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Small footprint, big shadow…

August 18th, 2017 | by LCN Editor
Small footprint, big shadow…
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Speciality coffee is evolving its own identity and two of Belfast’s earliest adopters are Ben Craig and Simon Johnston, whose Root and Branch brand is gaining good traction in the city. Ben has been speaking to Russell Campbell.

If, like many of us, you don’t know what it is that separates speciality coffee from regular, commercial brands, well, it’s done using a scale that was introduced by the Specialty Coffee Association of America – when a brand scores 80 or more, it earns the right to be labelled ‘speciality’.

Within that definition, there are a number of other differentiating factors – speciality coffee is always delivered in its natural, whole bean format, for example, and rather than being roasted in a large commercial plant, it will be processed by the stores themselves or in small, specialist factories.

It all contributes to a sector that’s gaining considerable traction with consumers in the UK – year-on-year growth in the speciality coffee sector here is now around 17 per cent.

These distinctions are important ones for Ballycastle-born Ben Craig and his business partner, Simon Johnston, who have invested considerable time and resources into the opening of Belfast’s newest speciality coffee brand, Root and Branch. The pair opened their first micro-roastery on Jameson Street in the city in January, and in June they unveiled a new shop in the Ormeau Baths building.

“We didn’t want to open the second place as quickly as we did, but the people behind Ormeau Baths invited us to do it. We thought the location was perfect and it fits really well with what we’re trying to achieve,” Ben told LCN this month. “We’ve had excellent feedback so far.”

The shop itself is very compact, offering seating at the counter and around the back wall with additional space available alfresco. Food is available in a ‘grab and go’ fridge at the venue, courtesy of a partnership with the deli at chef Andy Rea’s Home restaurant, but the emphasis at Root and Branch is firmly on the coffee.

“Our first place set new standards for coffee in Northern Ireland, it was the first place to sell speciality coffees exclusively and the first in which customers could actually see the coffee being roasted in front of them,” says Ben.

“From day one, our business took off. When we opened here, we had a number of people who were already aware of us and knew what we were doing, but the love of speciality coffee is something that’s starting to grip Northern Ireland anyway. That really began with the opening of Established Coffee in the Cathedral Quarter a couple of years ago. They’ve done a lot of the legwork in switching people on to speciality coffee.”

 

Ben Craig (right) with Simon Johnston.

Thirty-four-year-old Ben has a background in outdoor pursuits. Over the years, that has led him to locations all over the world and as a lifelong foodie, it wasn’t long before his passion for organic, ethically-sourced produce led him into the world of speciality coffee.

He’d learned to appreciate the product during time spent in coffee hots-spots such as Seattle and San Francisco and when he returned to Northern Ireland from an extended period spent abroad in 2010, he had already decided that he wanted to set up some sort of “sustainable and equitable” coffee supply business.

Ben quickly found out, however, that the market for organic produce in NI at that time was very small and so he set about working with John McCormick of Helen’s Bay Organic Gardens to grow local awareness. They worked to engage consumers via social media and attended large-scale outdoor events where they cooked and sold food and drink using an organic field kitchen and the Root and Branch brand name.

Around that time, Ben also produced his own brand of organic coffee called Jack Rabbit, which he made with the help of London firm, Masteroast.

“All of this meant that my own understanding of speciality coffee was evolving,” he says. “I realised that in large part, most of the coffee you can buy from the big high street chains today isn’t really speciality, it’s just really good, high-end coffee and I was looking for something more.”

Ben says that while he knew there was a market here for good, speciality coffee, he needed to find someone to help him make his ambition a reality:

“Coffee roasting and brewing are two totally different things and I had a knowledge gap and a capacity gap,” he tells LCN. “I couldn’t roast the beans and brew the coffee at the same time and I didn’t know of anyone with the skills I needed that could help me.”

That changed around 2013 when Ben moved into the apartment block in Belfast where Simon Johnston lived.  Bangor-born Simon had a colourful background not unlike Ben’s own – with degrees in biochemistry and theology he’d spent time as a DJ in Scotland, founded a church and anti-trafficking charity in London, driven to Mongolia and Siberia on a motorcycle and run a successful car business in his native Bangor.

“It became clear that we had a shared interest in food and drink and, in particular, coffee,” recalls Ben. “Like Simon, I was working in a full-time job but wanted to focus on Root & Branch. He too, was wanting a career change, so after a few pop-ups together, it was obvious that we both needed to go all in.

“His degree in biochemistry was dusted down as we turned out kitchens into labs, went on research trips around Europe and read every book and watched every DVD we could find.”

During that time, the pair visited coffee farmers all over the globe and identified their own top five suppliers with whom they have since built long-term business relationships. These are growers that are investing in their own sustainable and equitable businesses at source and people who Ben and Simon feel share the ethos of Root and Branch.

Now, the pair not only trade through their two outlets in Belfast, they are supplying their speciality product to customers in Derry/Londonderry, Cork, London and Scotland. It is also available online.

“I think that people in Northern Ireland are discriminating, they travel, they see other things and they bring them back home, they see quality elsewhere and they aspire to have that here, this is the fastest-growing part of the coffee industry,” says Ben.

The priorities now include ensuring that the Belfast outlets are operating to capacity – Ben and Simon may add one more outlet, but that is their limit, says Ben.

“There is this prevailing idea that big is always better, but big is not better when it comes to speciality coffee. If that’s the way you go, then all of a sudden, you’ll find you can’t access the really exciting coffee because there’s not enough of it to meet your needs.

“There has to be a careful balance of size and scale that will afford a good level of profitability but won’t mean that you are so large that you have moved away from the core values that attracted you in the first place,” adds Ben.

The boys have partnered with Slayer Espresso of Seattle and 3Temp of Sweden and are now the companies’ distributors for Ireland.

Ben and Simon are keen to play a part in educating the local trade about speciality coffee and three to five years from now, they would like to have expanded their coffee roasting facilities and established some sort of training facility:

“That said, we do want to have something that remains very manageable,” says Ben. “Something with a small footprint but a large shadow.”

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