B: It was around the spring of 2006. We had gone to London for the weekend and had coffee in Monmouth Coffee. We sat at the edge of the road drinking the coffee and just couldn’t believe how good coffee could be.
M: Years of talking about it, throwing out hypotheticals, researching and always being aware of what you enjoyed most when you went somewhere. We developed a deeper understanding of coffee and food, but the big motivator for us was bringing that together with service. Developing these principles and building the ethos of the business took first priority. We had the idea to be in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter for some time, but real location searching came much later.
B: We have a genuine passion for people, coffee and food, that’s a big motivator. We’d been to many European cities and felt that Belfast was missing somewhere that brought together specialty coffee, great food, service and design in one place. We believed that it’s a tangible layer of culture that would bring the city forward and that we could build a coffee company that wouldn’t just be good on a Belfast scale, but we were always driven to be the best in the world…for whatever that really means.
B: In late 2012, we decided 2013 was the year to really look at making a go of the business, we’d thought about it and talked about it for long enough.
M: I had been promoting music shows in Belfast with Communion, so used contacts
I’d made doing that to book the Black Box and we put on a coffee event to see how much response there would be. It was a December night, very close to Christmas… the bars were normally packed but in truth it was cold, snowing and was amidst the infamous City Hall flag protests… the city was like a ghost town. Yet, inside the warmth of the black box 70 people turned up to talk about coffee, watch a couple of demonstrations and taste the different offerings we were able to pull together. This turned in to a series of events under the “Coffee Calendar” moniker, which would act as a litmus test for the level of interest in specialty coffee in Belfast. Each event saw more people, more engagement and a very clear appetite for great coffee. That definitely helped give us the confidence to proceed.
M: I feel like we have the right mix of common sense, intuition and determination. We are our own harshest critics as well, which always drives us to make things better. You need a good work ethic and a lot of resilience, nothing can prepare you for how deep you need to dig within yourself to get through the hardest days… we could have opted just to close the doors on many occasions, but we’ve always worked our way through things.
B: I’d probably opt for kindness, empathy and trust. Those are probably the three big things that are the guiding principles for me and what I want Established to have.
M: I think the biggest surprise was the weight of responsibility when we took on our first staff. Almost immediately there was a very palpable sense of realising that they would be everything in our business and that we had to make Established a great company to work for. It would not work otherwise. This continues to present new hurdles everyday and there’s no one thing that will get you over them. We accept this and work to keep communication as open as we can, which is key to overcoming any challenges.
B: We borrowed money from family. We knew that even if it didn’t work we would work five jobs to pay it back. Thankfully we didn’t have to do that.
M: We did a lot of the fit-out work ourselves, from clearing out the unit, putting up stud walls and kept things as simple as we could. We didn’t have any signage on the shop for maybe a year other than an A4 page in the window.
B: One of the biggest partnerships was with 3fe, who have been our core coffee
supplier from the beginning… Mark spent time going back and forth from Dublin to develop that relationship, attending events and coffee cuppings. Trust is something that we talk about a lot and with partnerships, trust is built through setting clear expectations and following through on promises made.
M: We’ve developed great relationships with most of our suppliers, but also other cafes. When you realise that we’re all in the same boat, you can have open conversations which can be quite cathartic and can lead to shared solutions and even collaboration at times.
M: We’re very thankful that many people have been very generous with their time.
Sé Gorman and Darren & Karen Gardiner at Café Krem and Ground Espresso respectively – both OG’s of the Belfast/NI coffee scene, were a good sounding board for thoughts and ideas, as well as source of encouragement. Andy McMillan was also a partner in the business at the beginning of Established, helping with the design and branding. Ultimately, we made the decision early on that it would be better for Bridgeen and I to retain sole ownership of Established and as difficult as things like that can be at the time, we are glad we made the decision for everyone involved. Andy lives in Portland where he runs XOXO festival.
B: Belfast is a very small city, so there’s a novelty factor when somewhere new opens. People were intrigued with the café. They loved the space but just didn’t know what to do with it. It was very different to anything in Belfast. We had to deliver great service and great coffee from day one, and every single day after that. Our mission early on was, and probably still is, to ruin people for bad coffee…once you’ve had a great coffee, it’s hard to go back.
B: We never doubted our work ethic. We knew no matter what, we would open every day, not change our opening hours even when it was quiet, and we would pay our staff and suppliers on time.
