O’Hehirs is a family-run artisan bakery that prides itself on using traditional methods to create handmade breads, pastries, and celebration cakes. Maev Martin talks to O’Hehirs managing director Michael O’Hehir about his plans for 2024.
The O’Hehir name is synonymous with fresh artisan breads, quality celebration cakes and delicious homemade pastries, while also providing more contemporary products such as its gluten-free range of breads and cakes. The family business has been trading for over 30 years, employs over 450 staff, and operates over 20 food and hospitality units throughout the country. The first O’Hehirs Bakery & Coffee Shop opened in Wine Street in Sligo in 1988 and the company now operates its bakery and coffee shops in Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Longford, Mullingar, and Athlone.
“We employ some of the best craft bakers in the country,” says Michael. “Each coffee shop serves a range of fresh food options throughout the day, with the focus on using only the highest-quality ingredients to provide healthy, wholesome, and nutritious lunches and dinners. These include our signature sandwich range made from our own artisan breads, as well as mouth-watering pastries and cakes for every celebration.”
The bakery was initially established by Breda O’Hehir who returned to the business of baking after rearing her family. Originally from Birr in Co Offaly, Breda Bowes decided at the age of 15 to move to Kilrush in Co Clare to train as a baker and confectioner. She met her husband James while working in a bakery in Ennis. The couple moved to Sligo, where James worked with CIE, and they had 13 children, all of whom have either worked full-time or helped in the bakery at some stage. While Breda took a break from baking to rear her family, she always baked at home and was well-known for her homemade apple tarts and brown soda bread.
When their son Michael left secondary school in 1983, he convinced his parents to turn that baking expertise into a business and they set up a traditional craft bakery. They were then joined by Michael’s brother Enda and, soon after, by siblings Eddie, Jacqueline, and Jim. Initially, a bakery was built at the side of the family home, and it supplied small shops around Sligo town. However, as the family’s reputation grew, the business gradually expanded to become the major employer and provider of a diverse range of quality products that it is today.
Ambitious growth plans
Given the success that O’Hehirs has enjoyed over the past few decades, what does Michael see as the next big step for the brand? “We have experienced tremendous growth over the years, and this can be attributed to our hardworking staff and management,” he says. “We have been a family business from the start and myself and my brother Enda have always had ambitions to grow the business. 2024 will be no different.
“Under the O’Hehirs brand, we have plans in place to set up two new units in the coming months and we will be investing in rolling out our new flagship bakery café format to potentially two further locations this year. We have also invested in new larger scale ovens that will bring an even better capability and taste to our range of products.
“Under the Bowes brand, we are currently investing in redeveloping some of the range and packaging with a view to scaling up our supply into the multiple and forecourt network across the country. Finally, our online cake and catering sales are performing well, and we also hope to add some new features and products for 2024.”
NPD and best sellers
O’Hehirs have a huge range of products across confectionery, breads, food, and hot beverages. “The range is constantly evolving, but we have seen great success from introducing our gluten-free range of breads and cakes, our signature sandwiches, and contemporary style cakes over the past few years,” he says. “However, I’m sure most businesses will find that, despite all the trends and growth areas, the tried and tested still works best in the market. For example, our best-selling product from our breads range is still the traditional pans, with smaller pans experiencing good growth too of late. Our best-selling sandwich is one of our signature sandwiches – the Irish Toastie! There is still big demand for the simple things done well.”
New menu options will be introduced in their bakery cafes this year. “From a bakery point of view, we are noticing that the occasions are getting bigger all the time, so we will be rolling out some new seasonal products to cater for this trend. My brother Enda takes a lead role when it comes to new product development within the bakery.”
Like most other businesses, O’Hehirs hasn’t been immune to the effects of food and drink inflation on the grocery retail and food service sectors. “We have seen an awful lot of instability with pricing and obviously a long period of rising costs, which impacted business growth post Covid,” he says. “It has been difficult to manage and control over the last number of years, but we are seeing some stability now. We have always focused on maintaining quality, so it has been challenging to manage customer expectations, but we feel that we have struck a good balance.”
Distribution in grocery retail
The Bowes brand of bread and cakes is available in selected Tesco, SuperValu and Centra stores, as well as in several independent retailers. “We have a good relationship with these outlets and there are some great opportunities in place to develop this further in 2024,” says Michael.
“Our bakery café business is very strong and is the backbone of the business, but we are very passionate about the Bowes brand and its possibilities. My mother was Breda Bowes before she married, so we have a huge sense of pride in the brand. The retail sector is a little bit more dynamic and has huge growth potential, so we are really excited about the upcoming Bowes packaging relaunch and the new store listings in 2024. We admire many other fine local family bakeries around the country who have established themselves well in the grocery retail market. We feel that we have the capability to follow that pathway to some extent.”
Michael says that the company is also actively looking at export markets. “All going well, we hope to commence some product export in the near future,” he says. “A lot of market insight and supports are required to find the right channel, but we are confident that will be exporting products soon.”
Love Irish Food
O’Hehirs joined the Love Irish Food organisation in mid 2023. “We became members of Love Irish Food because we believe in supporting Irish industry, jobs, and families,” says Michael. “We have done this ourselves for many years and it is something that the Love Irish Food organisation does very well. Also, we joined because of the consumer recognition and stamp of approval that the Love Irish Food logo gives in the marketplace. It means that those in the wider market, including our customers and prospective customers, as well as our suppliers, can trust that we are a truly Irish family brand.”
When it comes to the benefits that the business has derived from its membership to date, Michael says that it has added “genuine market credibility” to their business and products. “We are looking forward to seeing that message grow further,” he says. “It is now an instantly recognisable logo on supermarket shelves throughout the country, so we are proud that customers now associate us with Love Irish Food. In addition, there are many networks and opportunities that we are looking forward to working with Love Irish Food on over the coming years.”
Would he recommend membership of Love Irish Food to other Irish food and drink producers? “I certainly would recommend it to other producers,” he says. “It is great to be part of the Love Irish Food family. We are new to the family, but we are always afforded great opportunities and we were warmly welcomed and respected by the team.”