We popped into the beautifully designed Bear Market Cafe in Blackrock for a coffee with the founders, Ruth & Stephen, and a lesson in starting a successful business with family.
How many cups of coffee would you have a day?
Stephen: 1 or 2. I save myself for the perfect cup. I’ll literally make a cup for myself and if I’m not happy with it I’ll put it down and make another.
Ruth: You know if you’re running around in work there’s no point in making coffee because your sip it, put it down, run around and it goes cold. I make so many coffees everyday but I don’t drink them, they just get left around the shop. Sometimes we wait until we can sit down and take a minute and enjoy it.
Stephen: We’d very rarely drink coffee outside the shop. There’s a handful of places in town we’d go to. We’d go to Coffee Angel, Silverskin, Urban in Cabinteely, The Fumbally, Love Coffee in Stoneybatter.
Where do you source your beans?
Stephen: We work with Alan Andrews from Coffee Culture who roasts our house coffee. We also work with micro Irish roasters such as Silver Skin in Ballsbridge and Baileys too. So we mix it up a bit. Our main roast stays the same and outside of that we play around.
Where did the name come from?
Stephen: That was a play on the financial term ‘Bear Market’. After college I tried to set up a hostel in the UK. We were working on that for about 2 years. We actually got really far. We had a property in Edinburgh and we agreed terms with a US private equity firm. It was signed off by the London office and it had to be sent over to the US office to be rubberstamped. And then everything started slowing down. Greece had just imploded and they stopped all European funding. Irish banks weren’t lending at all and at that stage I’d ran through all my money and couldn’t afford my rent. Ruth and her mum had set up the Pure Foods Bakery in the Blackrock market and we were scratching our heads wondering what to do. Then had the idea to put a coffee machine in the bakery and try and get a bit more money in at the weekends. That went really really well. So then we did a pop up in the lane way and did that for 6 months. Between 6am and 9pm in the freezing cold.
Ruth: It was actually so cold. People don’t realise how hard those markets are. It was good because it was a way to test the market. We were on the street and we knew who the customer was and we could watch the footfall and knew when they were coming. After that we knew there was a market for it so it wasn’t so daunting.
Stephen: And everyone tried to shut us down. We had fire officers in, health guys in, planning officials – you name it. We weren’t breaking any laws so they couldn’t do anything because it was private property. But it was only temporary anyway. We pushed it as far as we could. Then after a year of trying to secure this premises we eventually signed a deal here. That’s one of the hardest things – getting the premises.
Where is the next location going to be?
Ruth: Probably between town and Blackrock. There are lots of locations that we know would be great outside that zone but it just wouldn’t fit in with our supply chain and we might even end up having to move.
With the the cafe, online store, coffee classes and the bakery, what is the main focus?
Stephen: The café is the biggest part. The online probably has the biggest potential but it will take a while to get traffic. We’re investing a good bit now on our online presence and we’re looking at 6 months down the road… 1 year down the road… and putting down sales targets.
What do you sell online?
Ruth: You can get our branded coffee, handmade cups, branded keepcups, grinders, all the gadgets.
How would you describe the ethos of the business in 3 words?
Stephen: Friendly, vibrant, informative.
What part of the job do you enjoy the most?
Ruth: I actually really like coming down here and meeting people. Our customers are so nice. We’ve built up a huge relationship with some customers. Some have been coming down since the beginning and even the new customers – we’d actually be mates with them. Some customers have started their own businesses and we can support them now. There’s a nice village feeling here in Blackrock. There’s a nice community aspect which I like.
Do your architecture degrees inform how you run the business?
Ruth: They probably do. It makes you a perfectionist so you’re never happy. Haha. We’re literally always changing things. Constantly making little improvements. We’re never at the end. It’s an ongoing project – just like design.
Did you deal with negative people when you were starting off in business?
Stephen: A huge amount. I just ignored it.
Ruth: Before we even opened people were like, “best of luck – you probably won’t be here in a few months.” It was hard. It’s easy for people to see the place so successful now and come in and say things like “I always knew you could do it”. But we took it with a pinch of salt and we’d done loads of research so we were confident and were able to drown it out. Our families have been super supportive. We never had pressure from that end at all.
