You could say Claire Keane, who owns and operates Second Street Bakeshop in Carrigaline, Co Cork, has come full circle since she first left home in 1999. Like so many other young Irish folk, she moved to the United States to build a career for herself after finishing her studies. Her older sister had moved several years previous, and Claire was lucky enough to receive a Green Card.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” she tells Irish Country Living. “I initially studied for a BA in Geography and Sociology in University College Cork [UCC], but I was really passionate about the environment. I did a masters in Environmental Science in University College Dublin [UCD]. I went out to San Francisco, where I got an environmental consultancy job.”
Claire worked in this area for several years, but grew disheartened as she felt her work did little else than help build large developments. She was moving away from the positive change she had always wanted to make through her career.
“That started something in me – it felt like I wasn’t following my true path,” she explains. “There was one moment when I was working in Nevada for a bit and the site was a wetlands – quite unique and rare – and there was a beautiful white egret just standing there. It just felt so wrong to be encroaching on one of the few wetlands in that area. Over time it gnawed away at me.”
Back to baking
Claire knew she needed a career break. She fondly remembered how much she loved baking in the kitchen with her mother on Sundays and watching Darina Allen’s cookery programme on Friday evenings. When her sister first moved to the United States, Claire (then aged 15) wanted to earn some pocket money to go visit her. She started baking and selling millionaire’s shortbread at school to her classmates.
“That went down a hit, so I saved up the money – it served its purpose,” she recalls, laughing. “I went to the States and had my pocket money. Then I put the recipe away and, actually, never made them again for many years.”
While on her career break, her mind went back to those tray bakes, and the fun she used to have baking with her mother in Cork. She slowly got back into the kitchen and, one evening while entertaining friends in the States, she made a batch of millionaire’s shortbread for their dessert.
“One of our friends was English and he said, ‘You need to start selling those here,’” Claire recalls. “I remember replying, ‘Yeah, but they’re cookies – I’m not going to start a business selling cookies.’ But deep in my heart I knew this was a really good idea.
“I researched, did some business courses, and eventually I decided to go for it,” she continues. “I signed up for an entrepreneurship course and then I just went full throttle. It gained traction and I officially launched my business ‘Clairesquares’ in 2006.”
Claire built up her business over the next decade, providing quality wholesale Irish treats for retail outlets throughout California and the Pacific Northwest. However, by 2017 she felt she had taken the business as far as she could.
“I thought the business really needed to go to the next level and it wasn’t me that was going to take it there,” she explains. “It needed mechanisation, equipment and investment – and, really, I wanted to move home. By the time I made that decision, I had been in the States for 18 years. It would take another two years to sell it.
“By 2019 I was done, wrapped up, I moved back home to Cork and didn’t know what I was going to do – I just needed some time out. Then, sure enough, the year went on and we were in lockdown.”
Times had changed
When Claire moved back to Ireland after 20 years of living in the United States, she was surprised by how much had changed and how few people she now knew in the place she grew up. She found the COVID-19 lockdowns isolating and difficult, and admits that, at times, she considered moving back to California.
“I was very happy to come home, but I quickly realised it was going to be a massive challenge,” she says. “I had no tribe and I found it very tough [during lockdown]. I’d go into the kitchen on a Sunday and the only salve, really, was to bake.”
This is where the spark for Second Street Bakeshop was ignited. She spent so much time baking during the lockdowns, she decided to start shipping her confections to family members as she couldn’t eat all she was producing herself.
“I shipped a cookie box to my cousins and, I was thinking, ‘I’m going to see which one they like the most,’” she says. “The toffee brittle was their favourite. It wasn’t something they had before, it was kind of unique. I thought I could be on to something.”
Second Street Bakeshop
Going with the idea of a chocolate-coated toffee brittle product range, Claire officially launched Second Street Bakeshop in September of 2021. During this time, she was supplying her local Neighbourfood (the online farmers market which exploded in popularity during the pandemic) and says it was the perfect opportunity for a soft launch.
“Neighbourfood is a great organisation because I was able to test different flavours, price points and sizes of packaging. Then customers would give you honest feedback. I did that for about nine months and then joined the Acorns programme [for rural female entrepreneurs] in October, 2021. I finished in April 2022 and was ready to launch into retail.”
However, retail would have to wait as Claire took time out of the business to care for her father, who had just been diagnosed with a rare cancer. He sadly passed away the following September.
“I started the New Frontiers [entrepreneurship] programme that same week,” she says. “I was doing that until April 2023 and was also doing the SuperValu Food Academy programme. That all culminated and we got onto the shelf in May.”
Since then, it has been a whirlwind for Claire, especially as a busy Christmas period has just passed. To date, she had won two golds at the Blas na hEireann awards for her milk chocolate brittle with sea salt and a star at the Great Taste Awards for her dark chocolate brittle with sea salt.
Before Christmas, she and her team launched two new flavours of brittle: milk chocolate hazelnut and dark chocolate mint. She also launched a dark and white chocolate peppermint bark and her fresh cream salted caramel truffles.
Her products are made using Irish butter, sustainably sourced, palm oil-free Belgian chocolate and Achill Island Sea Salt (a nod to her late father, who hailed from Newport, Co Mayo). She tells Irish Country Living that she started the business frugally, choosing not to invest in any large equipment until this summer when she received a grant from her Local Enterprise Office to purchase a toffee making machine.
She hopes to start working with a distribution service in the coming year and would like to see Second Street Bakeshop products in more independent shops. She is also working on new flavours of brittle as well as a plant-based alternative – again, made using local and sustainably sourced ingredients.
“There’s so much more in the pipeline and I’m really excited for the future,” she says, smiling.
For more information and stockists, check out https://www.secondstreetbakeshop.com/