On the wall connecting the counter and the back entrance of Greenhills Irish Bakery, Dermot Quinn has a shrine to his two homes.
Some of the paintings and posters up there help Quinn harken back to his childhood in County Offaly. There is a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic right next to the Irish tricolor. The flag has a clairseach—the Celtic harp and symbol of Ireland—on it that designates the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Ireland’s separation from Great Britain. Conveniently, 2016 represents a big milestone for Quinn as well—this year marks Greenhills’ 25th anniversary.
But other works pay tribute to his new home—780 Adams St. in Dorchester—where he and his wife, Cindy, have run Greenhills Bakery since July 4, 1991. Quinn highlights one picture in particular. It’s a panorama of Garvey Park on April 16, 2013. Quinn was one of many from Dorchester in that picture to attend a candlelit vigil for Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who was one of three tragically killed during the Boston Marathon bombings. The Richard family had been regular customers of Greenhills. Quinn remembers seeing Martin’s face every morning, gazing at the array of baked goods displayed in the glass counter.
Inspired by Richard, Quinn has used this year to give back to the community that has given him so much. During every month of this 25th anniversary, Quinn has given $1,000 of Greenhills’ profits to Dorchester charities. In March, one of those checks went to the Martin Richard Foundation.
“We’re not just an Irish bakery, we’re more of a neighborhood bakery as well,” Quinn said. “We’re very proud to be in Dorchester for 25 years, and we hope to be here for as long as possible.”
The community is just as happy to have Quinn.
Everything at Greenhills, from the bread to the coffee, is homemade. It smells like a Dunkin’ Donuts—but with many other scents vying for attention. At its 10 or so tables, you will find a potpourri of locals: college students, working men, stay-at-home moms with babies in tow, and elderly Irish immigrants looking for a taste of the homeland. Usually they arrive at different times—workers and students in the early morning, older residents by noon time. But at 9:30 a.m., there’s a perfect balance.
Regardless of background, anyone who walks in the door greets all who he or she passes—some by name, others with pleasantries. And Quinn could not help but do the same. After all, Greenhills is one big family. Everyone who has come through these doors has ordered a wedding or birthday cake. If you need treats for a family function, chances are Quinn or his staff baked them the day before.
Before each customer, on each table, a different delicacy. If you are in the mood for a heartier breakfast, as many are, Quinn provides two Irish classics. Greenhills makes a sausage roll cooked in the Irish style and wrapped in a croissant-like flakey crust. His most famous is the Irish breakfast sandwich, which was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s television show No Reservations. On a freshly-baked roll, you can get a glut of meat, cheese, and egg. The cheeses and egg are no different from your typical selection at any diner—American, cheddar, or swiss; scrambled or fried. The meats, however, are truly Irish. Each sandwich has boiled bacon—the real Irish meat, according to Quinn, not the corned beef that you might be tricked into getting on St. Patrick’s Day—sausages, and of course, black and white puddings. Top it all off with ketchup or Greenhills’ special brown sauce, and you are good to start your day. Just don’t forget plenty of napkins.
If you just want the baked goods for which Greenhills has become famous, Quinn has got you covered, too. Greenhills’ shelves are balanced between Irish favorites and American treats. Each cookie puffs up in the middle like a mini, airy cake—the chocolate chip tastes a lot like those Little Bites muffins you would find in your middle school lunchbox, except this time, it’s baked at home. The macaroons have just enough coconut to give you that tropical taste, without being overpowering.
Many customers have one of two Irish specialities: barmbracks and scones. A barmbrack is a bread with allspice, a unique fall pastry, that often has sultanas or raisins in it. The scones are as good or even better. They come in several varieties—blueberry, cinnamon, raisin, and more. The traditional scone—the one you are more likely to be familiar with—has a flat top and is soft, resembling a biscuit. Those are the ones that derive from Great Britain. Quinn makes his scones the Irish way: textured, with crispness in every bite, and, of course, big enough to be a meal on their own.
The baking was never something that came naturally to Quinn. When he first came to the United States in 1984, he had no intention of opening a bakery. He trained as a French chef in Switzerland and wanted to chase the “big carrot” of fine dining: New York City. His dream changed when he visited his sick grandmother, May Murphy, back in Ireland five years later. Quinn begged his grandmother to write down the recipe for her famous brown bread as a final lasting keepsake. Three and a half handfuls of flour, one and a half handfuls of bran, a handful of wheat flour, pinch of salt, pinch of sugar, enough buttermilk to wet, bake it in a modern oven at 350 for one hour. Quinn still keeps that original recipe in a frame behind a picture of Granny Murphy herself.
But, after a couple of tough months in the States, Quinn decided that Granny Murphy’s recipe might be something other people might want to enjoy. So he began experimenting. It did not exactly work out.
“It came out terrible, it was terrible at first,” Quinn said with a laugh. “The flour was different, I had to use additives like cream of tartar. But after about a month, I had something that was edible.”
So the Quinns packed up their Pontiac Le Mans with 300 to 400 loaves and headed up to the Catskill Mountains in New York. They sold every last loaf of brown and soda bread, plus his signature scones, for $10 a pop. Not long after, they opened up shop in Dorchester doing wholesale. Dorchester, Quinn said, was the perfect spot because of the longtime Irish influence, and because it was near Gerard’s Restaurant, a former neighborhood mainstay that was Greenhills’ biggest customer.
Cindy’s parents were integral to getting them started. Her mother was a decorator, and used that eye to help the baking newbies make their cakes visually appealing.
But it’s Quinn’s experience as a chef that makes Greenhills truly unique.
Most bakeries open early and close just after lunch. Greenhills is no exception—the lights at 780 Adams Street turn on at 5 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and 6 a.m. on Sunday. But Quinn stays open through the evening rush, not sending everyone home until 6 p.m. most days. That is when Quinn gets to show off that culinary education from many moons ago
Every day, Greenhills makes honeybaked ham, with meat from the local butcher. Shepherd’s pie, unsurprisingly, often finds its way into the rotation, too. He also mixes in different specialties: turkey Tuesdays, boiled-dinner Thursdays, fish Fridays. Combined with typical soups, salads, and sandwiches, Greenhills doubles as the local deli counter that can provide home-cooked meals to bring back when you just do not have the time to make one yourself.
If you are not going to come home with a dinner, the least you can come back with is dessert. Greenhills offers several different kinds of pies—traditional apple (which won Best of Boston, 1996) and pumpkin to custard and rhubarb—along with a plethora of cakes. Quinn’s current favorite is one from home: a sherry trifle. This Irish treat is made from sponge cake soaked in sherry, topped with whipped cream over a bed of fruit-infused gelatin.
And, if nothing else, bring home a loaf of that famous brown bread. One bite and you will experience Boston the way Quinn and the folks at Greenhills do—like the 33rd county of Ireland.
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor