We are based in rural County Galway on the family farm. Agriculture was challenging for us in the late 1990’s, and with 5 children between 13 and 5 years old, I started to bake a little in the cleaned-up bicycle shed to supplement the family income. Back then, home enterprise did not allow for baking in the actual home. All was well. We had a status quo and so Paul farmed and I baked.
By 2003, agriculture presented even more challenges, but we still did not hear the messages the universe was sending us. It took one of the children becoming very sick for me to realise that a drastic change was needed as we were stretched in too many directions. Plans were put in place to sell the dairy cows and move the bakery into the newly empty milking parlour which Paul had built a few years previously. We renovated, constructed, and adjusted. And in 2004, The Foods of Athenry was born, baking wheat-based products.
By 2010, and with a growing interest in food allergies, and the relation of food vs health (sick kids will do that to you ! ), we decided to add on a dedicated gluten free space; taking up some more of the existing agricultural space. We renovated, constructed, and adjusted.
By the 29th June 2011, we were still operating out of the wheat based bakery and all of the shiny new equipment for the Gluten Free bakery was sitting on pallets, new packaging was in the store, and re-construction was almost complete.
This was the morning after Pauls birthday, so we were on birthday mode, in the family home next door at 9.20am in the morning, chatting and planning. I heard what sounded a little like airbrakes on a lorry and we looked out the window to see who it was. What we saw was flames.
The fact that it was an old refurbished building meant it went up like a tinderbox. It was still burning 24 hours later. There was nothing left. Not even the shiny new equipment who never saw life outside of their boxes. The house was smoke damaged, and all phone and electrical wires into the house scorched. But nobody was hurt. The few staff that were in the bakery all exited safely.
It is hard emotionally to pick yourself up after these sort of life changing events. You need to look hard for the sunshine through the storm clouds. I still cannot bear the sound of a timber fire, and watching one is not as joyful an experience as it once was. We have a security light outside of the bakery that the cat sometimes triggered in the middle of the night, and it shone with a slightly yellow hue. Many the night I wake and have to check if the place is burning again. Money was impossible to get to rebuild and we begged, borrowed, and stopped short of stealing. We were closed to rebuild for 10 months and we came back to an Ireland racked with recession. Many a lean year followed post 2012, and it was a struggle. We worked relentlessly, and worried incessantly. We renovated, constructed, and adjusted for the third time. We were temporarily broken.
But there were positives, and that is the real purpose of this post. Our oldest son, just out of College with a building degree, who lost everything he owned that day in the fire; was stoic, positive, and encouraging. He said to his father ‘we built it twice before Dad, we can do it again.’ Kids, friends, and family rallied around. I often looked at my children, as we all do from time to time, and wonder ‘are we doing a good job with them?’. In the months that followed the question was answered and never needed to be asked again. They glued and held us up while our broken pieces healed.
We sold a field to keep us afloat, and I know we were lucky to have it. Paul sometimes feels sorry after that field, he is still a farmer at heart. But I tell him that when I see that field, it makes me proud. It allowed us to come back from the brink, no field has ever worked so hard for us as that one. It makes me very grateful to the neighbour who bought it at a fair market price, without them we may never have come back. I hope they know how much they helped us.
We borrowed money from friends, who trusted us to pay it back, which we did. I am grateful for that trust.
I am grateful for the kindnesses, support, and encouragement from customers over the years.
Yes, it was tough, lean, and mean. But now I realise that without that time, I would be a different person, we would have a different business. Ripples in the pond changed our lives forever. It is not forgotten, and it can still make us sad; but above all else I feel blessed. It has helped me see and always search for the light through the dark.
9 years later, we have our first grandchild on the way. We have had a wedding. Our kids are settled and happy in their own lives with partners so amazing that I could not have chosen better if I had done the choosing myself! Business is good, our lovely customers are wonderfully engaged and supportive; and we feel that we are making a difference, baking allergen friendly products that give choice and enjoyment to many on a restricted diet. We started a new house 1km away from the bakery in late 2010 for a better work-life balance as we felt we were always ‘at work’. We closed the gate on it in July 2011, as all house funds were needed to rebuild the bakery. We finally started back on it last year, and we have just moved in. 10 years later. Life is good.
And so Covid-19 happened. It has challenged the business again, but post fire, we approach all setbacks with a much more positive attitude. We did not get sick, and know we have a lot to be grateful for.
The ultimate message. All through the last few months of the Covid-19 lockdown for so many businesses, I have seen the sunshine online – the positivity, support, resilience, adaptability, hope, enthusiasm. As these businesses return, we need to remember that behind the smile can sometime be a struggle. You cannot understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. So, we all need to be a continuing source of support and light. Be patient, be tolerant, be supportive; spreading positivity like seeds in the wind.
I hope that the world post Covid-19 lockdown is a better place. That there is a new and better ‘normal’. Be kind, be thankful.
Warm wishes to all,
Sending as much positive energy out into the world as I can,