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Sunday 22 April 2018

Coffee, chat and comfy sofas in a 'sober pub'

There are few alternatives to bars or restaurants at night but one woman is working to change that, says Lucinda O'Sullivan

THERE are very few places in this country where you can just get a cup of coffee and a cake in the evenings. It's a poor state of affairs.

Cafes tend to shut up shop anywhere between 4pm and 6pm, or alternatively they swing into restaurant mode. Options for the cup of coffee generally fall into the pub category, and not everyone feels comfortable going into a pub, particularly on their own.

Anna Young felt this was a glaring gap in the market, and so, almost a year ago she opened Accents Coffee & Tea Lounge in a former butcher's shop on Lower Stephen Street in Dublin, and it is proving a huge success. Located off South Great George's Street, which abounds with restaurants and bars, Accents was designed to cater for Dublin's vibrant, multicultural city life in a different way.

Anna moved to Ireland seven years ago. Originally from the New Forest region in Hampshire, she had also spent a period working in the US.

"I came to Dublin with nothing and, within a week, I had made friends, I had found an apartment, and I had found a job with a direct marketing company."

After three-and-a-half years, Anna moved to the recruitment section of Google, which she loved, on a contract for two years. When that contract was up, she decided to pursue her dream of opening a cafe and going it alone.

"I love working with people, and I think it is a really nice environment in which to work. I love also the control of creating and building something myself. The actual idea of building a 'sober pub' -- as I call it -- was purely because at night I didn't think Dublin as a capital city had anywhere to go other than pubs and restaurants.

"I think living in America possibly influenced me. I could go for a coffee there at night, and I really missed not being able to have a coffee after 6pm in Dublin. That became my niche market, and I didn't want it to be a regular, bog standard cafe. I wanted to create a place that had a very unique atmosphere, where customer service was special. I wanted it to have a home-from-home feel, with the decor as well, so that the idea was very specific to Dublin.

"We specialise in coffees, teas, chais and cakes, as well as savoury snacks such as quiches and sandwiches. The offering is based very much on what you would do in your own home. I think we can universally say that we put the kettle on, get the biscuits out, and have a good old gossip, the tea and cake, have a chat and get to socialise."

There is a welcoming and comfortable feel about Accents. There are no dining tables or chairs; it is all sofas and coffee tables. The ground floor has a coffee bar on the left as you go in, and after that you tuck yourself into a plush armchair or nab a sofa.

"Unlike a pub, women can come in on their own and feel comfortable, read a book or relax. You do see people meeting one another, some come as strangers and leave as friends. It is a second home for many people."

Downstairs is a big lounge with sofas arranged in various groupings. "When my dad and I were designing it we knew we had to defy the connotation of a basement, because everyone thinks 'second class' seating that is not going to be as good as upstairs."

In fact, this is the real jewel in the crown because between them they have created a lovely big relaxing space, furnished with lamps, mirrors and lots of clever details.

"It has become a haven for regular groups of friends who meet up every week. We have this comfortable corner area, our 'Hobby Corner', which can be reserved by groups. There's a knitting club which meets here, a book club, a poetry group -- all different kinds of groups who would like to get together but don't necessarily want to host it in their own home, so now we are the location for them. There's no charge for reserving the corner; they are welcome to stay for an hour-and-a-half, under the assumption that everybody will purchase something.

"Typically it happens that they will spend quite a bit, and for me, starting out, it is great, because they can bring a group on a regular basis. It helps me to predict income and staffing and I know, OK, we've got 20 people coming, and it helps the day's revenue."

On the evening of my visit Anna was expecting a gay club. "There are 20 to 30 people who meet on a Thursday night for a chat. We also have groups who don't drink alcohol, AA, NA and CA groups."

Some people were ensconced in board games on my visit, reading magazines, or on their laptops. Accents also have comedy shows and other productions. "We've launched Ireland's first non- alcoholic comedy show, and that happens on the first Monday of the month. Dil Wickremasinghe, who also hosts Global Village on Newstalk, is the MC on the comedy nights. We have four acts a night, and everybody gets to sit on their comfy sofas and have a giggle. We have had live music nights so, if possible, it would be nice to expand that side of things."

Anna feels that the recession actually enabled her to open her business because prices had gone down for supplies and also as regards property and getting a lease. "It helped me to start; now my biggest challenge is to make sure I retain interest. I am very lucky, I have a lot of loyal regular customers, 90 per cent of my customers are regulars, now I just have to make sure that I meet expectations."

Anna employs seven people, opening from 12.30pm to 11pm. "We tried the breakfast market, but it wasn't as popular as our evenings.

"We don't cater on the premises; all our cakes and sandwiches are brought in from our suppliers. We don't have a prep area because I wanted to give everyone a sofa and needed as much space as possible. I cherrypick all the best suppliers, for things my customers like, some from small producers and some from big distributors. I try to support, as much as possible, bakers who are in markets and can't get a premises themselves, and I try and get Irish produce where possible."

Accents Coffee & Tea Lounge, 23 Lower Stephen Street, Dublin 2. Ph: (01) 416-0040

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This week sees the inaugural Dublin Gastronomy Symposium at the School of Culinary Arts & Food Technology, DIT, Cathal Brugha Street, on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 5 and 6.

Dr Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire, chair of the DGS Organising Committee, says it is a collaborative initiative to bring gastronomic researchers and enthusiasts together following on the success of an initial Gastronomy Day run in IT Tallaght in 2010. Gastronomy: Past, Present, and Future is the title.

Topics such as food history, food in literature, molecular gastronomy and GMOs, culinary tourism, wine, and so on will be covered.

The keynote speaker is Darra Goldstein, editor of Gastronomica, who will be flying in from the US, while Caroline Young will give a presentation on the history of Paris's famous Les Halles market.

With guests from Europe, America, South America and England, as well as papers from nearly every third-level institute in Ireland, it will be a gastronome's delight.

Lunch on Tuesday in the college will be a celebration of Irish artisan producers, followed that evening by the symposium dinner in Thornton's, then lunch on Wednesday in Chapter One.

Standard symposium attendance including all meals costs €150. Student attendance is €40 (though that only includes lunch at the DIT on June 5). There's limited availability so book early.

See www.arrow.dit.ie/dgs/ or contact Dr Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire on (087) 9701114

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