Wednesday 29 May 2024
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Why are there so many coffee shops in Dublin?

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Drum roll. And the latest addition to Dublin’s coffee shop scene is . . .  Inevitable, it seems. Websites like Lovin Dublin and Daily Edge thrive off weekly announcements of the opening of slick new coffee joints you just need to check out.

Large swathes of retail space now house these meeting spots, from the independent business specialising in the finest arabica to the bean-crushing behemoths from overseas.

La Cimbali

For many of us, cups of coffee in coffee shops are now part of our daily routine. Within these spaces, we catch up with friends, catch up on work.

For others they offer opportunities to unwind alone, to read a crisp, new paperback or daily newspaper.


Yet we got along without them before. Could we do it again? Are these spaces not a little too ten-a-penny? And how can more be opening all the time – is the market not already saturated?

Business a’Boomin’

Brian Kenny has worked in the coffee industry in Dublin for twenty years. He now runs Silverskin Coffee Roasters in Glasnevin as well as Coffee Kiosk in Ballsbridge.

When he started, in Bewley’s in 1996, espresso was a new idea. The perfect shot of it, the god shot, was still being floated around as gospel. Now, he says, coffee in Dublin is far more advanced, and the customers have come a’ knockin’.

“Coffee just seems to have streamlined into our psyche,” says Kenny. “People go to coffee shops and they’ve a nice, comfortable space in the city with a cheap enough product to buy.”

But whether it’s simply addiction, less alcohol consumption in Dublin or busier lifestyles that’s driving demand, the culture of production has also changed since coffee’s earliest days.

“The knowledge then was being lead from roasting companies down,” says Kenny. “Now it’s very much more the baristas, people who are obsessed with coffee are leading the industry.”

And it’s an industry that keeps growing, it seems.

In June 2015, Allegra foodservice consultancy group released a report on the healthy growth of the Irish coffee market.

With 502 outlets across the country, the market continues, says the report, to outperform the retail sector with sales growth of 14 percent, and total turnover of €284 million.

The report notes that 62 per cent of Irish people, a traditionally tea-drinking lot, drink coffee daily. It forecasts that by 2020, the total number of coffee shops nationwide will exceed 750, and turnover will reach €610 million.

So, the market for coffee shops is healthy. John Byrne, who opened Koffee + Kale at the corner of Gardiner Street and Hill Street last week, says he wouldn’t have gone into it otherwise.

Serving 3fe’s coffee in a shiny new machine, with a selection of healthy salads and drinks, Byrne’s business model is a pared-back approach.

Across the city, such operations have cropped up: the basic entity serving a limited coffee menu and minimal snacks.

Since his mother is from around the area, Byrne was set on opening his shop there. It’s gone well so far, despite some derisive comments last week about the name.

He admits the café’s name “is a bit pretentious. But if I hadn’t got this place, I wouldn’t have looked somewhere else,” he says.

And while he may be on the periphery of the city centre, Byrne, like Silverskin’s Kenny, thinks the suburbs and off-shoots are where Dublin’s coffee-shop scene is headed.

Not so, says Oliver Cruise, who’s just opened Aungier Street’s latest coffee shop, Network, which threw open its doors first thing Monday morning.

Decked out in crisp whites and dark greys, the area’s most recent addition, like Koffee + Kale, takes a minimalist approach to the coffee shop space.

Cruise studied across the road in DIT, and, with a limited menu of half-a-dozen coffees on offer, is focused on delivering decent customer service with what seems a foolproof product.

Byrne’s peripheral location and Cruise’s choice of an already saturated area may suggest that the prime retail spots for coffee shops are taken, says Silverskin’s Kenny.

For new entrant’s that makes the challenge of opening and surviving even more daunting. In terms of the coffee shop space and the daily operation, he says, it all comes down to hard work.

“A lot of coffee shops are opening and a lot of coffee shops will close too,” he says. “But opening a business from the outside? People look in and they think ‘I’ll open a coffee shop’. The reality is that after you do you suddenly realise the colossal amount of work that goes in.”

While for the likes of Kenny and others it’s long hours and hot grinds, it seems as if we, the customers, just can’t get enough of the stuff.

When did we become a city of coffee shop dwellers, and will we continue to be, as the coffee-shop owners pray?

Pub Scene, Bean Scene

On a recent Monday afternoon, in Caffè Nero on Camden Street, brothers Tom and Pat Nolan sip at their cappuccinos.

They recall the days when coffee in Dublin was little more than black swill and the gargle led the scene. “It’s funny, we were only just talking about coffee shops,” says Tom. “I think they’re great because with drinking and no driving it’s not the same in the pubs.”

From 2001 to 2012, alcohol consumption per capita in Ireland declined by about 27%, according to OECD health statistics. Since then it has continued its generally downward trend. The number of bars and pubs has also declined.

These days, with the old watering holes in decline, they say, it’s a far more social atmosphere grabbing a hot coffee and sitting for a chat. “The only thing I’m sad about is that we didn’t have [coffee shops] instead of going to the pubs,” says Tom. “Even going to the dancing hall in my time there was very few fellas who wouldn’t go without a drink.”