M: We worked a 13-hour day, 7 days a week for the first year. Thankfully, people just kept coming in. I think a lot of times people doubted us because they thought the whole idea was too high and lofty for Belfast, however the whole experience was always underpinned with real, down-to-earth, customer service. We weren’t there to preach to anyone or elevate ourselves, we just wanted to bring people in on this special thing we had: that coffee tastes really good when it’s cared for properly.
B: Pride and stubbornness are both a double-edged sword. These traits can get you through very difficult times but when you throw exhaustion on top it is a perfect storm. We let our staff down at times and although we tried to keep the strain between us at times behind closed doors, we knew it had a negative effect on the business. Overcoming them just took time and communication, getting more staff in place so we could take a step back to get on our business, rather than always in our business helped a lot too. It enabled us to give staff more responsibility, which lightened our load, but also worked to give them opportunities for professional development.
M: We love what we do. We realised a long time ago, that everything is not about us. The choices you make affect many people around you and you very quickly learn humility or total failure. We feel very lucky even on the darkest days that we have so many good people around us.
B: That the coffee cup in Game of Thrones wasn’t an Established cup.
B: Rotas. Fear of letting our children down. Welfare of our staff and our customers. VAT returns.
M: Snag lists of little things that need fixed round the café. How to keep people motivated and engaged in their job. Thinking about roasting coffee.
B: I was a manger in Starbucks for two years. I then went back to complete a Psychology degree and then completed my PhD in 2014. I continued throughout that time to work part-time in hospitality. I have been serving people for a long time.
M: I was a paperboy at age 9, before that my brothers and I would go round cutting hedges and washing cars. I’ve never really stopped working since. Right before Established I was working in the Civil Service and promoting music shows.
M: Dan Cassaro (Young Jerks) in New York created our brand identity. We then worked with a few local creatives, Tim Farrell and also Sort Design, in implementing that initial brand in to signage, labels and few other things.
Thankfully, we feel that the brand is really strong, the ESTD mark/logo carries so
much and we like that it’s not overused in the café itself. The real challenge is developing that identity and adding layers to it, which is something of a work in progress at the minute. We’ve been working with Young Jerks again to bring this forward. This hasn’t been easy, I think the biggest struggle is that we aren’t great at communicating what we want at times, but we have strong opinions on what we like and don’t like. We are also in the process of setting up our own roastery, so we need to develop packaging further at this stage too.
M: It has been incredibly important, especially as we don’t really have a fully functioning website yet. It’s a great way to engage with people and showcase some of what we do, from new coffees on the shelves, to new dishes on the menu. You get to see the impact from it too, we’ll post something online and within hours people are standing at the bar showing you the post on their phone saying “I want one of these”.
B: It has been a bit of both. I think the theme throughout this, again, has been trust. We feel our customers trust us. We don’t put up pretty pictures to not follow through to the very end. What you see online is what you get on the plate and we always seek to exceed expectations on taste and flavour. It is so important to be genuine. We would not be here without our customers. We know at the heart of our business is people. We started our “All of Us” series to reflect this, as it is what has helped us build what we are today. Every staff member, customer and supplier is Established.
B: We hope it’s the whole package. We really enjoy people, so we hope that comes through in our service, our coffee and our food. We also love design and being deliberate in what we do.
M: Sometimes it’s to the detriment of the business, that we maybe miss out on opportunities, but we’ll never put out something we don’t believe in.
M: We both do brazillian jiu jitsu which has been so good for us, it’s good for mental health, a bit of an escape and great physically too. Our two boys do it too and love it. Our kids provide the perfect escape at times too, as well as motivation in the times where you are lacking focus.
B: I started training with a coach who trained MMA fighters in strength and conditioning. I would head out at 6am and go on 10km runs with the fighters. I was always last but really loved how I felt afterwards. I started spin recently, which is fun. We’re also in the process of moving house, which is overwhelming in itself, but it’s more exciting than anything and continues to help keep us focussed.
B: We are most proud of the jobs we have created. We started with two staff and we now have 18 full-time staff and two part-time. We are in a position to give back. It is really important to give back when people have given so much. We don’t take that for granted and will always want to be better employers. We are excited about building a roastery and the opportunities this is going to bring.
M: The value doesn’t come from financial gain, there’s no amount of money someone could give me to do what we went through the first couple of years of Established. You know that ultimately you always reap the reward of the work you put it.
54 Hill St, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Photo credit: Stephen Mcavoy