Wednesday 17 January 2018

Waking hours with Colin Harmon

Colin Harmon (33) left his job in finance seven years ago to open his own coffee shop and roastery, which supplies the 3fe coffee brand across Ireland. He lives in Stepaside, Co Dublin, with his wife Yvonne, and their children Oscar (3) and Dallan (18 months)

Colin Harmon who runs his own coffee shop and roastery. Photo: Al Higgins.
Colin Harmon who runs his own coffee shop and roastery. Photo: Al Higgins.

Elle Gordon

I wake up around 5.30am to the sound of my son screaming 'Peppa, Peppa, Peppa'. Dallan loves Peppa Pig. He's a ball of energy. I'll go in and grab him, and wake his older brother, Oscar. I bring them downstairs and feed them.

Then I make coffee, using my grinder. I'll have something that the guys roasted at the shop, I like doing quality control at home. My wife, Yvonne, will come downstairs, and we'll get the kids dressed, and she'll pop them off to creche before she gets to work. I get into work around 7.30am, and I'll have breakfast in the cafe, and just kind of sit in the corner and watch. You can learn an awful lot from the reaction of customers and the reactions of staff, and you can tell if things aren't in sync.

We also have lots of customers who've been coming to us for years, so it's nice to see those people. I used to work on the coffee bar, but lots of people would come up and ask for advice on opening their own coffee shop. Whoever was working with me would end up working my shift as well, because I'd be busy talking; most of the staff kicked me off the bar. I have porridge or muesli for breakfast, and just chat to the staff. I'll drink one coffee, and then taste two or three.

Then I'll get stuck into my email. I get thousands of emails each week from people who want to know more about coffee. When I first began, I used to buy coffee called Has Bean Coffee, which was produced by a guy called Steve Leighton. That's how I met him. Now he owns half of 3fe, and does all the sourcing for the 3fe coffee brand. He's my best friend and my business partner. I try to get back to the emails. After all, Steve answered an email for me. I don't want to be the guy who doesn't answer emails.

I feel like 3fe is relatively well-known in Dublin, but we also get people who have come from Japan to 3fe. They come here because we source variety arabica coffees, and other species and hybrids from farms and co-ops around the world. Everything is seasonal, and most of our coffees are exclusive, from the best producers we can find. People are seeing the shift in the culture of coffee that is happening here. Today, I've had emails from Austria, New Zealand, Italy and Shanghai. It takes getting used to.

Around mid-morning, I'll go and say hello to the guys in the kitchen. We serve two-and-a-half-thousand meals per week; it's a big part of what we do. Then, I'll jump in the car and head down to Dublin Port, and go see the guys in the roastery. Sometimes, if the coffee is over-roasted, it is still better than what you can buy in a supermarket, but we can't sell it, because it won't be good enough.

We give that coffee to FoodCloud. FoodCloud connects businesses that have too much food, to charities in the community that don't have enough. They are a great inspiration for us.

Then I'll probably visit one of our wholesale customers. We supply 60 businesses around the country. I try to go out to these cafes and order coffee to see how it tastes. Quality control on that end is important. Then I'll drive back to the shop and have a meeting with Craig, my wholesale manager. We probably meet four or five people per week who want to open a coffee shop, so it takes time to figure out who the tyre-kickers are. We try and help the new businesses we meet by recommending electricians, plumbers, milkmen - everything to try to help them build their idea.

Then we might have a group tasting; we get a lot of companies who come and we tell them what we do, and it gets their creative juices flowing. There was a time when an away-day for companies meant sitting in a pub, sculling pints. We offer people an alternative way to get together and enjoy themselves, with some great coffee tasting.

I usually leave around 4.30pm to try and miss the traffic, and to have dinner ready for when my wife gets in with the kids. I used to be in 3fe every hour of every day, but then the kids arrived and the business settled down, and I realised I wanted to work better, not harder. I'll work a 40-hour week and I'll be proud of myself for doing that. Before, I was trying to do 80 hours, and I was a worn-out business owner in the city, and it had me in a really bad place. I ended up in hospital once, completely stressed out.

I feel like I have a five-year gap where I just didn't listen to music because I was so busy. I see that I'm doing a better job if I do less, and I try to do it better. I think a lot of business owners will boast how many hours in the week they've worked, and it's just pointless; it's the wrong metric to measure your success by. There's a lot more important things in life to worry about. Maybe we could be making more money, or we could have different shops, but I'm not sure I'd be any happier.

In the evening, I'll play with the kids; we have a back garden and a slide, so it's nice when it's not raining. I don't really watch TV and my wife likes to read, so she reads and I talk to her and she pretends to listen.

My wife and I both put the kids to bed. We share that, and it's something that I'm really conscious that I want. My wife works really hard, so we try and balance it as much as possible.

I'm in bed by 10pm most nights, but if my wife's away with the kids, I'll sneak off to bed at 8pm. I'm not one to burn the midnight oil; I like to be well rested.

I think in the early days, when I was working in a coffee cart, a lot of people thought I'd lost my marbles. I'd see my former work colleagues and wave, and they'd be like, 'Oh God, there's that guy, the poor thing!' But I wouldn't change it for the world. The social payback of working in this industry is something you don't get elsewhere. I'm always one or two customers away from solving a problem. If my car breaks down, one of our customers is a mechanic; if I need match tickets, one of our customers knows somebody; it's great.

3fe, 32 Grand Canal St Lr, D2, see

Twitter @3fe and @Dublinbarista

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