Thank You John Reid Blackwell for a lovely article on my bakery and my family!

Thank You John Reid Blackwell for a lovely article on my bakery and my family!

Photo Credits Alexa Welch Edlund RTD

John Reid Blackwell

Saturday, April 3, 2021

From the outside, the Duffy family home in western Henrico County looks like almost any other suburban house.

Inside, though, some cooking magic is happening every day. Any guest stepping into house is instantly treated to the appetizing aroma of fresh baked goods.

The source of that mouth-watering goodness isn’t the first-floor kitchen — the domain of mom, wife and professional forensic scientist Jennie Duffy — but the basement domain of her husband Niall, an implant to Virginia from Ireland who has turned a baking hobby into a burgeoning business.

Step down the stairs from the first-floor kitchen and you’ll enter the roughly 700-square-foot basement, where Niall Duffy operates his baked goods business, which goes by the name “Two and a Half Irishmen.”

Duffy bakes and sells a large and growing selection of breads and scones online at traditionalirishbaking.com, and at farmer’s markets such as GrowRVA Market at Bryan Park and retail shops in Virginia.

“I don’t bake up here,” Niall Duffy said while standing in the family’s regular, first-floor kitchen.

“We were trying to stay married,” said Jennie, with a laugh.

Downstairs, Niall Duffy has assembled an impressive, state-approved bakery operation, complete with two commercial-scale dough mixers (one exclusively for gluten-free breads, two ovens, an array of bakery racks, three large freezers, two refrigeration units and various other tools.

Duffy spends much of his time either baking or delivering the baked goods to the retail stores that carry them, including Tom Leonard’s Farmer’s Market, Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, Stella’s Grocery, Rostov’s Tea & Coffee, Cleveland Grocery, Little House Green Grocery, four locations of the Lazy Daisy Gift Store, and the online farmer’s market Seasonal Roots.

“We have about 40 to 45 recipes we make at a time,” he said. “We have registered about 127, and they are seasonal throughout the year.”

 

Duffy is a native of Galway, a city in western Ireland, and he picked up some of the recipes for his breads from his childhood.

“I used to play a bit of Rugby and I used to work in explosives,” said Duffy, whose previous job in Ireland was supplying explosives to the mining industry. He moved to the U.S. along with Jennie, who is from the Pittsburgh area, though she has Irish roots and family in Ireland. The couple met in Ireland.

“I met her when she was over visiting family,” Duffy said.

Duffy said he was reluctant to move at first. “Then I was here for a month and I thought it was brilliant. Everything was so easy. Everything was within reach.”

While Jennie came back to take a job as a forensic scientist for the state of Virginia, Niall started baking bread as a hobby. “I just started making soda bread,” he said. He eventually started selling his bread at festivals in 2014.

“After I got a green card [officially known as a permanent resident card], I had a little business,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how it would go. One year, I was the last vendor to get into the Celtic Festival, the Saint Patrick’s Day Festival.”

“I sold everything I had made, but I was doing it by hand and using these little hand mixers,” he said.

As he got more orders, “my wife Jennie was going around to Walmart in the middle of the night trying to find eggs,” he said.

“I knew it could be a business, but I realized it could not just be Irish,” he said. “No one was going to buy that all year round.”

So, he said, he had to learn how to bake more varieties of breads, “and bake properly.”

“I think, as an advantage, I am not a baker,” he said. “I look at it more as a business. Bakers can sometimes be too creative. I am making it as best I can, for the best price I can, and I easily move from regular to gluten-free to vegan. So the recipes I choose are all like that, so I just have to change one thing.”

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Duffy’s Irish-style breads include traditional Irish soda bread and Irish treacle bread, and a variety of scones. Among his more popular breads are Irish Galway Apple Cake, which uses Virginia-grown apples, and Guinness Gingerbread, which includes Guinness beer as an ingredient. “I have an ABC license to do that,” Duffy said.

Yet his bread-making has expanded well beyond the traditional Irish recipes, now, to include carrot cake, strawberry walnut cake, banana bread and chocolate banana bread and hot cross buns. The scones include traditional Irish buttermilk fruit scones, blueberry blast buttermilk scones, blackberry mint julep cream scones, cranberry chocolate scones and cinnamon apple cider cream scones, among others.

Among his newest creations is a Caribbean-inspired variety of bread called hummingbird bread, which includes bananas, pineapple and pecans with a lime-zest cream cheese topping.

Duffy says he gets “straight feedback, right away” from his customers about what they do like and don’t like, which helps him adjust his recipes.

Duffy has created a computer system for keeping up with the cost of every ingredient he uses, and the cost of every item, and the volume he sells, to ensure his profitability.

The business has seen highs and lows during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Duffy said he has had to be “innovative and creative,” to keep up sales. Duffy said he has expanded sales over the past year to new stores, but also has struggled to keep some customers during the pandemic.

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The downstairs kitchen also is a fairly new development for Two and a Half Irishmen.

The Duffy family moved from their previous residence to their current house last June. They chose the house partly because the basement space would work well for the bakery operation.

Before buying the house, he had the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services come and see whether the basement space would work as a commercial kitchen, Duffy said. “The inspector said you need to do this, this and this.”

Among other things, Duffy had to close up the downstairs chimney and fireplace, which is now covered with a chalkboard on which he scratches out the daily baking routine.

Two and a Half Irishmen is one of about 1,115 home-operated food businesses that are regulated by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The number grew by a little more than 130 businesses in both 2019 and 2020, but so far 23 new businesses have applied this year.

Among the new stores that Duffy added in 2020 was Tom Leonard’s, which focuses on selling local products.

“The first thing we do as a buying team is always try a product ourselves just to see what it is like,” said Andy Harris, director of operations for Tom Leonard’s. “We were astounded by the quality of his product, so we decided to offer him space within the store, and it has been a huge success for both him and us.”

Duffy’s days usually start around 6 a.m., with prep for baking and deliveries of bread to local retailers.

“I come down usually around 6 a.m.,” he said, “I usually wake up the dog and take him out for a walk. I go to Tom Leonard’s first thing around 7 a.m., and I go there twice a day. I sell the most there. Everywhere else, I stay in close contact and they let me know when they need something.”

Jennie and Niall have been married almost 20 years. Jennie, who works for the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, said the bakery venture, “is really good for the kids — the working and getting to know what that is like.”

“When we were in the house where our kitchen was the bakery, that was really hard,” she said. “So this is better.”

The Duffy kids — Noah, 15, Cian, 12, and Ella, 10 — work actively in the business, helping their father package the baked goods. With the money they have earned, they bought a tablet computer and most recently, a hoverboard.

Duffy did consider moving his operation to a commercial kitchen such as Hatch Kitchen RVA, which offers shared cooking, refrigeration and storage space for numerous food businesses in the area. He also considered renting a space in the Scott’s Addition area of Richmond.

Ultimately, however, Duffy decided that keeping his baking at home was the right choice for his family, mostly because he gets to spend more time with them when he’s just down the stairs.

“I would be gone a lot,” working in another commercial kitchen, Duffy said.

“Little by little I have just invested in what I have, and I think I am better off for it,” he said. “The kids come down here and work with me and I get to see them.”

jblackwell@timesdispatch.com (804) 775-8123

Photo Credits - Alexa Welch Edlund - The Richmond Times Dispatch