Before pour-overs, €13 coffee beans, minimalist decor, and succulent plants, there was the boot of Eamonn Mongey’s Opel Astra. 

Mongey, a wheeler dealer, had come across J.J. Darboven coffee at a trade show in London in 1988. “He saw the product and tasted the product and absolutely fell in love with the product and the branding and how Darboven do everything,” says his son, Graham. Eamonn brought some boxes back to Ireland and started selling them from the boot of his car.

“This was long before the word espresso or cappuccino or a latte was ever mentioned anywhere, really, let alone in Ireland. So, it was the old filter machines, the machines with the glass pots on them, that’s the coffee we had at the time,” says Graham. 

Selling the coffee was an uphill battle. Coffee culture was non-existent and varieties were few. Bewleys and Robert Roberts had the market sewn up.

“My dad, by way of background, was a really, really good salesperson. He was able to sell anything to anyone. I could tell you stories and he’d kill me if he was here. He was just one of those people who was really good at selling. For the first t10 years, people didn’t really buy Darboven coffee but were buying Eamonn’s coffee,” says Mongey. 

Eamonn Mongey decided to target restaurants. He supplied coffee to high-quality eateries at a time when they were the only place you could get a decent cup of coffee. 

“He slowly built up a customer base. Back then, he very much focused on high-class, high-quality outlets. So, he would have at one point supplied to all the Michelin Star restaurants. He was always after that kind of high-quality customer,” says Graham Mongey.

It wasn’t easy. Eamonn sold the family home to finance the business when his son Graham was 12. He was convinced coffee was going to become a cornerstone of life in Ireland. 

“I grew up with my dad telling me that in the future, people wouldn’t go to the pubs in Ireland anymore. They would go to cafés and everywhere you look, there’d be a café,” says Mongey.

Then, in 2013, Mongey joined J.J. Darboven as a subsidiary and, he opened a retail store under the brand name. “He went over to Germany on the May bank holiday weekend in 2013. He agreed everything with Mr Darboven and the next week my dad passed away very suddenly,” says Graham Mongey. 

Eamonn Mongey’s son and daughter chose to take the reins of the business after his death. Graham looks after the catering and supply part of the business. His sister looks after the retail store and they call their mother an “ambassador” for the business as she is now semi-retired. 

They now sell different brands under the company name including Alfredo Espresso and their own coffee brand Eighty9, which is a tribute to Eamonn Mongey who started selling coffee in 1989.

The subsidiary’s turnover is over €2 million and it employs 22 people, all of which were kept on during the Covid-19 crisis with help from the wage subsidy scheme. 

Eamonn Mongey was a man ahead of his time. He passed away in 2013, just as the speciality coffee business in Ireland started to take off. The number of specialist coffee shops grew by 56 per cent in the five years after 2013. Sales increased by 45 per cent.

Coffee is a funny product in many ways. Why do we queue up for €3.50 cups of coffee? The caffeine, certainly, can be acquired more cheaply. Is it an excuse to meet up? The health benefits? The love of coffee for coffee’s sake? Or just caffeine addiction? And why, in the last five years, have we collectively turned into coffee snobs?

Covid is putting these theories to the test. Coffee is now consumed from paper cups on the pavement, where lively conversation is not as easy.

My brilliant vision was trying to find the caffeine depraved offices and try to supply those. With everybody working from home, it’s been extremely challenging.

Karl Purdy

The businessman

Anthony Gill doesn’t care much for coffee, but he knows a good business when he sees it. And he could see that people were willing to pay for coffee. So he and his wife opened a shop in the small town of Crossmolina, Co Mayo. 

A scaffolder by trade, Gill built scaffolding up and down the West of Ireland for years. While working in different counties, he came to a realisation that spurred him and his wife on to open The Old Post Office café : “All I’ve seen is pubs closing down and nice coffee shops and restaurants opening up,” says Gill. 

The Old Post Office’s owner Anthony Gill. Photo: Cáit Caden

In August 2019, after much lobbying from the local auctioneer, Gill decided to buy the town’s old post office building for €42,000. “The post office was where everything happened. You could phone people. It was a real social hub,” says the manager of The Old Post Office Criona Durkan.

Many of the buildings and shops that exist in Crossmolina, like Mary Hickson’s clothes shop, have been there since the 1980s at the very least and still looks the same from when it opened. Other businesses like The Dolphin pub have opened, closed, and opened again in a never-ending cycle. Gill wanted to break the mould and bring something new into the town. In December 2019, after €250,000 worth of renovations, they opened The Old Post Office café.

“I always felt the centre of the town was a bit dead, and I thought a coffee shop would work in it,” says Gill. 

“Why not diversify? All it takes is courage. And money, of course,” adds Gill.

“I think it’s very important too for people’s mental health. To get out there and to meet people. An awful lot of people don’t like people coming into their homes. And people don’t like going into other people’s homes. So, it’s somewhere local to meet,” says Gill. 

The café hired 10 people when it opened, but three people work full-time in it now as the business had to scale back due to the impact of Covid-19. There are three floors of seating area in the café, with an outside space which provides a view of Nephin mountain and the local church. However, due to pandemic restrictions, The Old Post Office is only providing a takeaway service.

The artisan

The artisan coffee fad came from Melbourne or Tokyo or some other such fancy place. It spread to Dublin. Now Aeropress coffee can be had in West Clare and Ballina.  

Ger O’Donohoe opened This Is It, a casual café and wine shop that serves up toasted sandwiches, salads, and vegan bakes, on August 12 in the town of Ennistymon, Co Clare. The café operates out of a 100-year-old farmhouse.

“There was something really missing down there and because of the pandemic people were still trying to go about their business and what I found is people just want a bit of normality,” says O’Donohoe. 

