore a crunchy version. It tasted really good and Claire was feeling energised and excited about her American-style toffee brittle.
“I realised I needed to share this and get some honest and objective feedback.”
As Covid travelling restrictions were still in place, she decided to put care packages together for her cousins to sample and included a google survey for them to take on price point, taste, etc.
“The toffee brittle was different and resonated with everybody. I took a step back from it and thought, this isn’t a product that has been done here.”
And that was it. Second Street Bakeshop was born and her flagship product, Sea Salt Toffee Brittle, in milk chocolate or dark chocolate, was launched in September, 2021.
In 2022, just a few months later, it was awarded double Gold in The Irish Food Awards.
Claire is coming to the end of the New Frontiers progamme at the Rubicon, MTU, and has found it hugely beneficial.
“The New Frontiers programme was excellent. It ticked all the boxes and pushed me way outside my comfort zone. I would highly recommend it.”
Initially only available online and in Neighbour-Food markets, Claire’s Sea Salt Toffee Brittle pouches are soon to appear on the shelves of your favourite supermarkets, including Super Valu from May 1, and they’ll also have a stand at the Cork Summer Show. God help our waistlines when they do.
The utterly crunchy toffee is coated in real Belgian chocolate and topped with a scattering of Atlantic Irish sea salt. Sold in stand-up pouches, these are 100g of heart-stopping deliciousness.
“The pouches are great for gifting,” says Claire, “but they are the kind of purchase that you also hide in the back of your cupboard for those moments of complete self-indulgence!”
And what an indulgence!
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They are the kind of purchase that you also hide in the back of your cupboard for those moments of complete self-indulgence!