Sunday 21 January 2018

Former architects grind out profits with artisan coffee

Sean Gallagher meets small and medium sized business owners and shares the lessons they’ve learnt in building their companies

Sean Gallagher with Stephen and Ruth Deasy at their popular Bear Market Coffee shop in Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Sean Gallagher with Stephen and Ruth Deasy at their popular Bear Market Coffee shop in Blackrock, Co Dublin. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Having set up Bear Market Coffee in 2014, former architects and husband and wife team Stephen and Ruth Deasy have already established themselves as a recognised brand in what is a growing yet highly competitive coffee marketplace. With shops in Blackrock Village, the IFSC and George's Court on Townsend Street, they now employ 14 staff and have an annual turnover in excess of €1m.

"We're a speciality or artisan coffee retailer," says Stephen as he and Ruth welcome me to their flagship shop on the Main Street in Blackrock. "Our aim is to really connect and interact with our customers so that they can enjoy a unique coffee experience.

"We do this by providing the best quality artisan coffee, made by talented and trained baristas in a distinctively vibrant and positive environment."

As they show me around, it's easy to see that a lot of thought has been put into the shop's layout and décor.

With its stripped-back walls, reinforced steel bars, exposed ceilings and natural timbers, the couple have clearly drawn on their other shared love, architecture, to deliver what is a beautifully modern and inviting space.

It's early when I arrive and the morning rush is already in full swing. A steady stream of customers drop in to grab a coffee on their way to work.

Many too, are unable to resist the sight and smell of the freshly-baked scones and pastries that adorn the counter. "We also have a strong 11 o'clock trade as well as a busy lunchtime business while throughout the rest of the day we get a steady stream of families, local business owners and retirees dropping in," says Ruth.

In 2016, the couple opened their third shop - in the IFSC - which has also become a big hit with office staff and visitors.

"Atmosphere and customer service are paramount and we really do focus on brightening up people's day," says Stephen.

"We also believe that educating our customers is also important, something we do through a combination of impromptu coffee conversations over the counter as well as through our structured coffee classes. Increasing the knowledge of our customers also helps them appreciate what we do." Theirs has been an interesting if not unusual, journey into the world of coffee retail. Ruth grew up in Listowel in Co Kerry. After school, she studied architecture in Bolton Street College, now DIT, where she met Stephen. Qualifying in 2009, the pair found themselves looking for work in the middle of the country's toughest recession.

Reluctant to emigrate, Ruth managed to find work two or three days a week. In order to fill her time as well as to supplement her income, she turned to her other passion, baking. As a coeliac, she began creating all sorts of gluten-free breads, cakes and scones which she sold at local farmers markets.

In 2011, along with her mother, Mary, she set up the Pure Food Bakery in Blackrock, even managing to get her products into a number of Ireland's leading retail stores.

Stephen grew up in Blackrock. From as early as fifth class, he had set his sights on becoming an entrepreneur, spurred on by experiences such as setting up a small tuck shop in his school as well as summer jobs in his local sailing club.

Having qualified as an architect, he too was unable to find steady work and decided to set up his own business, Epi Hostels, along with his cousin, with the idea of creating high-quality boutique hostels to fill what he saw was a gap in the market between poor quality hostels and four-star hotels.

"Just as we were on the verge of securing a partnership with a large private equity firm, the Greek economy collapsed, casting all EU-wide investments in doubt at the time and putting paid to our plans," says Stephen.

From the success that Ruth and her mother were experiencing with their Pure Food Bakery, the couple noticed that people were increasingly interested in high-quality artisan products, so they decided to set up a business offering artisan coffee as well as products from the bakery. And having trained as barista, Bear Market Coffee was born.

Where did they come up with the name, Bear Market? I ask.

"Bear Market is a cheeky nod to the financial term to which our architecture career and hostel projects had fallen victim," says Stephen. "In the beginning, we didn't have a shop unit and so we used to wheel a trolley into place early in the morning here on the street in Blackrock," says Ruth.

"While a humble beginning, it helped prove to us that there was a demand for what we were offering. After that we were confident about signing a lease on our current shop."

Work was demanding and the couple put in 12-to-14 hours a day, seven days a week.

"In the beginning, we'd end up sitting on the couch after a long day doing the books and Vat returns. At the time, we got by on pure adrenaline," says Ruth. "Today, we have great staff in our shops and have outsourced the accounting which now allows us to concentrate on growing the business."

The couple are now planning on opening a further two shops to add to the three they already have in the coming year.

"We have the investment in place to grow the business to a 10 or 12 store operation within four years and are actively looking for appropriate locations in the city centre and surrounding areas," says Stephen.

Related: Use our calculator to estimate your small business loan repayments

"We are constantly developing within the specialty coffee industry and now have the controls, structure, ambition and profitability to really push forward with the business." adds Ruth.

The future definitely looks exciting - maybe the downturn in the economy that prevented them finding careers as architects might yet prove to be their greatest blessing.

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