If, like us, you're huge coffee enthusiasts, you'll be wanting to get a sip of Mullingar Artisan roasters' various brews. Why? Because Bell Lane coffee have just received the highest accolade at 2014's highly coveted Taste Awards; no mean feat. Below we hear how this little local business grew to such impressive heights. An inspirational tale to encourage us all to take that leap of faith, if ever we read one.
In conversation with Stephen Bell, Bell Lane Coffee
What prompted you to set up Bell Lane?
The main reason was to achieve a better work/life balance. I had always wished to work for myself and have a manufacturing business of some sort. I had tried a few other small-business ideas but they never came to fruition. Bell Lane was born out of a passion for the coffee business, and considering I had spent six years working within it, it seemed like a natural progression.
Who did you set it up with?
My wife, Denise, and I set up the business. We have a very different business backgrounds and that's something which complements the business. Denise has been involved in the Finance and Banking sector for over ten years so her grasp of bookkeeping and that end of things came naturally. She also has a marketing degree, so the brand development and marketing were in good hands. I had been involved in sales for pretty much all of my working life so the fit worked.
What are the big business things that have happened this year?
This year has been pretty amazing for us, so far. The highlight of the year was overtaking last year's turnover in the first few months of 2014. It gave us great satisfaction that our proactivity was paying off. Getting some reactive phone calls into the office looking to deal with us is a really warming feeling, too. We signed with La Rousse Foods this year. They will be distributing our product through their national network. This means a lot to us as La Rousse are very much quality driven, which is something we are also focusing on. We were also accepted in to Euro-toques,?who are very much focused on good purchasing ethics and quality. And the to cap off the year (so far) we've also just won eight stars at the Great Taste Awards! As well as the one- and two-star awards, we won the highest accolade: Three-Star Gold for our Dragonfly espresso blend. We are the only Irish roaster this year to receive such an award. To put it in context, Three-Star Gold is only awarded to 125 products out of 10,000 submitted from the UK and Ireland. So you might say we're pretty pleased about it!
Who are you doing business with?
We have signed up just under 100 customers to date, in our 18 months of business. We are dealing with a diverse cross-section of the market, from award-winning restaurants like The Fatted Calf, in Glasson Village; Miller & Cook, in Mullingar (an upmarket food emporium); to The Grafton Lounge, in Dublin city centre; Bellamy's in Ballsbridge; Gallery 29, also in Mullingar. One of our biggest customers (Ireland's largest restaurant) to date, is Frangos in Dundrum Town Centre, and then we're also supplying Harrys Caf? Bar in Dun Laoghaire, and an amazing chocolatier called Hazel Mountain Chocolate in Galway, and may other really great, and varied, clients.
What makes you stand out from the rest of the market?
Bell Lane was set up as an artisan, hand-roasted coffee company, but positioned in the commercial coffee market. We have developed coffee blends for the food-service industry that appeal to the majority. We are developing coffee blends that are less harsh and encourage the 'second cup? for customers. We roast all of our coffee individually and post-blend; it is all blended and developed for that commercial market. We are focused on the greatest share of the coffee market and would like to be competing with the bigger players in the coming years. Our business attitude is to create a coffee product that is of a very high quality that is commercially priced. Our business is set up with a very good structure so growth is possible for the future.
Who else is intrinsic to the business?
Paul Mooney has over 20 years? experience in the coffee sector at a roasting and purchasing level. He is an invaluable part of our business. Paul has a skill-set that is unmatched at our level in the coffee market. Paul's ability to multi-task and take control of coffee development is vital to Bell Lane's success. With our structure of sales, marketing/administration, and production, we all know where we sit, so the business has moved forward at a good pace.
What are your plans for the rest of 2014, and do you have a five-year plan?
We are looking forward to hopefully taking on a new staff member for sales, developing a new coffee blend using a new roasting technique that we are developing. We would also love to go after some market share in the coffee-at-work area; additionally, we are looking at developing our business in Northern Ireland. As for the five-year plan, it seems that we might complete that in our first three years, so next on the agenda is our ten-year goal planning.
If there were three things that you could say have helped more than any others in the success of the business, what would they be?
The three things that have been most important for Bell Lane are: sourcing the best financial and legal advice we could afford, from the beginning. We listed to others who were more experienced in certain areas and we were always open to free advice wherever we could get it. Working with the Local Enterprise Board was great as there were grants available for new start-ups. We also kept a keen eye on cash flow from day one, and negotiated on everything we were buying. We also tried not to overstretch ourselves from day one, and stuck rigidly to our business plan.
Bell Lane Coffee is available at The Grafton Lounge, Dublin; Frangos, Dundrum Town Centre; Bellamy's, Ballsbridge; Miller & Cook, Mullingar; and Harrys Caf? Bar, Dun Laoghaire.