Belfast Telegraph

S.D. Bell still serving best teas and coffees

By Rachel Martin

It's a name now synonymous with the finest teas and coffees Northern Ireland has to offer.

But S.D. Bell owner Robert Bell has said a coffee shop wasn't always in the tea leaves for his family.

Ireland's oldest independent tea importers and coffee roasters was founded by his great-grandfather Samuel David Bell, a farmer's son from Stewartstown, Co Tyrone.

Samuel had planned to become a minister, but life took a different turn when he began working at a general merchant's shop on Church Lane.

Shortly after joining the shop, which sold everything from hardware to groceries, he decided to buy out the owners with the help of his wealthy father-in-law.

In 1887, David Bell changed the store's name and S.D. Bell's was born.

The business has survived the effects of rationing, when tea and coffee were in short supply, as well as the economically-devastating Troubles.

During the Eighties, the family took the tough decision to close their city centre shop and move the firm's headquarters to the Upper Newtownards Road.

Family traditions are still an important part of the business and all the coffee sold in the shop is roasted on-site.

Robert Bell has been the shop's master roaster for 10 years after learning the art from his uncle - who was tutored by his father.

Today, Robert Bell says he is not worried about competition from high-street chains. Instead, he says S.D. Bell's offers a different service and range of products to large chain rivals.

But rising input costs are the biggest challenge to business.

"The price of tea always goes up, the price of coffee fluctuates, but wages will continuously go up," he said. "Coffee is relatively low priced at the moment, but wages are going up, especially with the living wage.

"You always try to grow the business but in the service industry you have to keep giving quality as well. It's very hard to grow without adding to your costs."

The shop sells delicacies including Kopi luwak, a coffee costing £60 a bag. The speciality Vietnamese weasel coffee is made by collecting coffee beans eaten by wild civets off the forest floor. According to the shop's master roaster, the flavour is sweeter than other coffees.

Loose leaf tea is also getting more popular and has even eclipsed sales of ordinary tea.

Belfast Telegraph