Belfast Telegraph

Taking on the coffee giants at their own game

Coffee houses are dominating the high street, with ambitious homegrown companies thriving alongside the big brands. Clare Weir reports

"A skinny latte, with a shot of hazelnut syrup, and a double espresso please. Oh, and a skinny raspberry and white choc chip muffin."

This cosmopolitan order is not being placed at a bustling hang-out joint in lower Manhattan, it's happening at a Starbucks concession at the Junction One shopping complex in Antrim.

Gone are the days of being satisfied with a clingfilmed 'piece' washed down with a mug of builder's brew.

Northern Ireland is embracing cafe - and coffee - culture at a rapid rate and these days you can get just as good an americano in Sydenham as you can in Seattle.

These and other high-powered beverages have slipped seamlessly into Northern Ireland life and for many, dried granules just won't cut it when you can get the finest Fair Trade arabica beans just around the corner, with ethical and artisan coffee shops continuing to spring up all over Northern Ireland.

While Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero - which has now taken up residence in the former location of the late-lamented Delaney's in Lombard Street - are now firmly rooted in Northern Ireland, it isn't only the American mega-chains which are providing our caffeine fix.

One of the biggest success stories here is Clements Coffee.

The chain has 11 branches all over Belfast including Royal Avenue, Botanic Avenue, Stranmillis Road and three outlets serving Queen's University.

Business founder John Elliot said that spending hours in coffee shops meeting business contacts inspired him to set up shop almost 13 years ago, way before some of the global market leaders decided to set foot in Northern Ireland.

"I was setting up businesses in Dublin and Belfast and spent most of my life in coffee shops having meetings so I decided to do it myself," he said.

"The first branch was at Donegal Square West and my main aim was to create some alternative to the bar culture which was so prevalent in Northern Ireland.

"As well as city centre outlets I thought it was very important to serve the suburbs and outlying areas. We currently employ around 165 staff.

"One of our big strengths is customer loyalty. Our Botanic Avenue branch recently underwent refurbishment and the regulars were seen to be popping up in our other shops for the week it was closed.

"We encourage our staff to be quirky and put their own stamp on the place and play their own music. We also use our own blend of coffee which is not used anywhere else in Northern Ireland and we were one of the first companies here to go Fair Trade, which is an ethos that our clientele buy in to.

"I have background in marketing and sales so it was important for me to establish Clements as a distinct brand and I definitely think we are holding our own."

In-store concessions are also popular with weary shoppers desperate for a caffeine hit and profitable for proprietors who can benefit from the support of well-established high-street names.

As well as the big brands like Starbucks and Costa Coffee springing up in major shopping outlets, local coffee shop owner Darren Gardiner has capitalised by opening branches of his north coast-based Ground Coffee in shoe store DVA, Next and Waterstones in Belfast.

Mr Gardiner said that the homegrown nature of his business helped it win out over bigger names and there are plans for expansion into the rest of the UK.

The firm has also garnered much success with clever use of social networking, offering prizes and gig tickets through special competitions on Facebook and Twitter.

"With Waterstones, it was between us and Starbucks," he said.

"Waterstones approached us about opening a concession in the Fountain Street shop. They liked the fact that we make everything in house and that our style and look fitted in with their own - coffee and books just go together.

"Our style is also more subtle than that of Starbucks - that brand is almost too big and there was a worry that with Starbucks livery everywhere, people would forget that it was a Waterstones shop first and foremost.

"Building on that success, Next approached us and asked if we would open an outlet in their shop. We are now looking at opening further shops in the rest of the UK, which would be an exciting move.

"Independents would be foolish not to acknowledge the contribution made by the chains in delivering coffee culture to Northern Ireland. The main advantage they brought was choice.

"We may laugh at those people ordering a tall skinny latte with no cream and flavoured syrup shots, but a few years ago all you could get was a cup of tea or coffee and the big names coming in has helped to change that and give us the same choices as we would have in the USA or Europe.

"But the challenge now is to keep things fresh and different. One of the big new sellers is the 'flat white' - an Australian trend which includes two shots of espresso in a large mug with milk which has not been whipped or frothed.

"We are also having to come up with new iced drinks and frappes.

"Surprisingly in a coffee shop, speciality tea is now also becoming more popular and we work alongside Suki Tea, which is based in Northern Ireland and produces award-winning teas."

But while some try to emulate and capture some of the market share from the big-hitters, others are going about things in a different way.

Husband and wife team Suzanne and Keith Livingstone who run Baked in Belfast and Shop Around the Corner at Orby Drive in the east of the city say that they model their coffee shop on "an eccentric aunt's house".

"Right from the start we wanted everything to be quirky and original, where nothing matched," said Suzanne.

"We make everything in-house so we are not going to be like Starbucks who have 30 different types of bun available all day, every day. This may limit us in some ways, but it's also an advantage in others.

"Nothing here is brought in. The customers can see what they are eating being made in the kitchen in front of them.

"We don't go for this trend of booths and tables for one or two, we like the customers to be able to see and talk to each other. One downside of American cafe culture is that everyone is always in a rush, people are in their own wee world.

"At Baked in Belfast, there is more of a sense of community. People will see their friends through the window and call in and join them for a coffee, people will chat across tables to each other."

It seems clear that nothing will stop the continual rise of this hip and fresh cafe culture in Northern Ireland.

It is Imperative towns and cities get right retail mix to avoid being overrun by cafe culture, argue critics

Is there such a thing as 'too much coffee' or 'caffeine fatigue'?

Some argue that there are too many coffee shops on the high street.

Holywood is one area where shoppers struggle to buy anything apart from frothy milk and ground beans given a preponderance of cafes.

Town centre manager Stephen Dunlop has warned that while many budding barristas are jumping on the bandwagon, only the strong will survive.

"We do see people who think it is as simple as opening up and selling coffee, but you need to add value to the experience, whether that be wi-fi, a children's area, flexible opening hours or excellent food provision.

"We have seen two closures in recent weeks. It is critical that anybody trying to make it in this market is offering more than just good coffee."

Donald McFetridge, a retail analyst at the Ulster Business School, believes getting the right retail mix on the high street is just as important if a coffee shop is to survive.

"It used to be mobile telephone shops; now it's coffee shops," he said. "Few towns or cities here are without at least a few of these, be they part of larger multinational chains or independently run.

"Coleraine is a prime example; there's practically a coffee shop on every corner.

"Starbucks is here but the independents appear to be trading successfully alongside them - despite the sometimes exorbitant prices being charged for a simple cup of black liquid.

"While we don't want to see empty or vacant units on our high streets - or even in our shopping centres - we really need to ask the question: how many more coffee shops do we need?

"It's vitally important to get the retail mix right whether on the high street or out of town and an overabundance of one type of outlet is not good for overall image or impact.

"Town centre and shopping centre managers spend long hours deliberating over the right retail mix trying to get the balance of 'independents to multiple chain ratio' correct and sorting out issues such as adjacency - who should be next door to who.

"But, it strikes me that some of them haven't got it quite right - yet.

"TS Eliot expressed concern about measuring out his life in coffee spoons.

"I'm more concerned about counting the number - and sometimes quality - of our coffee shops, especially during a period when discretionary spending on a large Americano (£2.60 in my local) sometimes demands more than just a little poetic reflection!"