Q&A with Darren Gardiner, director of Ground Espresso Bars, who says more people are choosing to buy their cuppa from local independents, not in the big chains
Q: How did your career bring you to your present post at Ground?
A: I started working in Morelli's in Portstewart at the grand old age of 12, clearing tables. I was paid 60p an hour and I spent my first wage packet - all £16 of it - on a catapult and a Duran Duran tape. I worked in Morelli's for many years doing everything from dishes to making their famous ice cream, and was finally made a manager. I left that position to open my own business; it was a partnership and was the worst mistake I ever made. I learnt a lot from that. My wife and I were lucky to stumble across a 'new' coffee scene in the USA and London and thought it might catch on in Northern Ireland.
Q: Who are the three people to whom you owe your present success?
A: In my early years a lot of what I learnt, and have continued to use to this day, came from Nino Morelli in Portstewart. From there it has been the team we've assembled at Ground. We really would be nothing without them! We have a very dedicated back office team and they deserve credit for how they have steered the business forward. I strongly believe that a business cannot succeed without investing in the right people.
Q: What impact has the economic downturn had on your business?
A: Ironically, we've seen sustained growth over the last few years. We believe that people see a coffee and a cake as an affordable treat they were not prepared to give up. For us the biggest impact was that we looked hard at our systems, our processes and we actively pursued ways to streamline our operation and make business more profitable. We've come out of this financial crisis considerably stronger than when we went into it.
Q: You are taking up a spot at the new Tesco in Banbridge. Is a further tie-up with Tesco possible around Northern Ireland?
A: We're very excited to be partnering with Tesco and I can confirm that we are actively looking at other sites with them.
Q: Did you set up Ground with a particular formula which could be adapted to existing retail space, or did that evolve?
A: When we set up Ground we honestly hadn't a clue what we were doing. It has taken 12 years of hard work to get it to the point where I would now say we have a formula that works. Too many people think that opening a coffee house is easy - it's not! The margins are tight, the competition is fierce and you have to have pride and passion in what you do to make it work.
Q: Is the coffee scene here more or less competitive than the rest of the UK?
A:We always hear the 'there are too many cafes' comment and, yes, there are too many, but there are not enough quality-driven, passionate, independent operators out there and there certainly is room for growth. The market in Northern Ireland is just as competitive as the rest of the UK and the Republic. The big difference we are starting to see is people moving away from the big high street brands and choosing to buy their coffee from local independent operators.
Q: How have big UK/US chains like Starbucks, Costa and Nero changed the coffee scene?
A: It would be foolish and wrong to say they haven't contributed in a positive way to raising the profile of the coffee industry in Northern Ireland. When we opened, we had to have explanations for each drink on our menu. The most commonly asked-for coffee was a milky coffee. The chains have helped educate consumers and certainly what you are seeing now is a more discerning clientele searching out those operators who are doing it right.
There is room for what we refer to as commodity coffee in the Northern Ireland market, but we have chosen a different path. We know the name of the farmers and co-ops that produce our coffee, we're actively engaging with the communities that are producing the coffee we serve in our stores and we have a team going to visit one of our coffee farms in Honduras in February, ensuring they understand the full background of our product. The next time you visit a coffee shop, ask them where their coffee comes from and how it is produced - this is what is going to change the coffee industry.
Q: How has the recent rates revaluation affected your business?
As we operate across Ireland in a variety of on-street and concession stores, we've had mixed results. The level of rates in many of our town centres has seriously affected our plans for growth. We have actively looked at sites in Lisburn, Belfast city centre, Londonderry, etc, and on each occasion it has been the rates and not the rent that has forced us to withdraw. We have a model for our business that we know works, and rates that are at times more expensive than rent don't fit that model.
A: Apart from rates, is there anything else Government can do to help?
We've just opened our first store in Blanchardstown, Dublin and we were shocked at how little support there is for businesses in Northern Ireland establishing themselves in the Republic. We had to go it alone.
Q: Latte or flat white?
A: Flat white
Q: Muffin or cupcake?
Q: Town or country?
Q: Kindle or paperback?
Walk or drive?