Franco-Irish couple Cathal and Claire O’Connor set up Amandine, a French-style bakery in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, in 2003, supplying supermarkets and cafes with French-style tarts, petit fours and cakes. They opened patisseries in City Square, Waterford, and Mahon Point, Cork, in 2010. Now they are planning to expand nationwide and are looking at franchising opportunities.
What sets your business apart from the competition?
Our cakes are not your typical cakes, full of cream. Cathal, who is a third-generation baker, does a lot of tarts French-style. He uses fresh fruits, which you see in France a lot. He doesn’t use pre-mixes or artificial flavours. We are also very conscious of cost. Our ethos is to offer our customers a superior quality product with excellent service and value for money.
What was the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
A bank manager once told us: “When you are self-employed, just remember you are the last one to get paid.” Of course we knew that already, but it illustrates that you have responsibilities to your employees and suppliers first before you think of yourself. Some people think it’s the other way around.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
Like anyone starting out in a new business we’ve made some small mistakes along the way but happily we have not made any big ones. Listening to professionals is one mistake we could have made when we were starting out. Some professionals are full of opinions and advice but they have no idea about the reality of running a small business. You are better off making your own mistakes and learning from them.
And your major success to date?
Opening and growing our two Amandine Patisserie shops in 2010 right in the middle of the recession was definitely one success, although it sounds like a crazy idea now. Our sales to supermarkets and cafes fell when the recession hit and we decided we would do better if we were dealing with the public directly. We were proved right. Our online shop (amandinepatisserie.com) is also going very well for us since we opened last June. We are attracting customers from places like Kerry and Wexford. They still have to come into the shops to collect their cakes but they can do everything else online.
Who do you most admire in business and why?
We both really admire Bill Cullen and read his book It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples. He is very hard-working, he is a self-made man and he has a very positive outlook. Also he gives a lot to charity. He might have lost the Renault dealership but now he has a new business and he’s back on his feet again. The guy never gives up.
Based on your experience in the downturn, are the banks in Ireland open for business to SMEs?
We have looked for, and received, a number of small loans from our bank over the years and they have been very supportive. So we have no complaints there.
What one piece of advice would you give to the Government to help stimulate the economy?
Don’t forget the SME, the small artisan companies like ours. Small companies do create a lot of jobs, but often government incentives seem to target multinationals or larger companies. Small retail companies like ours have been struggling with the recession because of increasing rates and rent. We would love to see the Government introducing regulations on matters such as commercial rent and rates to help small companies.
What’s been the biggest challenge you have had to face?
The cost of raw materials has been a major issue for us. It has doubled since 2003. Other challenges would be the increase in rates and employers’ PRSI. We employ a dozen people between the shops and bakery.
How do you see the short-term future for your business?
We want to expand the number of our shops in the southeast and begin supplying new markets such as Dublin. We feel like we’ve beaten the recession. A few years ago you would see people coming in, ordering the smallest cake they could for birthdays and stuff like this but now people are more willing to spend. People are more optimistic now.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
We have three boys – twins aged three and a 12-year-old – and we say Amandine is like our fourth baby. We have not put a figure on how much it’s worth but we definitely have no plans to sell it. With the positive signs in the economy of late we believe it is the right time to grow our business even more. Our next step is to start franchising our Amandine patisserie shops nationwide. We are looking forward to the day when people in Dublin can also buy our tarts and cakes. It’s an exciting time for us.