Brothers in arms . . . or pistols at dawn? What’s life like for brothers who work together in the food business?
What is it about brothers in food? Once you start looking they’re everywhere. Why is chef Oliver Dunne wearing a smart shirt and welcoming people into Cleaver East, his new Dublin restaurant, I wondered last week? But of course he isn’t. He’s busy in the kitchen. The front-of-house man is his younger brother Graham, who gave up two weeks’ summer holidays from their Malahide restaurant to give his big brother a dig-out.
Widen out the lens and the world’s best restaurant, Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca is run by three brothers. There are the Magnetti brothers, Sean, Marco and Paolo, who run an Italian food business in Galway. In north Dublin, Keoghs’ Crisps is run by brothers Tom and Ross, with their cousin Derek. And the biggest Irish brotherhood of food (although they don’t work together) is Food Minister Simon Coveney in one corner and his brother Patrick who heads food giant Greencore in the other.
So how do boys who grow up together become men who work together in food? I look at my three sons and wonder how all that rivalry over who’s older, taller or faster will pan out in later life. Can you put family history and hierarchy behind you to become equal partners in a tough business?
Comedy fights between brothers are all part of the biscuit and bar makers Broderick Brothers’ marketing campaign. “I’m a lot younger than Barry, ” Bernard Broderick lobs in at the start of our interview as he explains how the business began to evolve more than 10 years ago. “See where the maturity sets in,” Barry responds. “I’m saying nothing.”
As kids, the brothers smashed biscuits in their mother Ina’s kitchen in Dublin’s Terenure for the cheesecake bases and other cakes she made to sell to cafes. With a nudge from their parents, they decided to take over the business together, after college. More than a decade on they have more than 40 employees, with a fifth of their market in the UK. Last year they supplied 50,000 bars to the London Olympics.
There are pros and cons of working together, they say. One good aspect is that arguments do not lead to walkouts. But the sibling relationship has taken some hammering into shape to turn it into a business partnership. “You have to stand back sometimes,” Bernard says, “and ask: ‘Am I disagreeing with him because we’re brothers or is it more fundamental?’ So over the years we have had to make it more and more objective. Sometimes we bring other people in to have alternative voices, and then we make up our minds.”
Talking to Stephen Flynn, who runs The Happy Pear cafe and food shop in Greystones, Co Wicklow with his twin David, you get the impression there is not two but one mind at work. The 33-year-old twins grew up constantly together, sitting together at school, and always at the other’s side, until they went to different colleges. “It was like a divorce. If you’re a twin and you’re separated you go around for the first while saying ‘Jaysus, where are they?’ ” Stephen says. College was followed by a more dramatic separation when Stephen went to Canada and David became a golf pro in South Africa. They discovered, in spooky twin fashion, that each had decided independent of the other to become a vegetarian on exactly the same day.
That route through sport and nutrition led them back to Greystones and setting up their wholefood shop, The Happy Pear. They were “ridiculously idealistic” at the start, Stephen says, considering running it as an NGO to spread their message of health through food.
Would he have gone into business without David? “I’ve never really thought of that. It would be like someone asking ‘could you do it without yourself?’ ”
Their younger brother Darragh joined the enterprise five years ago when he started growing wheat grass and sprouted seeds for them. Now he’s running a friend’s cherry farm and selling the produce in Greystones and beyond.
Another food business that brought two brothers together from far-flung locations is Murphy’s Ice Cream run by the American Murphy brothers. Kieran, the eldest, got sick of the software business and left his job in the US. He came to his parents’ house in Dingle, Co Kerry to “hang out for a while” and consider what to do next. Slowly it dawned on him that he wanted to stay in Ireland.
Food seemed like an obvious choice if he was going to set up a business and “like most outsiders” he was amazed at the quality of Irish dairy. Growing up there had been a “huge emphasis on food”. The brothers were taught to cook as children. So he rang his brother Sean, who was living in California, and invited him to Paris.
The two met in Berthillon, the family-run French ice cream and sorbet shop on the Île Saint-Louis. It was a statement of intent. They weren’t just going to start a single ice cream stall in Dingle, they were going to aim high. “Eventually he [Sean] said yes. He had just met his wife-to-be and they were thinking about a family and Ireland seemed a great place.”
Why did Kieran chose his brother over a friend or an associate? “Two reasons. First it was kinda lonely and it would be nice to have family around,” Kieran says. “And Sean is very extrovert, very good with people and I’m less so. I’m not a crotchety or mean person but I find it very draining to be with people all the time.” The brothers had lived apart for a very long time. “We didn’t really know each other as adults.” In the end the decision came down to the fact that it would be “far more fun to do it with someone I know and I trust.” His brother is “someone one can trust absolutely and completely,” he says.
Trust is a central theme with all the brothers I spoke to. The Flynn twins find that they can “make decisions really quickly because you know exactly what the other brother is thinking.” And they can be “very blunt and straight with each other” without worrying about the consequences. For non-twin brothers the years flatten out those age differences and big brother and kid brother. The difference between 40 and 44 is tiny compared to the difference between 10 and 14, Kieran Murphy says.
For Marc and Conor Bereen, the brothers behind Dublin restaurants Damson Diner and Coppinger Row, that brotherly ability to have a huge row and get over it as quickly again has been a trademark of their business relationship. “People used to come in to watch us behind the bar as we’d be having rows and shouting at each other. That worked quite well when we were younger but we’re a bit old for that now.” Even after a shouting match “we’d never hold onto anything”, Marc says, to the amazement of friends and customers. There were no grudges to fester and damage the relationship. “He’s my brother and I love him and that love is always there.”
Conor, who’s younger by 18 months, was modelling after graduating from London art college St Martins when Marc rang and asked if he’d like to go into business with him in Bia Bar on Dublin’s Stephen’s Street, around a decade ago. Becoming business partners meant carving out a distinct set of roles. At the start “we were both doing each other’s jobs,” Marc says. Hence those bar brawls. Now they have strictly defined areas that play to their strengths, Conor’s artistic eye for turning blank spaces into cafes and Marc’s front-of-house people skills. “It helps that we’re different.” Do they have any regrets about going into business together? “It’s never felt like a bad decision. It’s not the easiest thing to do in Dublin at the moment and we’ve pondered over moving to different places. But you can’t beat the people in Dublin.”
That chalk and cheese aspect, where two different personalities work well together, is a big feature of cheesemongers, Séamus and Kevin Sheridan’s dynamic. Kevin, younger by six years, went west in the summers as a teenager to work in Séamus’s restaurant, The Blue Raincoat in Galway (now Ard Bia at Nimmos), where he fell into a “wonderful world of food”.
He enjoyed it so much he decided to study sculpture in Galway, and on completion of his degree the brothers opened Food Nation, their first shop. Kevin used his sculpture ability with an angle grinder to help build the shop. A stall at the Galway Market followed and Sheridans Cheesemongers took off.
With two decades of experience of working together they’re well placed to say what’s the best thing and worst thing about working with a brother.
“He’s the hardest working person I know,” Séamus says of Kevin. “From the very start he was the one putting up the stall at 6am and sending for the coffee. When I look back over the last 20 years, we’ve had fires, robberies, sad passings, building warehouses, financial crises, opening shops, closing shops, painting shops and all the crazy things that happen while running a cheese business. There is not much I don’t like about working with my little brother.”
On the other side, Kevin sees Séamus simply as “My big brother. He inspires me. He will always be my brother so no matter what either of us do to annoy each other the next day we’re still brothers.”