Coffee, cake & dreams... The emergence of café culture
Café culture has taken the country by storm, and whether you're ordering a flat white or a steaming mug of Earl Grey, your local café is quickly becoming just as important a neighbourhood feature as the local pub. We meet five café owners who have each banked years of dreams and experience to open their doors around the country - and welcome customers for coffee, cake and an extra dose of comfort
For Katie Gilroy (31), opening Urbun Cafe in 2011 was the result of years of daydreams, food writing for Totally Dublin, and weekend shifts in local cafés. She and her team have transformed a vacant space in Dublin's Cabinteely into a buzzing family-friendly café.
"When I should have been immersed in my books coming up to the Leaving Cert, I'd be scribbling ideas for restaurant names on the side of my Hamlet notes. I was a big daydreamer and while I was aiming for high points to study architecture, I couldn't help but think about what it would be like to own my own business. After graduating [with a degree in English and Sociology from UCD], I fell into food writing for Totally Dublin magazine and worked as a waitress at night for extra cash. That was the beginning of my real interest in food.
"We opened the doors in 2011 and to say that we were winging it is an understatement. The menu was scribbled on a blackboard, we hadn't hired enough staff and we didn't even have any trays! We were running around like headless chickens, not expecting such a crowd. We were very naïve back then but I don't think that was a bad thing.
"Five years ago in Dublin, there were very few places that did good coffee and even less that offered good coffee alongside a wholesome, homemade menu, so our mission was to bring the two together under one roof. We're lucky that we have such a great space - we can seat about 60, and our customers can spend hours in a corner with their laptops taking full advantage of the free Wi-Fi if they wish.
"The café is industrial yet warm and cosy and the big timber communal tables are perfect for large parties. There's nothing too precious about the place and since there's loads of space for buggies, we get lots of mum and baby groups in for coffee and cake in the afternoon. The wide aisles between the tables were a bit of a happy design coincidence!
"The restaurant business is extremely challenging - you are heavily reliant on people and unfortunately people are not always so reliable! A good team is paramount to the daily operation. We have about 18 on the team and we're like a big family, literally. When one person leaves they usually send in a brother or sister to carry on the Urbun tradition and that makes it very special."
Old Bray Road, Cabinteely, Dublin 18, (01) 284-8872, urbuncafe.com
Chef Eoin Hurley (38), and his business partner and coffee-house regular, Ronan Power, combined their experience to open Alchemy in Cork city centre in December last year, giving locals a creative space to create, read and relax.
"Alchemy was really a bit of alchemy in the making! I had an idea to open a food stall, and Ronan, Alchemy's other brainchild, spent his days working from coffee shops and had been looking to open one for a while. It wasn't the first time that this idea had come up between us. I'm from a catering background and worked as a chef and Ronan has the business acumen, so it made sense to start something together. One day he sent me a picture of 123 Barrack Street. The area had just received a facelift and was full of character, we fell in love with it immediately. From that point onwards it was truly a creative whirlwind.
"We had a budget of zero and about a month to open before Christmas so we started with a few pallets and then scanned thrift shops, attics and even our own sitting rooms and sheds for the Alchemy style. I can't say our wives were too pleased when the coffee tables were being taken out the back door!
"We want our customers to feel like they are in an authentic space where they can create, write, read, be inspired and, of course, enjoy our coffee and homebakes. We aim to be original in everything that we bring to the café, including our interior which features decoupage of pages from 1950s and 1960s Cork Examiner and our floating table suspended in mid air. And then there's our homemade Keyser Rolls, named after the nearby Keyser Hill. We also host monthly exhibitions by both local and overseas artists so that our customers can be brought on a true café journey.
"Being a chef for the last 20 years I'm well familiar with the hospitality industry. This is, however, my first venture in front of house. I'm usually swearing out the back and singing along to the radio, so this is a big change for me. So far we've been lucky enough to find baristas that are true coffee lovers and are doing an amazing job for us. Their passion and enthusiasm is what keeps the café buzzing and makes our life easy."
123 Barrack Street, City Centre, Cork
Elaine Tohill (32), made the leap from a job in sales and marketing, to running Press Café, at the National Print Museum in Dublin's Beggar's Bush, quickly turning it into a local favourite. She stocks the café bookshelves with cookbooks, both for her customers to browse and for recipe reference, and relies on fiancé John for extra taste-testing duties.
"I always fancied having my own business, maybe because my dad has his own business. Observing him and being aware of how challenging yet satisfying he finds it, I was inspired to follow suit. However, my dad's business is in car parts, and this isn't exactly something I am passionate about! I've always been interested in cooking and food, though, so I finally decided I wanted to open my own café.
"While still working in sales and marketing, I took on a weekend shift in a café to ensure it was an environment I enjoyed. I then did the three-month Ballymaloe cookery course before working as a chef for a few years.
