The owners of the new Neighbourhood Cafe tell Emma Deighan the venture is a response to the changing face of the city centre
A new cafe in the heart of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter is set to disrupt the brand-heavy cafe-chain sector, says its owners, Oisin McEvoy and Ryan Crown.
It’s also set to capitalise on the shifting nature of our city centres from retail-heavy districts to more residential and hospitality-centred locations.
Neighbourhood Cafe on Donegall Street is a “concept,” claim its owners. Ryan, who also runs his own design agency, Crown Design, with an office in Belfast and one in New York, says he is getting in early, to grab the loyalty of a flood of new residents.
This includes up to 15,000 new students which will slowly start to use the new Ulster University Campus close by Neighbourhood Cafe. The cafe’s site was formerly occupied by Curated Kitchen & Coffee.
He says: “We wanted to create a cafe that we enjoy sitting in and drinking in. For me, this feels like our perfect coffee shop. It’s cosy, comfortable and has a slowed-down pace where you can catch up with a friend and with the way the city is changing, it’s going to need more places like this.”
Students are in the process of transferring from online learning and attending UU’s Jordanstown Campus to setting up at the new building. Many are already living at new blocks of student apartments which have been built over the last few years.
Ryan and Oisin also think the cafe will benefit from the neighbouring Tribeca scheme, a £500m urban regeneration project by Castlebrooke Investments on a 12-acre site located beside St Anne’s Cathedral.
The plans involve the pedestrianisation of North Street, a new North Street Arcade, a 10-storey office block, the reduction of Writer’s Square by over 50%, and the introduction of new streets and green spaces. It will involve residential, business, and commercial space.
The scheme will be bounded by Royal Avenue, Donegall Street, Lower Garfield Street and Rosemary Street.
It was approved by the Belfast Planning Council in early 2020. And while the project has been contentious — not least the decision by Castlebrooke to name if after a district in New York — Ryan and Oisin do support it.
“It does feel exciting for Belfast making that shift. At one time it felt like a place just for retail but now the change is creating a nicer buzz,” says Ryan.
Oisin adds: “Over the last month, we’ve seen more students pass by, coming over from the new LIV student accommodation building and we are really starting to see Belfast’s transition into somewhere other major cities are at already at.
“And it is amazing, and we’re giving that new neighbourhood somewhere to go and socialise. It’s somewhere different, which isn’t always the case with other cafes.”
The hospitality element of the city is also growing, with the nearby Cathedral Quarter the hotspot for socialising. Soon, retail centres will also shift their balance from a high shop concentration to a mix of experiential units. The former Debenhams store, just a stone’s throw away in CastleCourt is one example of this change.
Part of that space will be taken over by Omniplex Cinema complete with nine screens and a licensed bar.
Meanwhile just a five-minute walk away, on Royal Avenue, an application to convert the former city centre Tesco store into a mixed community space with an entertainment licence has been filed by Belfast City Council.
The plans for the historic building, which was originally a bank, include a large market hall/event space at the rear of the building while the front half of the site features a reception area, a ‘servery’ for heated or cold foods, pods, a gallery, and a stage area.
The application says the plans are temporary only, spanning around two years, with cultural and community use the focus, but it’s all part of the shift in the city centre.
Ryan says cafe goers should not expect laptop-laden customers desperately seeking power points at Neighbourhood Cafe but students, office workers and visitors who want to hark back to the original concept behind visiting a cafe; “to have good coffee and somewhere we enjoy drinking and sitting in”.
“It feels like our perfect coffee shop. It’s not the busy coffee shops we’ve become used to,” he adds.
Oisin, who has an 11-year background working at cafes around Northern Ireland, including managing nearby Established Coffee, says the venue’s launch three weeks ago was a dream come true.
“I’ve always wanted to do something myself and we have done just that.”
His passion is sourcing quality foods he says, with a focus on great coffee.
The business has sourced its coffee from Galway-based roasters, Calendar Coffee and is the first here to use the brand.
Ten jobs have been created at the cafe and all food is sourced locally in a bid to respond to the demands of its customer base.
“Where we buy our bread, our milk and our cheese matters to customers.
“We only use local purveyors because we want to and need to be conscious of it as business owners and we have noted how much our customers appreciate that.
“Yes, sourcing responsibly and being more sustainable might cost extra or add a few pence onto a coffee but it’s needed, wanted and we have to play our part,” Ryan adds.
Launching during the pandemic has not been a worry to either of the two.
Oisin sees it as an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. “The coffee scene in Belfast has grown so much in the last decade, and we’re excited to be part of that and add our own voice to the already amazing community.
“To find a location in such a creative and developing part of Belfast was an opportunity we couldn’t ignore. ”
Meanwhile, Ryan, who is also behind Hill Street Hatch, an incubator business which supports new hospitality ventures, says: “Any time you launch a business there is fear and trepidation and a lot of worry, but our skillset complements one another. Oisin knows the coffee world well. I know branding and marketing well. When the location came up, felt it was the perfect time and it felt like the right time for both of us to turn a dream into reality.”
Asked is expansion is on the cards or if Neighbourhood Cafe is a one-off concept, he says: “We want to put the right principles in place here first.”