Couple build coffee business on lessons of past failures
Inside Track: Stephen Deasy of Bear Market Coffee
Stephen Deasy, who founded Bear Market Coffee with his wife, Ruth.
Stephen and Ruth Deasy graduated as architects in 2009. They soon realised that if they wanted to continue a career in architecture, they would have to emigrate. However, neither wanted to leave Ireland. Following unsuccessful attempts to start other businesses they have now established a hugely successful business and brand, Bear Market Coffee.
They have four premises – Blackrock Main Street, a kiosk in the office block on George’s Quay, a premises at the IFSC and one on Pembroke Street. Stephen and Ruth employee 20 fully trained baristas and have a strategic plan to open 10 shops in Dublin by 2020.
What sets your business apart from the competition?
We focus on four main aspects of the business – firstly, design. Both Ruth and I trained as architects, so we share a love of good design. Each of our locations is different and specially designed for the location it’s in. They are one-off bespoke locations. I think we’re ahead of the curve in this regard. We retain our brand, our name and the quality of our products but our customers have a different experience in each of our locations.
The second very important aspect of our business is our staff. Customer service is very important to us and we put a lot into training our staff, who are all qualified baristas. They are the face of our business so we value them immensely. Thirdly, we partner with local producers and suppliers, who offer artisan products that we also tweak to suit our customers’ needs. Finally, the coffee. We work with a roaster in Glasnevin in Dublin, who creates a unique blend for us. It is definitely the point of difference for us.
What’s been your biggest business challenge?
Picking ourselves up and starting again. Both Ruth and I had businesses previously and neither were sustainable for different reasons. Ruth and her mum are coeliac and had a business called Pure Food making gluten-free breads and cakes. It was a great business but it didn’t scale quick enough and it couldn’t compete with bigger brands that were branching into that market. I had a hostel business. That was another great business but it was ahead of its time to be honest. Having to walk away from both those businesses and starting again was difficult but ultimately it has taught us loads.
What’s been your biggest business success?
Opening four shops in four years at the time we did. We have built this business with very little debt. We have come through some very tough years and we were frequently at breaking point but that has definitely made the business stronger. We are profitable and debt free and that’s a massive success for us.
In your experience, are banks open for business with SMEs?
Our bank is AIB and we have learned a lot from them. We self-funded initially and grew the business on cashflow as much as we could. But when we have looked for lending and they have looked over our numbers, we have learned a lot from them. We have built a really good reputation with them now so they know we will deliver on what we say we’re going to. We work together very well.
What’s been the best business advice you’ve received?
Research shows you nothing. At the end of the day, if the numbers don’t stack up, you have to walk away. Both Pure Food and my hostel business were great businesses. We had invested so much in each of them in time, energy and personal savings, but we had to walk away from them. We also walked away from five or six locations when we were looking for the next premises for Bear Market Coffee. We wanted to be really sure about all our locations and we didn’t want to settle for anything less than the quality we strive for in our brand. If we don’t have pride in our locations, our quality will drop and we don’t want that.
Who is your business hero and why?
Well, in the same businesses as us, I admire Bluebottle Coffee. Even though they are huge now, they have been successful in retaining their artisan quality and independence. At home, you have to admire 3fe and what they achieved.
What advice would you give the Government to help stimulate the economy and support SMEs?
Well, an hour-and-a-half after we got the keys on our original premises in Blackrock Market, we got a phonecall from the rates office. They wanted us to pay the rates as well as the previous six months rates because the premises had been vacant. It was just sickening. We were trying to open on a shoestring and it was a huge knock for us. So, I think maybe offering new businesses a honeymoon period in terms of paying rates would be a great support. I just don’t think the first phone call you get when you’re not even open as a new business should be from the Government looking for rates.
What are the short-term future plans for your business?
We have recently opened our premises in Pembroke Street so we will be working on cementing-in that business. Ruth and I are very hands on, so we have a presence in each location as much as possible. Our plan is to open two more premises in Dublin by the second half of 2018 so that we have a cluster within the city.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
We are in a high growth phase so, if we sold now, we wouldn’t get the value for the business. Also, it’s an exciting time for us so selling the business is very much at the back of my mind.