Bread of life


BAKED GOODS Karen O’Donoghue inside Teach Scoile, Westport, home to The Happy Tummy Co. Pic: Karen Cox

Westport food company aims to radically improve people’s health and happiness

Michael Gallagher

It’s an intriguing space with a beautiful story to tell. The setting is an inconspicuous building in a quiet corner of a Westport carpark, but the learnings found within the walls are nothing short of spectacular.
Cork native Karen O’Donoghue runs The Happy Tummy Company from the building with ‘Teach Scoile’ emblazoned over the door. She’s enthusiastic and driven, and she describes herself as a ‘wild woman’, so a Thursday morning visit to her renowned bakery promises great things.
Karen isn’t one to rest on her laurels. She ran a hugely successful food business in London after working with the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards in Dublin, but gave it all up to come back to Ireland where her heart resided.
The move to Westport and a drive to change people’s physical and mental health through what they eat soon gave rise to a new venture: The Happy Tummy Co.
“It’s factually and scientifically proven that if you eat according to how your gut wants to eat you will be happier and live a longer life,” she told The Mayo News as tea and fermented cookies were shared. “We apply that logic and that basic way of thinking to everything we do here and what we bake for people.”
This week is international Real Bread Week – a celebration of additive-free ‘real bread’ and those who make it, and an auspicious time to learn more about this new addition to Westport town.
Karen’s bakery produces world-renowned bread products – she even has film star Goldie Hawn among her customers. Her goal is to radically improve people’s lives through their gut. She’s accomplishing as much with every passing day, and she has the happy customers to prove it.  
“Recently we had a lady here from Cork who suffered for 26 years with unexplained bowel issues. She had seen numerous surgeons and consultants. She heard about us and started eating the bread. It changed her whole life. Her husband said she’s a changed woman – she’s happier, her coping mechanisms are better, she’s now going about her business every day without a sense of anxiety or nervousness.”

Bread is medicine
“Everything we do is based on science,” Karen continued, “but our biggest tension point is the lack of education out there, so we have be educators too.
“You can go to a nutritionist or a dietician, but you still have to go home and make your own food. Dieticians love us and are sending their clients to us every day, saying if you’ve IBS get this bread or if you want to get off your inflammation medication take this bread. Basically bread is medicine. I can’t stress that strongly enough.”
O’Donoghue’s approach goes against much modern thinking, which can focus too much on pharmaceutical intervention to treat health issues. She’s on a mission to swap prescription medicine for a food-led approach to managing and healing one’s own body.
She has pioneered a scientifically developed range of breads aimed at alleviating IBS, mental-health issues, period and menopause pain and a range of other ailments.
“People are being bombarded with advice that’s not necessarily based on anything other than a modern solution to a modern problem. Our business is based around an ancient solution to a modern problem.
“We have people who eat our products come back to us saying they’re off various drugs which seemed indispensable. We had one guy in Dublin who was two weeks away from having his bowel removed. He read about us and started eating our bread and when he got to the day of the operation the surgeon said, “Something has changed, we don’t need to remove your bowel after all.”
However, the Happy Tummy bread is priced differently to a loaf in the local supermarket. The bread takes anything up to three days to make, and the most popular loaf costs €25, but Karen pulls no punches about her pricing.
“Some people don’t have a monetary value on their own health. We should ask ourselves, what’s the value of good health? What’s the value of it to a family dynamic? And what’s the value of good health long term?
“It’s a slow journey. Consumers have come to expect a very ballooned-looking sour dough made with white flour predominantly, which is easier and much faster to make compared to wholegrain, high-enzyme bread.
“We put loads of ingredients into a loaf to replicate what’s not now happening in the fields and also put our stuff through really slow soaks and ferments over the course of three days or longer.
“Everything is handmade, which makes a huge difference. The benefit of making things by hand is you have a microbiome on your skin which will add more goodness to the breads. Baking bread with your hands is conducive to better health.”

Earth and education
O’Donoghue grew up in Cork and as a child watched her mother battle cancer. She developed a fiery determination to grow up and develop preventative eating habits after watching her mother endure a prescription-laden end to life.
She remembers having an epiphany as a young girl. “My mother was on chemo in the house and I was outside putting a beech sapling in the ground, and I remember thinking, ‘This is life, what’s going into the soil is life and when I grow up I’ll create a brand based on medicine which is preventative’. I lived in a world where my mother was on prescription after prescription which wasn’t feeding her.
“My mother’s sickness had a huge impact on our lives, and I didn’t want it to happen to any other family. I had severe IBS all my life since I was a baby. I was constantly constipated. In my early 20s I knew I was going to get colon cancer unless I got a handle on what was happening me.
“I started reading science papers every day and it became very obvious to me how people should eat. I started playing around with different processes for about 18 months and tested this out on various people with IBS around London and then ran my own bakery business there, delivering bread all over the UK and had a range of food-to-go products in supermarkets.”
However, Ireland was calling her home and there was no denying the pull to the old sod. “I’m a wild woman, there’s a feral side to me, and I wanted to do this back here in Ireland. My parents went on their first date when they were 16 on Achill Island, so there was always a subconscious pull in this direction I think.
“My mum’s family had the biggest farm in Munster. My grandfather was the first guy in Ireland to run machinery off charcoal. They employed about 250 people in Cork, and mum would have grown up with an entrepreneurial sense. Dad’s parents ran a school, so I’m a real mix of both my parents – earth and education.
“When I looked at moving back to Ireland there were only two houses for rent that would accept a dog. One of them was in Westport, so that’s why I’m here,” she added with a smile.
The building may be inconspicuous, but Karen O’Donoghue is changing the world one loaf at a time. She has an intriguing story to tell, and many chapters yet to create.

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