Now, with healthier lifestyles, the coffee shop boom on Dublin’s streets is very much a case of demand leading supply, says Pat. “If there was only one or two coffee shops on this street no one would get into them. There does seem to be a demand.”

Brian Kenny, like the Nolan brothers, puts part of the supply-and-demand aspect down to healthier lifestyle choices. “If you’ve two cups of coffee, you can drive home. It’s seen as a healthy thing to do now,” he says. “It’s relatively cheap compared to alcohol and it has relatively little effect on you.”

The stress of work is also a factor, Kenny said. “There are so many [coffee shops] and really good ones coming along but there’s a lot of stressed out people in a lot of high-pressure jobs and a small treat for part of your day is having a cup of coffee,” he says. “It’s demand that’s driving supply.”

Over towards the window, away from the Nolan brothers, sits John Carroll.

Having operated a business on Aungier Street for many years, he tells me, he still makes the trip in from Santry every day on the bus, just to sit in each coffee shop along the Camden mile.

Carroll no longer drinks alcohol or coffee, just tea. But the many spaces he frequents of a daily basis provide him with a chance to unwind in various atmospheres.

“There is an awful lot of coffee shops,” he says. “But you’re giving people what they want. Years ago it was just Bewley’s, Bewley’s, Bewley’s. Today you can go here, there, anywhere.”

While Carroll used to drink pint on pint, day in, day out, health problems now prevent him. And, he says, the pubs aren’t the same.

Before pub culture became dominant in Dublin for centuries, there were coffee houses and plenty of them, says Máirtin Mac Con Iomaire whose Coffee Culture in Dublin: A Brief History explores the 18th century popularity of the coffee joint.

Frequently associated with politics and revolutionaries, Mac Con Iomaire notes that Dublin’s earliest coffee houses were spaces to discuss and inform oneself of events around the world.

In Dublin today, he sees something of a parallel. “People, even young business people, use coffee shops now as their offices,” he says. “They buy their coffee, they sit down, they’ve the computer and the wifi.”

The instant hit of news, says Mac Con Iomaire, is similar to the newsprint picked up daily in Dublin from the 17th century until the late 18th century, when the watering holes took over.

But now, with coffee shops down side streets, in pubs (like Wigwam on Abbey Street) and firmly footed in the suburbs, are there really enough euros to go around for all?

A Refined Culture?

Outside Clement & Pekoe on South William Street on a recent Friday afternoon Alice Murphy, Harry Higgins and Dominick O’Brien sit talking over near-empty mugs. When they visited Berlin recently, they stayed late in the coffee houses, chatting until the wee hours.

Higgins thinks lifestyle changes are a root cause of Dublin’s coffee-shop boom, and that bigger brands have allowed the smaller businesses to spring up.

“Drinking’s not as acceptable, smoking’s not as acceptable,” he says. “Also, I think for all the bad rep that Starbucks get they did a really great job of providing something that people would economically support.”

Silverskin’s Kenny says he has seen the opposite occur in the city recently. As smaller coffee shops have become more prevalent, he says, bigger chains move in with more capital.

The potential of an oversaturated market doesn’t worry the recent newcomers, Koffee + Kale or Network. John Byrne says that if business at Koffee + Kale doesn’t go well enough soon enough, he’ll just call it a day.

So far, though, he’s positive. “I’m surprised with how well it has gone,” he says. “We’ll have the honeymoon period and then there’ll be a fall-off and then hopefully we’ll get a good following and repeat customers.”

Although Byrne’s not a big coffee drinker himself, he thinks it’s still very much a viable business for Dublin. He doesn’t see a coffee-shop bubble that might burst in future, but he does think there will be a sorting process, and that some shops won’t measure up and will fail.

Alice Murphy, sitting with Higgins and O’Brien on South William Street says the like of Byrne’s business have a place still in the market.

“We were just over on Talbot Street at the new Roasted Brown,” she says. “So [Koffee + Kale] might do wonders for the area. Gardiner Street’s been pretty rough for a while now. I can’t really see a bad side to it. There’s people who are going to go to it, people who buy into the kale and coffee thing.”

O’Brien was recently over in Rathmines and says he counted 17 coffee shops around the area. He says he’s surprised none have decided to significantly undercut their competitors. Why aren’t more places serving €1.50 coffees?

For now, he says, there may be enough money to be spread between establishments but, “I think it will get to a saturated stage,” he says. And then things might get more cut-throat.

While Network is only a brief stroll from the many coffee shops of South William Street and Camden Street, Cruise is says there’s room for one more.

“It’s a real spectrum around here,” he says. “You’ve the more traditional coffee chains and then you’ve something like Aungier Danger, which are fitting into a niche market. So I think you may have a number of them but they have different audiences.”

While Dublin’s latest two ventures may be entering an already crowded marketplace, Silverskin’s Kenny says he doesn’t see a coffee-shop bubble. He thinks the market will continue to grow, that it has yet to reach its full potential, something the Allegra report seems to support.

With the World of Coffee event taking place in the RDS on 23 June, and along with it the World Barista Championship, Dublin’s riding the coffee wave, he says.

“There’ll probably be more coffee shops, if I’m honest,” he says. “I’d be hesitant though looking too far into the future.”

Conal Thomas


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