A metallic grey van pulls up outside my home. Inside it is William Despard, an engineer turned baker, who owns the Bretzel Bakery, a Dublin bread and pastry maker which began its life 150 years ago serving the Jewish community in Portobello, Dublin 8.

Despard, a keen sailor, has always had long windswept hair, and striking eyebrows. His hair is even longer than usual in lockdown as I wave to him through the window, but he has the same wide smile. He gestures with his hand to give him five minutes.

He has one more sale call to do before we can go around the back of my house to the garden to talk about his business a few yards socially distant apart either side of the patio.

I’d been trying to catch up with Despard for a few weeks. We’d met a few times over the years, and I knew he had an interesting story to tell.

Despard is a key supplier to independent coffee shops and owner-run restaurants across Dublin, so I knew he would have an insight into how the sector was fighting to survive the crisis. But Despard didn’t have time to talk. 

Sales in his business, he explained, were down almost overnight by 70 per cent, and his mother was very ill in hospital 200 kilometres away in his hometown of Limerick. She died a few weeks ago, so we’d agree to defer our interview until now. 

Despard had worked every day of the previous 35 when we met, between 10 and 14 hours daily. He looks a little tired but is happy to talk. A fresh loaf of bread from his bakery is exchanged for a cup of coffee.

Despard explains he is in between meeting a customer in Dun Laoghaire, before heading down the east coast to meet another one. It is the first time he has had to reflect on a tumultuous and difficult few months.

As Ireland moved into lockdown, Despard explains that he found himself living his life in reverse. From thinking strategically about expanding the business into new areas and geographies, Despard had to scramble to save it.

“Other people have been working from home, while I have ended up doing a totally parallel thing, where I’m back out in a van like it was 20 years ago when I was trying to figure out the business from scratch,” he explained.

“I literally have had to chance my arm,” he said. “For example, I got a sniff of putting bread into a Supervalu and I was told by the store manager to wait a week, but I got an inkling I could start sooner.”

Despard showed up at the store the next day with a table to present his bread on and talked his product out onto the floor. From pre-Covid-19, having a presence in only one Supervalu, his bread is now available in nine. It has been a big change in direction.

Despard put his 10 per cent deposit down and did a course in bread baking as he waited for the deal to close. From then on, it was all in.

Bretzel’s business traditionally was selling a premium product to restaurants and cafes, and a small number of retail outlets. Now, with hundreds of customers closed down, it has all been about getting into supermarkets.

“We had said we weren’t interested in retail before but we are now and we had to convince them we had this fabulous product that we knew their customers would love.”

Like most small business owners right now, Despard is battling daily to keep his business going and adapt to the new economic reality. He is not complaining, and he is conscious that at least Bretzel can keep trading, even as many of its customers have been forced to close for months as the economy locks down. This is his story, a microcosm of so many others.

From engineering to bakery

The Bretzel Bakery in Dublin 8. Photo: Bryam Meade

The Bretzel Bakery was founded in 1870. It has endured world wars, seen Ireland become independent, and survived many economic recessions. It began as an institution at the heart of an area once known as “Little Jerusalem” because it housed Jewish refugees escaping the pogroms in Eastern Europe.

In 1918 its home in Portobello was an area, like many poor parts of Dublin, badly hit by the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 23,000 Irish people. Gradually the area has gentrified over the decades to become one of the more expensive parts of Dublin. The Bretzel Bakery has stayed both part of the neighbourhood and expanded to sell bread across Dublin.

As a young Limerickman studying engineering in Dublin in the 1980s, Despard would go to the Bretzel to buy its famous bread as soakage after a night out. In 2000, Despard got the opportunity to buy the business from Morgan Hackett, whose father Christy had bought the business in the 1960s from its Jewish owner, Mrs Klein.

Despard was at a crossroads at the time. He had secured an exit package after he lost his job as an engineer in a diagnostics company, which gave him some time and seed capital to consider going into business.

“Buying the Bretzel was the least of my risky business ideas,” Despard laughed. His other ideas ranged from starting a sailing school to making recyclable containers for drinks.

