After first seeing the impressive red-brick Smithfield fruit and vegetable market, you’d be forgiven for walking past, without remark, Brendan’s Café.
On Mary’s Lane, it has seen few alterations since it first opened in 1985. The beige lettering on its brown facade has something of a comfortable old sofa about it, and is poles apart from the sharp, minimalist grey exterior of the nearby Oxmantown café.
But, for the fruit and veg drivers and locals, Brendan’s is something of a fry-up mecca.
If It Ain’t Broke
Wesley O’ Brien spent summers flipping eggs and frying rashers in Brendan’s many years ago.
He recalls the fish market, the then-packed fruit and veg market, and the announced redevelopment of said market during the boom.
These days, he helps run Brendan’s with his father, the owner.
“It hasn’t changed a whole heap in 31 years,” he says. “At times, I tried to get him [Brendan] to change things, but people seem to like it the way it is.”
It’s early morning as a regular announces his arrival with familiar hollers of goodwill. He orders two sausages and a bit of bacon in a fresh roll, offers payment, grabs his grub, and leaves for a day’s work.
Such scenes are frequent and few of them require a glance at the candy-stripe neon sign listing what is on offer. With the fry-up standards and a few additions, teas and coffees, it’s the easiest choice in the world.
Bacon, rasher, egg sandwich, toasted on buttered Brennans batch loaf. Cup of coffee, can of Coke. With you in two minutes, down in three, and €8 for the pleasure, thank you very much.
Brendan’s opens at 6am every weekday and 7am on Saturdays. It’s closed Sundays.
“At one stage, we used to open at 5am, back when the market was at its peak,” says O’ Brien. “We had truck drivers from all over Europe.”
Leaner times meant fewer international visitors, and back to the local customer base. But business has been steady since.
“The bulk of the customer would be lads either working in the fruit market, people delivering to the fruit market or people buying from the fruit market,” says O’ Brien. “It certainly provides the lion’s share, I’d say.”
While the fruit and veg workers have declined in numbers since 1985, a steady, slow pace keeps the café ticking over on a daily basis.
John Condren’s been 18 years in the fruit and veg market opposite Brendan’s.
“An awful lot of the small shopkeepers are gone,” he says. “High-end retail has survived. The few guys in there now are more just doing actually, same as myself, the catering trade.”
Everyone working around the market has been to Brendan’s, says Condren.
“Growers would come in now, they’d drop off whatever they were leaving, they’d get breakfast and head back out,” he says. “It’s been there for ages.”
All around him, Condren can see evidence of the area’s alteration in recent years.
“In the far corner over there [Mary Street Little] was a wholesale greengrocer, now you can see it’s a pottery shop,” he says. “There used to be another wholesaler, that’s now converted into apartments.”
There’s still a market for a spot like Brendan’s though around the area, especially if you’re heading home from a night out, says Condren.
Frying Rashers and Flying Ashes
On most days you’ll find Jean Reilly at the flaming-hot grill, flipping at speed. She’s 21, single and offers me her number, repeating the joke when I don’t catch it.
Reilly has worked in Brendan’s since its first year of business, 1985.
“Lots of people come in and find a real old café here,” she says. “They can come in and sit down without getting disturbed, make up their own sandwich, make up their own breakfast.”
One early morning, years ago, Reilly says, a woman stumbled out of the nearby early house and into Brendan’s. Reilly had to dodge a flying ashtray as it whizzed past her head.
The woman left, eventually, and Reilly survived unscathed.
While Reilly pitches up every morning at 6:45am, not everyone’s been able to handle the early hours required to work in Brendan’s.
“They used to come in looking for jobs, the girls,” says Reilly. “Ah mister, I can’t come in at eight or nine o’clock, and I’ll probably want to go at three. Ah sure, no no no, that’s no good to us.”
As Reilly and O’Brien tell it, it’s not just the proximity to the market, but the simplicity of the food that brings people in.
Loaves of Brennans sit above the counter top, pots and ladles hang from the wall above the grill as Reilly chucks on rashers for an afternoon customer
At one point, the café decided to change the bread. A customer backlash put paid to that.
O’Brien tried to install a chalk board rather than a neon sign. It didn’t take.
Apart from the cooker, it’s practically still 1985 in Brendan’s.
“People don’t come here for sandwiches,” says O’Brien. “You can absolutely get any sandwich you want, but people generally come for the breakfast.”
They come from the early houses, from the flats, and from the market. And O’Brien says the if-it-ain’t-broke approach has sustained the business into 2016.
Brendan Madden has worked in the fruit and veg market for 30 years. He’s just clocked off as the gates of the red-brick behemoth and the shutters of Brendan’s lock for the day.
As long as there’s employment in the area, he says, Brendan’s will survive. “There’s little passing trade down here,” he says. “But there’ll always be someone looking for a cup of coffee and a fry.”
O’ Brien, of Brendan’s, thinks the area’s going to keep on changing. And if plans for the Smithfield market revamp ever get off the ground, Brendan’s may eventually have to change too.
“While you’d never strip away the character of the place, this area will change and you might have to tweak it for that market,” he says.