Reap What You Sow – The Delicious Corn Dolly story

Reap What You Sow – The Delicious Corn Dolly story

How three brothers have worked hard over three decades or more to create something special called Corn Dolly Foods – and there’s no sign of that energy, enthusiasm and creativity abating soon.

NR talks to Jim O’Keefe about building the business, and how it continues to grow.

Established in 1990, Corn Dolly Foods is a family run business that has been serving the people of Newry and beyond for over three decades producing an extensive range of traditional and artisan breads, handmade confectionery and bespoke celebration cakes.

That’s the story in a nutshell – but speaking to Corn Dolly’s Jim O’Keefe it’s quickly apparent that the company has evolved into so much more over the years.

What’s in a name?

With its memorable and quirky name Corn Dolly has brought the brothers luck along the way – but the hard graft, dedication and commitment to quality is what’s paid off in the long run.

Jim O’Keefe explained “We wanted to come up with a memorable name – something a bit different. The corn dolly is steeped in mythology and folklore and is said to be a sign of good luck – so why not?”

So the name stuck and quickly became a talking point.

That was 31 years ago – when Jim and his brothers Donal and Anthony set up the business.

“It was 1990 when myself and two brothers started from rented premises on Hill Street in Newry. We were bakers, not businessmen and the first six months was a struggle. Then, people started to notice the quality – and the reputation seemed to spread by word of mouth and it just took off.

“In fact, it started to take off really quickly after that, and so we bought the property” explained Jim.

“We had all worked as bakers in the years leading up to going into business together, so when the opportunity came up to buy we went for it. We then bought premises in Warrenpoint in 1996 and opened a second Corn Dolly shop – which has also performed really well since then.”

Luck on their side

Luck was on the side of the O’Keefe brothers – when in 2005 they bought over a purpose built factory in Newry’s Greenbank Industrial Estate.

“That was 16 years ago and it was a big step up; it put us on a stronger footing – allowing us to take on more wholesale orders. We closed a third shop that wasn’t doing so well, which allowed us to focus on the two shops and building up the wholesale side.”

A strong relationship with the Henderson Group was formed and made a significant difference to the business. Another exciting development was the opening of the Corn Dolly instore shop at Mulkerns.

“Both of these developments were fantastic – Hendersons is one of the biggest companies in Northern Ireland. When we took over the factory, we renovated and built a large extension – and it’s just grown and grown since then.

“Hendersons is certainly our biggest customer. The in-store shop at Mulkerns has also been hugely successful.

Traditional batch loaf

“Our big sellers are the celebrations cakes and an extensive range of breads. The traditional batch loaf has always been one of our best products – people really like its nuttiness.

“I think it was the traditional batch loaf along with our celebration cakes that really put us on the map.

Sweet tooth

Of course we’re known in this part of the world for our love of all things sweet – we just can’t resist delicious confectionery.

“We pride ourselves in our confectionery displays – we like to think we provide a certain European or continental look to our displays.”

But change is coming – and the shops are due a new look following the pandemic.

“We were all set to do complete refurbishments – our plans were all in place to do this early in 2020  but that came to an abrupt end with Covid. However we’ve just resumed negotiations with design companies to take  the refurbishments forward.”

Pandemic hit hard

Like just about every business, the toughest times of the pandemic hit Corn Dolly hard.

Every aspect of the business was thriving just before the pandemic hit.

What started out to be a great year in the beginning of 2020, took a nosedive.

“We started on a high, becoming the Regional winner for Northern Ireland at the National Bakery Awards. Getting recognition as the best bakery in Northern Ireland is no mean feat” said Jim.

However, shortly after returning from the ceremony in London, the pandemic hit UK and Irish shores.

“It was not a good time. We were struck down with some cases at the factory and had to close it down for a few days for a deep clean. The shops had to close for six weeks, but when we re-opened after Easter business was extremely good again – with more people eating at home and looking for treats.”

The harsh stark reality of Covid came close to home for the O’Keefe brothers. Donal and Anthony both took ill – with Anthony developing pneumonia and being hospitalised and ventilated.

“It was a very scary time as he had to be ventilated but thankfully he pulled through.”

Entrepreneurial spirit

The three brothers are clearly very close and have a strong bond. They share a robust work ethos, with the entrepreneurial spirit in abundance – albeit in a quiet way.

Along with the future plans to develop the shops, the brothers now have some of their own children involved in the family business.

“We are very much a family business – that’s even reflected in our slogan – ‘with family baking at its heart.’ We feel that’s endearing to people – they can trust us for quality.

“We had to build our reputation and gain our customers’ trust. We were established back in 1990 as a brand new business so to make an impact we had to be good. We concentrated on quality ingredients. We introduced our own branded packaging for tray bakes and celebration cakes, then increased our output.

“One of our main goals is to look towards the future and keep moving with the times. We have plans to become even more available online in the future and improve our ordering service there.”

‘Dedication and commitment in our DNA’

“I think that dedication and commitment is in our DNA. We are hard workers, and we are driven – it’s second nature to us – even though you do get used to being an early riser we all have a good positive, healthy attitude to life.

“We’re not afraid of long hours and hard work – seventy hour weeks are the norm. We boost each other and are extremely lucky – especially coming through Covid. After that, we can come through anything.”

Jim has also noticed that shopping habits have changed. How millennials shop will change retail – but it seems there will always be demand for the traditional baker.

“We still get a buzz from the business – that sense of enthusiasm has stayed with us, maybe some day we’ll slow down and enjoy the fruits of our labour but for now, we’re looking forward to the refurbishments and seeing how it all turns out.”