Eventually, he decided to buy Bretzel for €500,000 in a deal which included its historic building.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for owning a bakery,” Despard said. “I would have baked bread as a four-year-old at home with my mother and in the States, as a young engineer I used to make bread in the morning but that was it.”

Despard put his 10 per cent deposit down and did a course in bread baking as he waited for the deal to close. From then on, it was all in.

Acquisitions and expansion

“It was a perfectly formed business that when we took it over instantly gave us a step change in turnover as well.”

Last year was the Bretzel Bakery’s best. Its sales crossed €4 million, and it had 300 customers ranging from tiny boutique cafes to premium grocery chains like Donnybrook Fair. It was in the middle of a significant investment programme as the business prepared to expand outside Dublin, and it was preparing to dip its toe in Britain too.

In Kildare, Despard had invested €500,000 in building a state-of-the-art new bakery. The move was in addition to his bakery in Greenmount in Harold’s Cross as well as the original Bretzel Bakery on Lennox Street.

The plan for his new site in Kilcullen in Co Kildare was to give the business sufficient capacity to bake quality bread at the volumes required for larger customers, as well as help it build a base outside Dublin. 

“We wanted to take the volume products outside of Dublin and continue with our Bretzel products that were so perfectly formed serving the likes of the Iveagh and the high-end cafes and bars who wanted our unique bread,” he explained. 

Bretzel had won contracts with big multinationals like LinkedIn and Indeed to provide them with healthy bread for their staff. “Our next port of call was to work with Compass [a large catering company] to get into the likes of Google,” Despard said.

But to be able to win these types of contracts required having bigger ovens. “Our plan was to be food service experts who would make bread that nobody else could make,” Despard said.

Bretzel, he said, had invested heavily in traceability and hygiene to win these types of multinational clients who required it.

“Small restaurants don’t care as much as they want inclusions like say walnuts or really funky tangy sourdough that doesn’t follow standard processes and require a lot of intervention by hand.”

On top of this move towards scale, Despard had bought Le Levain, in the shadow of Croke Park, taking it into making super-high-end French bread and pastries.

“These are smaller customers who may only be adding a couple of 100 hundred euro a week, but it all adds up. We supply them because we got each other.”

William Despard

Le Levain was founded by Rossa Crowe who had learned his trade as a master baker in the South of France. His business had won a coterie of superfans among French food fans. It also had a popular outdoor stand too in Temple Bar, that served the city centre market.

By taking the business over Despard was adding about €400,000 in sales, as well as a host of new customers. “Le Levain is a really high-end French bakery,” Despard said. “It was a perfectly formed business that when we took it over instantly gave us a step change in turnover as well.”

“Strategically without the Covid-19 crisis it was a beautiful bolt-on thing for us,” he said. Le Levain had 30 loyal customers primarily for its unique sourdough which is sold in Dublin 1, 2 and 4.

When Covid-19 came, however, 28 of Le Levain’s customers closed. Its customer base shrank to just Liston’s food store on Camden Street and Le Petit Breton, an artisan creperie in Drumcondra.

“Through no fault of the guy who sold the business to me and no fault of our own we had lost most of our business there overnight,” Despard said. He was however determined to save its stall in Temple Bar. He tried everything from selling bread from a tent to a hatch.

“It was chaotic,” he reflected. “Then I convinced the Press Up group to give me some space in Dollard & Co along the Quays.” This allowed him to keep a presence in Temple Bar, but sales fell sharply to about 40 per cent of what they were pre-crisis.

The best-laid plan undone by a pandemic

“Independent Supervalu’s have been really good to us,” Despard said. “They gave us space and we worked out a margin together that was fair to all of us and allowed us to get on with selling.”

The collapse in fortunes for Bretzel was dramatic. In the first week of March, its American corporate customers cancelled as they switched to remote-working. In five days, it lost 7 per cent of its business. In ten days, this became 70 per cent.

Despard was forced to put 48 of his 60 staff on protective notice. “We had all the emotion and trauma of doing that and then within 10-days it all changed totally once the Covid payment was announced,” Despard said. 

Despard is grateful for the government’s support scheme for employees. “We wouldn’t have been able to keep the doors open without it said. “We are being naturally weaned off it now,” he said, adding that some of Bretzel’s French and Polish employees decided to return home. “We are now hiring new people so we are losing the Covid payment.”

