The Willy Wonkas of Walkinstown

The late Thomas Caffrey seemed something of a wizard.

In the 1950s, he’d return home each evening from his laboratory in Harold’s Cross with samples of sweets, tweaked recipes, and new products from his factory tucked under his arm. It was a serial inventor’s assortment.

Today, his daughter Elizabeth says it was a constant, the routine tasting upon her father’s return. “He would come home and he’d say, ‘Look guys, what do you think of this? This strawberry flavour? This banana flavour?’” she recalls. “It was, ‘Will I put this colour with it or a different colour with that?’ He had an intriguing mind.”

And then came Caffrey’s Snowball, with its unmistakable red-and-white plastic wrapper, thin chocolate-and-coconut shell and gooey marshmallow centre.

It set Thomas and his family, who now run Caffrey’s Confectionery, up for life.

Walkinstown’s Willy Wonka

Left off Greenhills Road in Walkinstown takes you into a small industrial estate, at the back of which sits the Caffrey’s factory.

To the right of the offices and production area is the chocolate warehouse, where Natasha Caffrey, third generation, is gearing up for Christmas.

On dozens of shelves sit hundreds of boxes filled with slabs of chocolate, packets of fudge, Mint Crisp and Big Time bars, Tea Cakes and, of course, the Snowball. Almost as much an Irish staple as Brennans Bread and Kerrygold butter.

Natasha works alongside her father and brother – both called Neville – and her aunt Elizabeth. But the business today, with more than 50 employees, is a far cry from the one-man show of 1948.

Rolling rock, the teeth-shattering candy, on the Isle of Man was how Thomas Caffrey fell into confectionery one summer.

Then he set up in Harold’s Cross, gradually building the Caffrey’s brand. In 1953, a large order of Jubilee Rock for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation gave him the means to continue to expand.

He was a big believer in people starting businesses, says Elizabeth. “But when he started, at that time in the 1950s, it was impossible to get a job, never mind start a business. It was a big thing for a guy to have the guts, the nerve to get in there, roll their sleeves up and start their own company.”

It paid off though, and six years after his death, Thomas’ family now carry the mantle. Caffrey’s is still family-owned, no larger corporation pulling the strings, no shareholders hollering for profits.

In that, they are a rarity. “Hopefully we’ll go into the fourth generation,” says Elizabeth. “It’s a great tribute to him and his invention.”

And that invention is their best-selling product.

Snowballs

One day, Natasha Caffrey’s grandfather, Thomas, saw her father Neville playing with something.

“My dad had a little wind-up mouse toy going around the floor so my granda picked it up and he made a mold from it,” she says. “So he started making marshmallow mice and that’s how he got into marshmallow. From that, then it grew into Caffrey’s Snowballs.”

The Snowballs – small, round marshmallows topped with chocolate and desiccated coconut – come in a different boxes. But it’s the upright, retro yellow package that most will probably be familiar with.

Elizabeth Caffrey says it is the flavour of the sweets that sets them apart. “It’s a very special, soft taste,” she says. “Sometimes marshmallows are quite hard, but this is actually a very soft centre. You wouldn’t end up eating one but half a dozen of them.”

The recipe is a secret, says Natasha, but it hasn’t changed since Thomas Caffrey started making them.

She lists the ways people eat them. “It’s hilarious, it really is,” she says. “Some people have a ritual where they have to open it, pick off all the coconut from the top, they pick off all the chocolate and scoop out the centre.”

Others place their snowball over their cup of tea and wait until it has softened. Some put the snowball between bread and butter, she said. Others gobble it whole.

Because the company is synonymous with snowballs, they’ve taken measures to prevent impostors. The name has been copyrighted in the Republic of Ireland.

And the yellow box is sticking around. “People recognise that box,” she says. “One year we did change it and people were asking shops ‘Where’s your Caffrey’s Snowballs?’ They walked by them because they were looking for the yellow.”

The Christmas orders for 2016 have been wrapped up and now it’s on to Easter in the production room. A staff member enters from a small side door, apron smeared in melted chocolate.

Competition

The Caffreys may have their say in how the business runs, but there is still considerable competition to contend with.

“There’s a lot of imports coming in and I think it’s important for people to shop local,” says Natasha. “It’s to keep jobs, to keep the likes of Caffrey’s or Brennans Bread in business.”

After her grandfather, Thomas, set up in Harold’s Cross, he took on a few staff members and moved up to the nearby Ballymount Road. The company later moved to the current site, where they’ve been for more than 40 years.

When they came up to buy this site, it was literally green hills. “It was a little boreen lane, I’m told,” says Natasha. “My dad thought, ‘Am I mad buying this?’ But now look at it, it’s a concrete jungle.”

During the recession, it has been hard to keep costs down and stay affordable. “The price of the cocoa bean has gone up through the roof and the price of sugar has gone up through the roof,” she says. “I think people perceive chocolate to be inexpensive.”

Elizabeth says many of the staff members have been with Caffrey’s for up to 40 years. “We can’t get rid of them!” she laughs.

Stuck to a wall near the entrance is a photo of Thomas Caffrey, who passed away in 2010 at 92. His snowball in particular has sustained his family into 2016.

“He was a lovely man, he’d a great sense of humour,” says Natasha. “He’d come in here and he’d know straight away where things should go. I remember as a child there’d always be a smell of toffee when I cuddled into my granda.”

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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