Celebrating 30 years in business this year, Benny O’Connell, the man behind Benny’s Deli in Castlerea, has many reasons to be cheerful. But it hasn’t always been easy and businesses are finding it tough at the moment, he says.
It’s Thursday morning at Benny’s Deli and there is a steady flow of regular customers popping in for breakfast, a mid morning snack or maybe some freshly baked bread or other goodies. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows your name and regulars return for the homemade food and friendly service.
It hasn’t always been easy. Owner Benny O’Connell explained that the business was born out of the recession in the 1980′s and is once again facing fresh challenges today. “It started in 1981 as a one man show when I opened a bakery on Main Street. I was unemployed at the time and we were heading into a serious recession. It was more out of necessity that I went into business, at the same time I had always wanted a business of my own,” he said, recalling how it all started 30 years ago.
Benny’s background was as a chef working in hotels. He had never worked in a bakery prior to going into business. This didn’t stop him, however, and in some ways, he said, may have been beneficial. “I never actually worked in a bakery and that was probably a good thing because I took a fresh approach to it. Our goal has always been to make products with a homemade flavour and made with the best ingredients and we stick to that to this day,” he said.
From taking on his first employee, Mary Connolly, the business steadily grew over the years to become an integral part of the town and is now regarded as “more of an institution” as Benny describes it himself.
‘we have had to adapt and make sacrifices, we are working harder for less and we all had to do it’ -Benny O’Connell
From a small bakery on Main Street, the business has experienced many changes to get to where it is today – operating as a restaurant, delicatessen and a six-day bakery that offers a broad range of products, including gluten-free, wheat-free and diabetic goods.
The business moved to a new premises on The Square in 1984 and remained there for more than 20 years before Benny took the gamble of relocating and expanding the business further at a new location on Lower Main Street.
The gamble paid off and Benny hasn’t looked back. Business is good today, but he is not a man for taking anything for granted, not least the demands of his customers.
Keeping pace with market changes and the needs of customers are vital to any business success, he said, pointing out that many businesses made the fatal mistake of not moving with the times.Bennys Deli
“In 2004 we felt the business needed reinvention and massive reinvestment and that paved the way for the move to our new premises. And that move is still helping us through the recession today; we have modern premises and have improved our offering to customers; we have kept pace with what is on offer elsewhere in places like Galway,” Benny explained.
Customer loyalty is also something that cannot be taken for granted and he recalled how he was “moved” by the 200 good luck cards that he received when the business made the bold move to Lower Main Street six years ago. “I was moved by it, that people felt so connected to the business,” he said.
Diversifying and adapting to changing market conditions is key to surviving the current recession, he explained: “We have had to adapt and make sacrifices, we are working harder for less and we all had to do it.”
“We looked at coming up with new products, such as the gluten-free range we launched last year, to help make up for any fall in business. That required a lot of work by our head baker, Peter Beatty, as it is a difficult process to develop a new product,” he added.
This process of change is ongoing, he said, as he explained that the business was constantly evolving and that he was hoping to expand the retail element and was also considering opening a cookery school in the future.
“Cookery programmes are proving massively popular on TV but there may be a need for something on a more basic level, something that provides everyday cooking skills using simple everyday ingredients,” Benny said.
‘you can lose everything, you can lose your home, things can go wrong but you learn from those very tough lessons’ -Benny O’Connell
Maintaining an online presence is also important and in recent months Benny’s Deli launched a newly designed website by Stephen Connolly as “another angle in business generation”.
Along with the highs there have also been lows, as Benny recalled how he lost everything in 1987 but with the support of suppliers, staff, and friends the business bounced back. “We lost everything in 1987 when interest rates were hovering at around the 20 percent mark and the recession worsened. But with the help of suppliers, staff, and friends we got it going again that same year,” he recalled.
“You can lose everything, you can lose your home, things can go wrong but you learn from those very tough lessons,” he said, recalling that it was a “pretty horrible experience” for him and his family.
Benny paid tribute to his “long suffering wife”, Madeline, and his children, Anne Marie, Mairead, Peter and Donal, all of whom have worked in the business at some stage and he also thanked his loyal and dedicated staff and in particular, manager Margaret Hannon, who has been with the business from day one and has been integral to its success.
Bennys DeliHe said that there were many similarities between the 80s recession and today and puts his success and survival down to “sheer determination” and not always having a choice in the matter.
“You can’t plan every last detail but you just have to do it and see what happens. Sometimes it’s good not to have a choice in the matter and that approach applies as much today as it did 30 years ago,” he said.
“Today it’s about putting the head down and working harder and constantly being aware of the challenges out there and adapting to those challenges,” he added.
In terms of the challenges facing businesses today, Benny said that commercial rates remained a “serious issue”, particularly for start-ups but that the introduction of a “rates honeymoon period” could be of great benefit to companies starting out.
Other challenges include increasing overheads, in particular energy costs, taxation, and local authority charges, including water and waste charges, which he said should be reduced to reflect the changing economic environment.
Agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, Roscommon County Enterprise Board and Roscommon Integrated Development Company also need to adopt “fresh thinking”, he said, in order to adapt to the changing market conditions and to become more user-friendly.
As the government is due to launch a jobs initiative today (Tuesday, May 10th) to get people back to work, Benny believes that cutting employers PRSI by half could incentivise job creation.
“The emphasis will have to be on protecting existing jobs and the next stage will be to create jobs. Cutting employers PRSI contributions by half could be linked to job creation and could act as an incentive for employers to create an additional job,” he explained.
“The New Ireland is going to be built by small business and that has to be the driving force behind government thinking and strategy and that has to be incentivised by government,” he added.
Benny also pointed out that much of society has become over-globalised and that we need to retain a sense of our identify in all that we do, including business. “We need to develop small yet vibrant local economies; self sufficient micro economies that will not be as susceptible to outside forces, where goods are produced and sold locally, where money stays in the local economy and is reinvested locally,” he said.
Despite the tough times facing the business sector he urged would-be entrepreneurs to take the plunge. “Don’t die wondering,” he said, “give self-employment a go. There is no guarantee and it is not an exact science; but if you only work for yourself well isn’t that a major achievement”.
“It’s essential to keep evolving, to keep pace with changes in the market and the future and to try to understand the business you’re in. Finding out what the customer wants is the secret and that doesn’t come easy but it does come with time,” he added.
(Article courtesy of Roscommon Herald, pictures by Liam Reynolds.)