"One of the ways a dish is chosen is by selecting an ingredient I really love. I research interesting ways to cook it and different ingredients to combine with it until I feel excited and happy with the dish. A dish may also come about through experimentation, for example the banana bread French toast. When we realised how popular the homemade banana bread was we looked at numerous ways of creating a dish with it and when we finally got there it went down really well.
"New ideas are usually tried out as a daily special and if they are really popular we put them on the menu permanently. My boyfriend is also on hand for tasting and feedback.
"Food has always been my passion but I also feel the coffee, décor and customer service is equally as important. When I dreamed of having my own café I never thought the café would be in a conservatory but I did always feel wherever the café was I would embrace and use its surrounding.
"The conservatory encouraged me to grow my own herbs, chillies, tomatoes and plants to create a lush environment. I built some shelves to house them and they have now become one of the main features of the décor. These shelves also house our cookbooks and a curated selection of magazines. I have tonnes of cookbooks that we refer to regularly in work and I thought the customers might enjoy them."
National Print Museum, Beggar's Bush, Dublin 4, (01) 660-3770, presscafe.ie
Pedals and Boots
Jenny Murphy (43), and her husband, Killian, turned a quiet post office outpost in rural County Kerry into a bustling hub for tourists and locals alike, complete with bicycle hire and walking route advice. The homely café with an open kitchen and a cosy wood-burning stove to warm up on blustery days is the icing on the cake.
"We dreamed of opening a café here for about 10 years. We've been running the local post office, which we took over from Killian's parents, since 2004. As you can imagine a small, rural post office can be very quiet at times so we were looking for a business which we could run alongside it which would complement it and the other tourism businesses in the community. We live in a very scenic location overlooking the sea and people who stopped outside our post office to take photos said that we had an ideal location for a café. Since baking and cooking are also a passions of mine we felt that a café would be an ideal business to start.
"As well as a café, we provide bicycle hire and information on walking routes in the area - hence the name. People love the idea of coming here for lunch and then hiring bicycles and going off on a cycle to explore the countryside. We are blessed to have so many lovely, quiet roads off the main road that are ideal for cycling, especially with children. We also provide changing rooms and shower facilities for those who would like to freshen up after their cycle or hike.
"My vision is to have a café that people feel at home in, like popping into someone's house for a coffee and a chat. One of the first things we decided to put in the café was a wood-burning stove which makes the place feel lovely and welcoming when it is lit. Cyclists and walkers who have been out on a rainy day love to come in and sit by the fire whilst warming up with a soup or coffee. The kitchen is visible from the café so people can see their sandwiches being made, see the bread and scones coming out of the oven and get all the wonderful smells of food cooking, which makes the place feel very homely.
"We always have time for a chat with customers, we help out people who are looking for directions or places to walk or cycle in the area. I see us as a sort of informal tourist office for the area and The Wild Atlantic Way. The way in which we deal with our customers is as important as the coffee and food we serve."
Lauragh, Beara Peninsula, Co Kerry, (064) 668-3101, pedalsandboots.ie
Café veterans Jane Lamberth (37), and her husband Myles (40), met working in a hotel bistro and stored away advice and expertise from years of experience. They took over Shells Café in Strandhill, Sligo, in 2010, turning it from a local tea room into a destination for foodie visitors from miles around.
"Myles and I met working in a bistro part of a hotel, so work and food are at the centre of our relationship. We both love food and the outdoors, so we searched high and low for either a catered chalet in the Alps where we could snowboard and mountain bike, or a café by the surf. In hindsight I am so glad the surf won out!
"Sligo actually means Land of Shells and back in the 1980s our current landlords, the Taylor family, set up a tea shop and named it Shells. We loved the history of it and the connection and so kept it in place when we took over. Our number one goal is to exceed expectations. For us, Shells is an extension of who we are - a laid-back place to chill, with no pressure. We know 80pc of our customers and if I have been off, I miss the buzz.
"We both love the sea and surfing, and with Shells being right on the beach, a seaside theme was always going to feature. We sprayed a lot of the chairs marine colours and covered the tables. Myles' sister is an artist, and every year she designs a poster and graphics for us that we then use on the menu and cups, which gives a uniqueness to Shells and brings our style and personality to it. Of course, the big windows facing the ocean help, too! The views on a stormy day can really create a wonderful mood as much as a sunny day.
"The menu took a long time to put together. It started with food we love to eat, creating dishes using available ingredients from in and around Sligo. We do three specials every day, which is great for foodies and regulars who want a change, but it's also challenging for our team in the kitchen, allowing creative freedom to showcase different skills using seasonal products. Our fish and chips with our own lemon mayo can't be beaten. The view overlooking the waves and the sea air make it even more special."
Strandhill, Co Sligo, (071) 912-2938, shellscafe.com