Stephen: If there’s ever a spouse, girlfriend or family member that don’t believe, it’s really difficult. So we were very lucky there. We both have the same focus and the support of friends and family.
Ruth: We got loads of help from people. When we were doing up the property people used to drop in and help out for hours on end and wouldn’t even expect anything in return. Even people we didn’t know helped. So we really got both sides, positive and negative.
They say you should never go into business with family. Any truth to that?
Stephen: You just have to be very careful. We’re lucky because everyone is very much on the same page. It works well with Daniel my brother who is the Manager. He has fantastic people skills and is really great with both the staff and customers. You can’t let differences of opinion simmer beneath the surface. Any issue, you have to get it out of the way fast and get over it. It’s a challenge. It can be hugely successful. At least you know no one is going to screw you over.
Ruth: Because we’re both doing the same thing we’re never pulling against each other. You hear about couples that have to sacrifice so much but we’re going in the same direction. Sometimes when we go on holidays we talk about business a lot. Where do we see ourselves in a year? What kind of income would we see ourselves with? That kind of thing.
What would be your perfect food day in Dublin?
Stephen: Steak in Shanahan’s… haha!
Ruth: For lunch, I’d go to Fumbally.
Stephen: Or Coppinger Row. We got brunch there yesterday. That was really nice.
Working such long hours would you get takeaways much?
Ruth: We would do yea. Our last one was Diep. We used to get Indian food from Bistro Spice in Monkstown but it closed down and I really miss it! We go through cycles. If we’re really busy we’d order lots in a month. When we’re more organised we’d try and cook more at home. If you’re tired it’s just easier to get a takeaway.
What does it take to be successful when starting your own business?
Stephen: Persistence. I think that’s the biggest challenge. For example, us trying to get a new property, the success or failure will come down to persistence.
Research. We’d go and sit outside coffee shops and observe the footfall. We’ve done that for almost every coffee shop in Dublin so we know exactly what’s going on. If the big chains in an area are doing very strongly we know they can sustain an independent. Where possible we’d avoid moving into an area where there is already an independent. You don’t want to get into a dogfight. Plus we love seeing other independents do well.
Numbers. Get your numbers right and question yourself hugely. We did that for this shop but we still missed so many things. Our numbers were actually way off. There are so many costs that you miss. I remember someone once said to me, “whatever you think your costs are going to be – double it, whatever you thing your profits will be – half it.”
Who are your main influences?
Ruth: Within the industry we’d look to a lot of places slightly ahead of the game here in Ireland like Australia and the US. Bluebottle and Stumptown in the US are good.
Stephen: My uncle and aunt own a cryogenics company in the UK and they give us a lot of advice in terms of being a couple and running a business. They’d be very upfront about the dangers and what to look out for in the future as we progress in business together.
Knowing what you know now would you do anything differently when starting the business?
Ruth: Finish everything before you open the doors because once you open for business you wont have time to fix things. On the first day we didn’t even have a board with prices. We just forgot. You’re front of house all day and then in the evening you’re doing admin and if you have to fix up the shop too it can be really draining.
One friend said that once you’re ready, take a day off before you open the doors. It’s good advice. You need to have your head in the game because once you open you’re open almost every day for a year, seven days a week.There have been days that we’d work all day and then close the doors at night and I’d burst out crying. I was so drained and tired.
Stephen: Yea the amount of times we’ve questioned it. It’s been over 2 years hard slog with no return but in the end it’s been worth it.
What would your average day look like?
Ruth: For about 4 years I didn’t have a free weekend because I did the markets with Pure Foods. My social life went out the door. But now we get some weekends off and have a a far more respectable 6am – 7/8pm job!
What advice would you give yourself at 15?
Ruth: I would say to try a job even for free as an intern in something you’re really into even if there’s not great money in it because sometimes jobs you think are really cool are not great in reality.
Stephen: I don’t know if I’d do architecture if given the choice again. There have been benefits and in hindsight it has given me a lot of things, but was it worth 6 years? I don’t know.
Ruth: I think it would be good to tag along with a business man or woman and see what they do, even if just for a day or two.
Stephen: I’d also tell myself to start saving!
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