Two men from Co Down have taken their hobby of producing high-quality roasted coffee beans and turned it into a viable, expanding business. Here they describe how they took the plunge, left their jobs and became globe-trotting entrepreneurs
Mark Anderson and Gregg Radcliffe have been friends since they were 10. And despite growing up in an era in which Nescafe and Mellow Birds were de rigueur, by the age of 30 they had evolved into hobby, garage-based coffee roasters.
Both were also working as IT consultants in AMT Sybex and Sysco Software respectively. But the coffee aroma was too strong to resist, and the pair left their jobs and set up Ristretto - inspired by the Italian name for a 'shorter' espresso - in their home town five years ago.
Mr Radcliffe has said before that the motivation wasn't to make money but to bring some quality coffee to the restaurant and cafe business in Northern Ireland.
The company now supplies cafes and restaurants around Northern Ireland - and also have their sights on the Republic - with specialist blends for espresso and filter coffee.
Such is their dedication they even took a trip this month to a coffee trade show in Texas. "One of the purposes of the trip was to meet a lot of the growers who we have been buying from for years," Mr Radcliffe said.
Ristretto's many growers are scattered around 20 locations in nine countries from Malawi to El Salvador. Pictures of the men with their growers, all with names like Fabio and Eduardo, line the walls of their premises.
"It's great getting together and spending some time getting to know them and their operation," says Mr Radcliffe.
One of their first suppliers was a Guatemalan grower whose holding was wiped out by a hurricane.
He has built up his business again, and is now set to supply Ristretto anew.
Mr Radcliffe says they pay a premium to producers for their beans, which are then imported raw in large sacks before being roasted and ground in Banbridge in highly-specialised, Willy Wonka-like machinery.
Texas was also all about fact-finding. "It was great to see the coffee scene in America. Everything starts off in America and then heads east so we go to see if there's anything different which we can bring back."
One new trend is a single-serve coffee through a special filter cup which demands time, precision and a touch of theatrics from its creator.
Mr Radcliffe says: "I have to be honest and say we are way ahead of America when it comes to espressos.
"Espresso is much further ahead here. We take much more pride in our espresso here in the UK, where of course Europe is the central influence.
"But Americans probably do their filter coffee better than here. That's probably because filter coffee can be consumed in larger quantities."
Mr Anderson chips in: "That's the Americans for you. Give them a bucket of coffee and they're happy."
And the single-serve coffee is, unfortunately, "quite impractical" from a commercial point of view: "It's something to get to those people who are willing to sacrifice time for the quality - basically anyone who's a coffee geek." They stress that the 'coffee geeks' who buy their fixes from Ristretto don't fit into the lap-top-carrying, creative industry cliche.
"A farmer pulled up in a John Deere tractor. He was a coffee lover who went to France a lot, and came along to try our stuff," Mr Radcliffe says.
From a hobby to a viable business is an enviable leap and one which many ordinary wage slaves would like to make. The idea sprouted when friends and family admired their home-roasted blends. They are self-taught roasters, and quickly showed the determination to go into business and make it work for them.
After leaving their jobs, they secured premises in Banbridge Enterprise Park. Now there are five people working for the company full-time, including themselves, and one person working on a contract.
And has it worked? Mr Anderson says: "It's all about time. Like anything it takes a number of years to bring it up but it was the right decision. Once we got over the difficult two-and-a-half years mark, it helped."
Much of their working day now consists of sampling to ensure the quality of the product is up to scratch. They are pleased that their coffees have attracted gold stars from the Guild of Fine Foods in the annual Great Taste Awards.
But there’s no temptation to open their own coffee shop. They’re just happy producing coffee, selling it to their customers and making sure their staff serve it properly through a rigorous training programme.
Mr Radcliffe says: “You do what you do best to help and support your customers. We see ourselves as much more than just a coffee supplier but a long-term supporter.” There can be some trouble-shooting involved — gaining new custom and starting from scratch with a member of staff who’s making cappuccino with an espresso shot in which the coffee hasn’t been given long enough to infuse the hot water.
Another crime against cappuccino, which they’re keen to stamp out, is the common mistake of creating a “cloud” of heavy, undisciplined froth.
Instead, the perfect cappuccino has a full-flavoured espresso and a head of ‘micro-foam’ on top of silky-textured hot milk.
Clients include the Michael Deane family of restaurants, Belfast establishments Tedfords, Oscars Champagne Cafe and Snax in the City, Logans in Co Antrim and the Parson’s Nose in Hillsborough. “It’s the places that want to take coffee seriously,” Mr Radcliffe says. “People are coming to us because they have been in a cafe and seen the name and the cup and liked the coffee.”
They don’t want to dwell on the competition, but it’s hard to talk to anyone in the coffee business without bringing up the American corporation Starbucks.
Its roots lie in a Seattle roastery which grew into a chain of cafes. They were bought by Howard Schultz, who expanded the chain into a corporate coffee colossus with 8,500 branches around the world.
But Ristretto isn’t down on Starbucks. Mr Radcliffe says: “I can tolerate their filter coffee but not their Americanos. And the cafes are quite welcoming. There are some things they do quite well. You can’t just be down on Starbucks all the time.”
Inevitably, the men retain the connoisseur’s attention to detail, as they labour on how every bean is roasted differently to get the best out of it. “Every one has its own profile.”
Even though they’re doing it for their day job, they’re still consuming outside office hours. Mr Anderson is on up to three cups a day, while Mr Radcliffe is still drinking it, but in smaller quantities.
“You can’t really go in and enjoy a cup of coffee anymore because you are scrutinising it.”
A new customer recently tripled their coffee sales, so there are plenty of recommendations for what they are doing. But Mr Radcliffe says: “It’s a fickle industry. A customer can easily move to another supplier but when a customer recognises it’s working out, that breeds loyalty. “
They don’t tie in customers to fixed-term contracts.
“Our quality is our contract. When you don’t have confidence in your product, that’s when you tie people in to a two-year contract.”
Ristretto training to make that perfect coffee
As part of their deals with customers, Ristretto will come and train a restaurant or cafe’s staff in the art of making the perfect cup of coffee using the Rancilio machinery it supplies. Coffeemaking is an art form and anyone who has ever worked in a cafe will attest to the trial and error it takes to make the perfect foam for a cappuccino. The World Barista Championship celebrates the skill which goes into coffee making, and Irish barista Stephen Morrissey won the title in 2008. The 2011 championship will take place next month in Bogota, Colombia.
Expensive taste: The $100 cup of coffee
Indonesia's self-proclaimed King of Luwak, Gunawan Supriadi, is having a hard time keeping up with demand for the beans excreted by his stable of pampered civet "cats".
And he's not alone. Demand for coffee brewed with beans plucked from the dung of the furry, weasel-like creatures - known locally as Luwaks - is surging among well-healed connoisseurs around the world.
About 40 civets at Supriadi's plantation in Sumatra provide the intestinal machinery for his Raja Luwak (King of Luwak) brand of bean. Lampung is the undisputed capital of Luwak coffee.
"In 2008, I gathered about 50 kilograms of Luwak beans and sold them to local distributors. In 2009, I sold 300 kilograms. In 2010, I sold 1.2 tonnes."
The "golden droppings" of the Luwak, or Asian palm civet, fetch up to $800 per kilogram (two pounds) in countries like the US, Australia and Japan.
Single cups of the world's most expensive coffee have been known to sell for almost $100 in specialty outlets in London.