Belfast Briefing: Coffee chain enjoying the taste of success
Shoppers are spending less in the North except in new coffee bars
Karen and Darren Gardiner: When Gardiner and his wife opened the first Ground Espresso Bar in 2001 in Coleraine it was more of a ‘hobby’ than a purely business venture he admits.
Latest retail figures this week suggest shoppers are spending less cash in towns across the North this year than compared to previous summers.
Perhaps the rather gloomy, chilly un-summer weather is to blame but whatever the reasons are, according to the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) last month saw the biggest drop in shopper numbers on the high street in nearly two years.
Aodhán Connolly from the NIRC says that almost one out of every six retail premises in the North now sits empty - which is a worrying trend for towns centres who are constantly battling large retail developments to survive.
There appears however to be one item that local consumers are not only buying more of but are also happy to pay more for and that is coffee.
You only have to look at the growing number of independent coffee outlets setting up in rural towns and the new breed of coffee entrepreneurs that have emerged in Northern Ireland of late to see that the North is finally getting a taste of a coffee culture.
Next month for example the first Northern Ireland Coffee Festival takes place in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast and organisers hope it will attract more than 4,000 visitors.
It promises to feature local artisan roasters, the best baristas in the region and to highlight some of the rising stars of the local coffee cluster.
One particular husband and wife team will need no introduction because they are already firmly in the spotlight when it comes to the success they have had with their home grown coffee shop chain which they now want to export to New York.
Darren and Karen Gardiner set up Ground Espresso Bars 14 years ago in Coleraine, today they operate 13 outlets including a store in Blanchardstown in Dublin which opened last year.
Next month the company plans to open its 15th store in the rural County Derry town of Magherafelt which Gardiner says will be a completely new “concept” store for Ground Espresso Bars.
“We’re going to experiment with Magherafelt and its going to look a little bit different from our other stores - for instance it’s going to have a concrete counter and a heavier focus on not just coffee but also tea. We’ve invested very heavily in new equipment - it will have a different feel to it, more as we like to say ‘on trend’ with what’s happening in the likes of New York and Paris.
“We like to think that we brought the artisan coffee scene to Northern Ireland 14 years ago so we want to keep our customers happy, we want to keep evolving and we want to put the ‘Ground’ stamp on it. Throughout the business we have a very strong mindset when it comes to customer service, quality of food and of course the quality of coffee - we work directly with suppliers and adhere to strict Fairtrade standards - and the new store will reflect that,” he adds.
When Gardiner and his wife opened the first Ground Espresso Bar in 2001 in Coleraine it was more of a “hobby” than a purely business venture he admits.
But as Gardiner readily confesses he had a slight advantage compared to most local coffee entrepreneurs because he has been somewhat”immersed” in the global coffee industry in one shape another for quite a few years thanks to his other Northern Ireland-based business, LSFX Productions.
The company is involved in helping to stage numerous international coffee-orientated events including various world barista championships throughout Europe, Asia and the United States.
Gardiner says the access and insight he has gained into how the elite of the global coffee industry operate has been invaluable.
“I’ve been on the coffee circuit you could say from China to the US and because I’ve travelled a lot and seen many different coffee stores and tasted a lot of coffee it has given us a distinct advantage.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with passionate coffee people - we’re passionate coffee people and we don’t have a local mentality when it comes to the business - we want to expand and develop our brand and we’ve got the connections to evolve into a global coffee company,” he adds.
Gardiner believes one of the factors which helped Ground Espresso Bars quickly expand from its first Coleraine store was its decision to partner up with major retailers such as Tesco, Next and Waterstones.
The company currently has seven coffee concessions in-store as well as its seven stand alone coffee outlets and it expects to build on its relationship with retailers to develop up to six more concessions over the next 18 months.
“We’re also talking to Next about the possibility of expanding across the UK and we are very keen to open more stores in the Dublin, our new Dublin cafe has been very successful and we are actively looking at more sites,” Gardiner says.
But in the meantime he and his wife also have their sights set on a rather more distant horizon - New York.
“We’ve always had this dream to have a Ground in Belfast, Dublin, New York, London ….. you know the type of thing. Its always been something we wanted to do, a dream of ours.
“We’ve now identified two potential sites in New York and we’re in the early stages but we would hope to open our first Ground by the end of 2015,” he says.