Each month we profile a family firm to see how the business has passed down through the generations. Here, Northern Irish firm Irwin’s reveals how it has grown during more than a century

The exact date of Irwin’s inception is unknown, but paper trails date it to around 1912. Back then it was a simple grocers in Portadown, Northern Ireland, owned by William David (WD) Irwin and selling, among other things, bread baked by his wife, Ruth, and her sister Florence.

“Getting food back then wasn’t a daily trip to the shop like it is now,” notes Brian Irwin, chairman of Irwin’s bakery, and WD’s grandson. “Bread was something you typically made at home, so being able to buy bread was something new.”

The grocer’s continued well into the 1980s, but its bakery arm gained prominence as Irwin’s reach expanded outside Portadown over the border into Ireland and hitting the GB mainland in the ’80s.

Irish Batch bread has played an important role in Irwin’s history. With its distinctive crust and resilient, open texture, it has gone on to be one of the leading skus in Northern Ireland. “It developed a reputation for quality, flavour, taste and texture,” says Brian, a reputation it still holds today. “While the variety and scope of the bread market has grown enormously, we have found that keeping traditional quality is really important in our home market.”

Brian joined the business in 1976, following in the footsteps of his father Kenny, who joined in the 1930s, and his brother Niall in 1969. Niall, having studied at bakery college, joined as a master baker and is now the company’s technical director, while Brian joined on the commercial side.

“We have complementary strengths,” says Brian, also highlighting the “excellent and professional management team” at Irwin’s. This team, notes Brian, is integral when servicing the multiples.

While gaining new contracts was a highlight in Irwin’s history, “the big standout event was moving the bakery from our premises in which we’d been since 1912 to a modern purpose-built bakery in 1994.”

Eight years later, Irwin’s teamed up with Northern Irish chef Paul Rankin to develop a range suitable for the wider UK market. Described as “extremely successful”, the Rankin Selection includes Irish Fruit Soda Bread and Irish Potato Slims. “That changed us from just being an Irish brand for Irish people,” Brian says. “These products were relevant to everyone.”

Since then, Niall’s son Ross has joined as the fourth generation and is general manager of Howell’s, Irwin’s cake division. Summing up the company’s journey, Brian concludes: “It’s a really good story of enterprise and energy.”

1912: The earliest date recorded by paper trails of the origins of Irwin’s, as a grocery shop in Portadown, Northern Ireland, owned by William David Irwin

1930s: William’s son Kenny joins the company

1969: Niall Irwin (above right), William’s grandson, joins the firm

1976: Niall’s brother Brian Irwin (above left) joins the business

1980s: Irwin’s bakery arm expands into the Republic of Ireland and reaches GB mainland

1994: The firm moves to a modern, purpose-built bakery

2002: Irwin’s teams up with chef Paul Rankin to launch the Rankin Selection line