Dough is rising in this coffee spot
Being bigged up by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has boosted this fast-growing cafe business, writes Sean Gallagher
JK Rowling began writing her famous Harry Potter novels in one. Tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley hang out in them all the time. And now Ireland, too, has embraced them. The modern cafe has officially become part of daily life for many.
Last week, I met business partners Garrett Fitzgerald and James Boland, who set up a small independent, owner-run, cafe called Brother Hubbard, in Capel Street, in Dublin. Eighteen months on, they have doubled their first year's turnover and have grown staff numbers from four, when they opened, to 14.
In addition, they have received international acclaim by being selected by Jamie Oliver as poster boys for the March issue of his food magazine jamie, and been featured on US and Japanese TV.
With all this in mind, I am keen to learn what motivated the former financial services manager and the former energy regulator to leave their secure careers in pursuit of their entrepreneurial dream.
"We knew, from the outset, that we wanted to operate as an independent-type cafe," explains James.
"Being owner-run, rather than part of a franchise, is very important to us. It's very much part of our identity."
"Our aim is to serve simple, fresh food and drinks," Garrett explains. "We focus on quality and freshness and are proud that the food we serve comes from our own kitchen, made by us, and not from some factory.
"Everything is served fresh, at room temperature, directly to the customer so that the flavours and textures of the food are the very best that they can be."
The pair take me to a seated area in the courtyard at the rear of the cafe where I am treated to a cup of their signature double-shot coffee and delicious, super moist, wheat-free, almond-and-orange cake topped with ganache.
It really is an oasis in the heart of the city – a secret herb garden full of fennel, mint and parsley. "Everything that we grow can be used in our cooking," explains Garrett.
"Customers are often surprised when they see us coming out here to break off some leaves to use in preparing their lunch," explains James.
"You can't get much fresher than that," he says, laughing.
The pair are strong believers in knowing where their ingredients come from, and where possible they source from local growers and suppliers.
Success wasn't something that happened overnight.
"We both had good jobs with steady incomes – yet we were always talking about doing something for ourselves," Garrett explains.
They began having conversations about wanting to start their own business, but their conversations never seemed to go anywhere.
That was, until James read an article about the psychology of regret, headed, 'This column could change your life.'
"And it did," laughs James.
"We realised then that if we didn't start the cafe, we would always be left wondering, 'What if?'" explains Garrett. "That's when we decided to finally take the plunge."
With the decision made, Garrett headed to Ballymaloe Cookery School, where he trained intensively under the guidance of Darina Allen.
The pair then headed off to Melbourne, Australia, where they spent 12 months working in small owner-run cafes.
"There's a different feel when you enter a business where the owner is there on a daily basis," explains James. "And it confirmed for us that that was what we wanted to create back in Ireland."
Arriving back in Dublin, he and Garrett quickly realised that the economic downturn meant that they needed to create a cafe experience that not only provided a quality and authentic offering, but one that was also affordable.
"We were very grateful when many of our customers who were active on social media began to spread the word about us," explains James. "We really had no budget for marketing."
Recently, too, the pair had noticed that more and more Japanese customers were showing up in the cafe. Shortly afterwards, a film crew arrived to film a piece for Japanese TV.
However, not everything has been easy for Garrett and James. Among their greatest challenges in getting started was dealing with banks.
"They really dragged out the process," explains Garrett.
"It was a terrible time. We ticked all the right boxes. We had our own savings and a very robust business plan. But rather than simply say 'no', the banks dragged on the decision making process, to the point where we realised that they weren't going to say 'yes', but they weren't going to say 'no' either."
He felt that the banks would later be in a position to report to the Government that they didn't actually turn the pair down for a loan, but that's effectively what they did.
Today, the pair employ 14 staff – some of whom started out as customers who liked the place so much that they wanted to go and work there.
"While our staff are our biggest cost, we realise that they are also our greatest asset," explains James.
Each staff member goes through a full induction programme, complete with a staff handbook which explains the ethos and values they want to project in the business.
While shy about revenue figures, they are pleased that their turnover has doubled in their second year in business. It's an industry where costs are high and margins are tight but, for them, it's not all about the money. In fact, neither of them has taken a holiday or a salary since they started. For them, the greatest satisfaction comes from happy customers who keep coming back.
What about future plans?
"There isn't a day that we don't come up with new ideas to develop the cafe or to improve the experience for our customers," explains James.
They are conscious that at lunch times, in particular, there can be queues, as people wait for tables or to collect food to go. And so they decided to acquire the premises next door to extend the cafe.
They have plans, too, to open in the evenings.
"It won't be a traditional restaurant where you get a three-course meal, but more like a casual supper with good wines and Irish craft beers," James tells me excitedly.
They also have plans to set up an outside catering dimension to cater for small office parties, engagements and events where people are looking for something different.
And due to the popularity of some of their own products – such as their hummus, orange blossom butter and their unique blend of oils – they are also looking at introducing a retail element.
James and Garrett are proud of what they have achieved. Sometimes they take time to stand back and acknowledge the journey that has taken them to where they now are. "It hasn't all been easy but we absolutely love what we do," Garrett tells me.
There is definitely something special about Brother Hubbard Cafe. From its owners and staff to its food and surroundings, there is a wholesomeness and an authenticity that is as rare as it is unique.