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Raising Dough for God

Back in 1968, a Catholic couple opened a small bakery next door to their house to feed their growing family. Four decades on, their six sons are running one of Northern Ireland’s most flourishing businesses – and supplying their scones and soda bread to a supermarket near you. Joanna Moorhead went to meet them.

You smell the McErlain brothers before you meet them. Or to be more precise you smell their bakery, whose aromas curl deliciously around the little town of Magherafelt, 40 miles west of Belfast. It’s the smell of soda bread and potato farls, of pancakes and rich, buttery scones: the kind of food Northern Ireland was built on, and which the six McEarlains are now busily making available at a shop near you.

The brothers – Adrian (51), Brian (50), John (48), Paul (46), Seamus (43) and Damian (34) – were pretty much raised in the family bakery, after their parents Joseph and Roberta, both 74, opened it in 1968, at a time when the first four boys were small and Seamus was on the way. It wasn’t so much part of a plan to start a grand baking empire, says Joe, more a way of trying to find a way to feed a growing family: and money, for the Catholic McErlains, was definitely tight. ‘At one time I was earning £19 a week myself, and having to spend £17 a week on the baker’s wages,’ remembers Joe. He sold the bread door-to-door, as many owners of small bakeries in the province did. ‘Baking has long been the backbone of sustenance in Northern Ireland,’ says Brian, who remembers those early days. ‘Perhaps it was the legacy of the devastating potato famine of the mid-19th century, but families in Northern Ireland have long been fans of soda bread and scones – and lots of them. Many families did their own baking: and some families, like ours, turned their home baking into a business, so we were baking for other families as well as ourselves.’

Their parents’ work ethic clearly infected their childrenAs the children grew up they pitched in at the bakery, especially on weekends and during school holidays. ‘Mum ran the shop, Dad did the deliveries, and we all worked there from the age of about nine or ten,’ remembers John. ‘Dad used to start work at 2am, and some days he would still be working at 10pm at night. Meanwhile Mum was raising seven of us, and running the shop full-time.’ Their parents’ work ethic clearly infected their children. ‘By the time I left school I knew as much about baking as someone who’d worked in a bakery full-time for three years. So it was natural to think of working there, as there was work available. I went to college for two years, and some of my brothers worked for other businesses for a few years here and there, but sooner or later we all came back home to work for the bakery.’

For Joseph and Roberta, it must have seemed quite a coup: 44 years ago they would never, in their wildest dreams, have imagined that all six of their sons would be still here in Magherafelt, still running the family business together. ‘Emigration has always been common here in Ireland – so while I’m sure our parents always hoped we’d stay in our home town, I doubt for a moment whether they’d have believed that we would,’ says Brian. The brothers have one sister – Joanne, aged 40 – and she’s the one sibling who doesn’t work at the bakery, although she lives not far away in Belfast.

The family’s bakery is one of the business success stories of Northern Ireland post The TroublesIt was in the mid-80s that the McErlains began to think big about their bread. Until then they’d mostly sold their bread through their own shop and in direct deliveries, but then they started supplying other shops including supermarkets. Around the same time a lot of the province’s smaller bakeries were closing down – so business started to grow, especially for a bakery that took standards very seriously. ‘We’re not the sort of bakery that churns out lots of big loaves of white bread made by a machine,’ says John. ‘Our bread is made the way it was always made, by hand, and with best buttermilk – this is a craft bakery. It’s not a conveyor belt in here – because we make our bread the way we do it’s got a better texture, and a higher moisture content: and those things are crucial to good bread.’ ‘If a scone falls apart on you, it’s because it was made by a machine,’ adds Brian. ‘That won’t happen with one of our scones.’

The family’s bakery is one of the business success stories of Northern Ireland post The Troubles: 20 years ago it had a turnover of under £1 million a year – today it turns over around £22 million. Two decades ago it employed around 18 people: today it’s one of the biggest employers in town, with around 180 staff on its books.

In 1998 the business – previously known as McErlain’s Bakery – was rebranded and became Genesis. Its products are now on the shelves of Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer – bringing the staples of the Northern Irish family teatime to a new audience across the water in England and Wales. One of the family’s new lines for M&S, for example, is jam bakes: pastry cases filled with raspberry jam and Victoria sponge. ‘It’s always been a big favourite in Northern Ireland,’ says Brian. And now, more people are getting the chance to try it.

The McErlain family in 1989.The McErlain parents, despite being in their seventies, are both still involved in the business: Joseph still does the occasional delivery, and Roberta – who is the stalwart of the local parish, the Church of the Assumption in Magherafelt – still does some of the paperwork. They’re both, of course, enormously proud of their boys – and of the way they support and work alongside one another, both preserving the company’s traditional family values and branching out into new territory.

What’s worked for the brothers, says Brian – who’s clearly the family spokesman, and says he’s ‘always been the bossy one’ – is that they each work to their strengths. He’s now the managing director; Adrian is dispatch manager; Seamus runs the bakery. Paul is in charge of business development, and John oversees the creation of new products. Damian, the baby of the family, is in charge of the hub of it all: he’s operations manager, the person who checks that the ingredients are being properly mixed and the mixtures properly baked. And that’s no mean feat: the bakery is now a 24-hour operation, making around 200,000 scones a week, not to mention endless pancakes, potato farls and loaves of soda bread.

We’re a proper family business; we’re in this togetherSo if an even bigger business came beckoning, and made one of the brothers an offer, would any of them leave the bakery? The six men look around at one another; shrug; then laugh. ‘I don’t think so,’ says Brian eventually. ‘We’re a proper family business; we’re in this together. We like working together; we know one another really well, we can play to our strengths.’ They like being in a closely-knit community; they also like the fact that their children are growing up together, and that they’re all still members of the parish church where they were baptised themselves.

So what about the next generation? Roberta and Joe have 24 grandchildren these days: will any of them become bakers? ‘Like us, they spend their holidays and weekends in the bakery,’ says Brian. ‘But will they end up working here? I think they might need to spread their wings a bit first, find out about the wider industry. But eventually – who knows?’

Pancake recipe (a McErlain family favourite!)

Ingredients:
450g Plain flour
112g Sugar,
140g Fresh Eggs
140g Vegetable oil
7g Sodium Bicarbonate
7g Cream of Tartar
7g salt
600g buttermilk

Method:
Place all ingredients apart from buttermilk in mixing bowl.  Add 2/3rds of buttermilk and fold ingredients into a paste – by hand, and only by hand! Once all ingredients have come together , start working the mix vigorously to disperse the lumps in the mix.  Once this is achieved slowly add the rest of the buttermilk and fold in gently until fully mixed.

Pour into a preheated frying pan that has been lightly greased(to avoid sticking).  After two minutes gently shake the pan and toss the pancake over to cook the other side or use spatula to lift the pancake and flip over.

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