Inside Track Q&A
William Despard, owner, The Bretzel Bakery
What makes your business special?
Passion and heritage. Our bread has been made with the blood, sweat and tears of real bakers in the heart of Dublin’s Portobello district since 1870. We don’t do glossy adverts branding our bread and we don’t rest on our laurels – we are evolving and maturing like a good wine.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
Not following my instincts and allowing myself to be guided by mediocre number crunchers.
What has been your major success to date?
Improving the quality and nutritional value of our breads while keeping a check on the business fundamentals. Real bread has a longer fermentation time for better taste and texture, and the industrialised plant bakeries cannot compete with that.
It does require real commitment, however, but the commitment paid off this year when we were chosen as the favoured artisan bread supplier to Jamie Oliver’s newly opened restaurant in Dundrum Town Centre.
Jamie Oliver’s first book, The Naked Chef, had a big influence on my approach to fresh food and I am very proud that, 14 years later, our company is his trusted local supplier.
Our new shop and bakery in Rathmines bakes this new Italian range daily. It was this expansion into new premises that gave us the space to do the necessary trials and win this new business. About 90 per cent of our production is still made at the original Bretzel bakery site by three bakers baking through the night in the traditional way.
Who do you admire most in business and why?
The late French artisan baker Lionel Poilâne, who is known for the loaf bearing his name. He is both my baking and my business mentor because he had a superb product married to excellent marketing. Poilâne was the baker to the stars and his famous loaves were Fedex-ed to Hollywood to his clients.
When he opened his bakery in London I was fascinated to discover that he built it around a single big oven with 24 doors to which each baker had access. I come from an engineering background and have a particular interest in machine automation, so maybe that’s why.
Closer to home, I admire Michael O’Leary and I only wish he was running the civil service rather than an airline.
What piece of advice would you give to the Government to stimulate the economy?
Abolish jobs for life in the civil service, or at least put all public service workers on a three-day week and insist on adequate performance in those three days to earn the right to work and get paid for the other two.
Do you think the banks are open for business to SMEs at the moment?
Unfortunately, those who desperately need finance cannot secure it, and those who don’t can get loan approval. Many of my customers have had their overdrafts cut and are struggling with cash flow.
In my opinion, however, one should never use overdraft facilities for medium or long-term finance. We financed our expansion from retained earnings. During the Celtic Tiger in particular, I watched people who were doing really well choosing to spend their money on things other than reducing their overdrafts.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge?
Adjusting to the commercial fact that many of my potential customers might not care about the quality of their food. Even in the food industry, style and branding are more important to some people than substance.
Also making people aware that we are trying to operate our business with the minimum environmental impact. For example, we use small vans to deliver around Dublin rather than the sort of big refrigerated trucks you see clogging up Grafton Street.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
It is worth a lot to me and the staff, but the whole lot is for sale for five million!