Despard said he believed the state should gradually reduce support payments rather than just shut them off overnight. Bretzel today employs 48 people, and Despard said he hoped to increase this number.

Somehow William Despard managed to halt his sales going into freefall. He has found new clients among the survivors of Ireland’s beleaguered restaurant sector who have picked themselves and reinventing as take-aways or food markets.

He found dozens of new clients like Paul Cadden in Saba who had turned some of his renowned Thai restaurants into a cafe at lunchtime and a take-aways at night. Sprout & Co was another win, where Bretzel was tagging on its loaves of bread onto takeaway salads.

“These are smaller customers who may only be adding a couple of 100 hundred euro a week, but it all adds up. We supply them because we got each other.”

Bretzel was also selling in places like Forest Avenue which had turned from award-winning gourmet restaurants into farmers markets.

“We would never have sold bread in places like Forest Avenue before because they would have made their own bread,” Despard said. Host in Ranelagh, he said, had now added its bread to its takeaway meal kits.

Morilles Bistro above the landmark Yellow House in Rathfarnham was another brand-new customer which has reinvented itself as a call-and-collect business. “They have become one of our top 20 companies out of nothing,” Despard marvelled.

“They have been a godsend.”

The original Bretzel Bakery too was another source of optimism. Despard has placed a limit of three customers in the shop and put up perspex safety screens. “We have been busier than we have ever been,” he said. “Sales are up between 25 per cent and 30 per cent in the shop.”

“It was easier for me to be busy saving the business rather than wallowing in the fact that my mother was having a torrid time in the hospital….” Despard’s voice trails off.

Supervalu has been Bretzel’s biggest saviour. From one outlet in Churchtown, it has gone in the space of a few weeks into stores in Ballinteer, Blessington, Dalkey, Deansgrange, Donabate, Raheny, Killester, Newbridge, Walkinstown and Sallins.

“Independent Supervalu’s have been really good to us,” Despard said. “They gave us space and we worked out a margin together that was fair to all of us and allowed us to get on with selling.”

Despard is conscious that many of his old restaurant customers may never reopen.  “Some of our small accounts were barely economic before this,” he said. “They were labours of love. Forty people in one restaurant based on tables tightly together where everyone was there to have a good time. I don’t see that type of restaurant being able to open this side of next year. A lot of very quirky and interesting restaurants are going to be lost.”

“But there will be new businesses opening too,” he said. “We are very much in the business of supplying them and supporting them.”

“We have to pivot more towards retail as a result,” Despard said. “But the demand for good bread will always be there. There is an appreciation among about 5 per cent of the population that highly processed industrial bread is bad for you.

“In five years time that will be 10 to 20 per cent. We are uniquely positioned that we can make high-quality long-fermented bread that meets these healthy demands.”

Despard is convinced that even after a sales wipe-out, Bretzel will recover, and reach €4 million in sales again this year, through winning new business, and regaining old.


William Despard’s mother Violet died as he was battling to save his business. She was a former principal of a national school in Limerick who took in refugees from Hungary after its revolution in 1956.

“I knew she was in the hospital having a really awful time,” Despard said quietly. His family was prevented from seeing her during her final days because of Covid-19 visitor restrictions. “I phoned my brother in Limerick to see if there was anything I could do. He said unless you want to leave in fresh clothes at the hospital door there is not much point driving down from Dublin to do that as they’re not allowing visitors.”

“The situation gave me a strength that I did not realise at the time,” Despard said. “It would have been very selfish of me to let a business dwindle away over three or four weeks while my mother was facing much greater demons in hospital.

“It was easier for me to be busy saving the business rather than wallowing in the fact that my mother was having a torrid time in the hospital….” Despard’s voice trails off.

Before our interview began Despard had said more about her last days but now he changes the on-record conversation. I don’t want to push him on it, but soon after he returns to his mother unprompted.

“Until my mother passed I was just in the zone working solidly seven days a week. If I was in a business making widgets or industrial slice pan I would have thrown my hat at it after about two and a half weeks but I couldn’t. My mother was a very practical woman. She would be giving me out to me if I had just given up.”