Belfast Telegraph

How homegrown Northern Ireland coffee chains have brewed up success through real innovation

By Rachel Martin

Homegrown coffee chains are bringing hundreds of jobs to the region as Northern Ireland coffee drinkers fall in love with the local touch.

Bob and Berts, Ground Espresso Bars and Synge and Byrne are the chains at the centre of the coffee boom, together employing more than 600 people.

Ground Espresso Bar has plans to open up to 50 stores across the UK and Ireland - including several in partnership with clothing retailer Next.

The Coleraine-based business struck a deal with the clothing giant after Next chief executive Simon Wolfson fell in love with the brand.

Director Darren Gardiner said: "It used to be that Next would show us a list of locations with their plans for the next 12 months and we would have to say: 'Thanks, but it's not right for us now'. But now we are able to take the challenge and say: 'Y, we're interested in getting involved'."

Mr Gardiner puts the chain's success down to its early place in the Northern Ireland market. It was founded in 2001. "We were early adopters before Starbucks and Costa - when we started we used to have to explain what everything was on the menu. No one had heard of espresso or macchiatos or even cappuccinos here. I heard reliably that the reason Starbucks came here was because it saw how successful we were here and saw the potential for more.

"We've got a multi-million pound project under way with Next - our new store at Next in Abbey Centre opens on December 12. And we've put aside over £1m to invest in new stores in 2017.

"At the moment we employ 265 people, but if you ask me in another two to three weeks that will be well over 300 with the seasonal increase."

The company plans 10 new stores with Next in 2017 - a move that will create at least 200 jobs and almost double the current workforce.

Colin McClean owns Bob and Berts, and says he plans to open eight new shops next year - including its first in the Republic.

The chain started in 2013 with one store in Portstewart and quickly expanded to seven - with openings in Portrush and Coleraine quickly followed by Ballymena, Ballymoney, Ballycastle and Limavady. The chain opened seven new stores this year and now has 15.

Mr McClean runs the stores alongside brother-in-law David Ferguson (32). He also owns four other cafes, bringing the total number of employees to around 450. Colin's father Arnold was responsible for bringing the Delice de France brand to Ireland.

The chain entered into an agreement with department store Menarys, which saw Bob and Berts cafes open in four of the retailer's stores - a move that fast-forwarded the chain's growth.

Mr McClean said: "Interestingly, we were turned down for a bank loan at the start. Now we never borrow. We have a business model that we will just use turnover from the other shops to open new stores. Our second store was in effect paid for by our first store and the third was paid for by a combination of the two, so when store 15 was opened it was really a result of a pot gathered up from the other 14."

Synge and Byrne - the smaller, edgier little sister of well-known cafe brand O'Brien's - is also growing fast. It's opening store number six, just three years after it was founded.

Damien Garvey runs the business along with his brothers Adrian and Paul. He said: "It's locally inspired and very much about what's in the marketplace. We've also tried to make it about healthier living food... we get a lot of customers asking for chips and crisps and white bread, but you'll not get those things in Synge and Byrne."

O'Brien's employs 164 people in 12 stores and Synge and Byrne has 56 staff in six stores.

While the brothers want to expand, they say they are not interested in a large corporate deal or shopping centre sites. "We knew landlords wanted something more specialist, smaller feeling, and that's what we've tried to do."

Belfast Telegraph

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