O’Donohoe has been in the coffee business for 20 years and This Is It is not his first business venture. He is a director of First Draft Coffee which he founded with the late Rashel Winn. Before that, he built up his reputation working in The Fumbally, a restaurant in Dublin. 

O’Donohoe was looking to open something outside of Dublin for a while but nothing seemed to suit.

“I was looking to open up down the country and I had an eye on a few different places. But nothing really felt right. You have to go with your gut a lot in this business,” says O’Donohoe.

“If it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right for a reason,” he adds.

Then an opportunity arose in Ennistymon as Niamh Fox and her husband Sam Gleeson decided to sell their café Little Fox. 

“I know there’s a lot of people that are obviously in a worse position than I am, so I didn’t put a big song and dance about it,” says O’Donohoe. 

On Gleeson’s Instagram page, he posted on May 13 confirming that the husband and wife duo would not be reopening its doors after lockdown. 

“Like many small businesses, the coronavirus pandemic has hit us hard financially and we don’t feel it’s something we can recover from,” the post states. 

“However, if you like our food and events hopefully you will keep following our little adventures,” it continues. 

O’Donohoe decided to open up This Is It in its place and says that he wanted to engage with the community of Ennistymon and offer some normality in the midst of the pandemic in the form of a coffee and wine shop. 

“I just sort of walked into it and it just sort of felt like home,” he says.

It was definitely on the cheaper side though,” he says.

O’Donohoe employs four people at This Is It, which is 10 fewer than Little Fox employed.  The staff at This Is It consists of a baker, a barista, a manager and a head chef, who was in the post while the café was still Little Fox and O’Donohoe decided to keep him in the role.

The “god shot”

In Ballina Co Mayo, another cosmopolitan refugee called Dave Gill returned from London eight years ago to set up his coffee shop, Dave’s Deli.

The key to Dave’s Deli’s success is all about what Gill calls “the God shot.” 

“It’s 10 steps to producing a good coffee. It starts from the roaster to how long the beans were roasted. We got beans roasted last Wednesday and I can’t use them for at least a week because the oils have to relax for the oils to come back,” says Gill. 

No coffee in Dave’s Deli is four weeks old. If it was any older, he wouldn’t be able to serve up a “God shot.”

For now, Dave’s Deli is operating as a takeaway-only coffee shop. 

The pivot

The coffee drinker of Ballina or Ennistymon probably differs from that of Coffee Angel in central Dublin. Coffee Angel is targeted at Dublin office workers, with five locations in the City Centre. 

The lockdown has hit Coffee Angel harder than most. “It’s been devastating. We rely on offices and people working in high-density locations. My brilliant vision was trying to find the caffeine-deprived offices and try to supply those. With everybody working from home, it’s been extremely challenging,” says the owner of the Coffee Angel chain Karl Purdy.

“I think, if I’m really honest with myself, I don’t think things are going to go back to normal in any city centre in terms of people working from home. I think that the genie is out of the bottle with regards to that,” adds Purdy.

Purdy, a Canadian photojournalist, set up his first café in Belfast. He then relocated to Dublin in 2000 to open a restaurant, which flopped. 

After that failure, he came up with Coffee Angel, which was originally a three-wheeler coffee cart at the end of Howth pier Co Dublin. He chose that location as he often saw people with prams walking along the pier. And where there are prams, there are tired parents looking for caffeine. 

“I grew up with my dad telling me that in the future, people wouldn’t go to the pubs in Ireland anymore. They would go to café and everywhere you look, there’d be a café”

Eamonn Mongey

The business grew and the chain now consists of five coffee shops around Co Dublin. Three of which have been forced to close due to the pandemic. 

“When Covid hit, most of our daily business disappeared pretty much overnight,” says Purdy.

“I sat at home one day after closing all the shops in the first lockdown and looked at my wife and she looked at me and we kind of realised that maybe I couldn’t sit at home for the next however many weeks it was going to be. So, I put a tweet out that if anybody needed a bag of coffee, I would deliver it to their home,” adds Purdy. 

This offering ended up being so successful for Purdy’s business that he had to bring back some of his staff which he had to temporarily let go of during the first lockdown. 

“The next morning, I woke up to 200 orders. So, we’d always had a little bit of an online presence. But really only on a monthly basis. It was less than two per cent of our turnover. So, pretty much overnight it became 100 per cent of our turnover,” says Purdy.

Karl Purdy, owner of CoffeeAngel

From a wholesaler perspective, Purdy sees suburban coffee shops doing quite well from the working from home effect of the pandemic. 

“I would never begrudge them that success. I think the challenge will be the city centres. Those people who are relying on caffeine-deprived office workers. Like any retailer in the city centre, if the footfall isn’t there, you really do have to think about how you’re going to rationalise the business and the overheads. I think the online provides an opportunity for us,” says Purdy.

Purdy then decided to create more of an online offering for his customers to retain loyalty. He wanted to create an online space that would provide the same tone and atmosphere that a customer would experience if they physically walked into a Coffee Angel. One of the ways in which Purdy is trying to achieve this is by sending out individual thank you notes to each customer that orders online. 

A move to online may have been somewhat of a silver lining for retailers like Coffee Angel. However, establishing an online presence will not heal the wounds the pandemic has inflicted on retail and hospitality businesses. There are still huge fixed costs to worry about including rent and insurance. 

“Obviously turnover is down, but we’ve done our best to cut costs. It’s not going to be a year where we’re popping bottles of champagne when financial results come through. I think surviving is really what we’re working towards. And also embracing the changes that we need to make with things like the online opportunity,” says Purdy.

“I don’t know what 2021 is going to bring. I have no intention of closing shops,” he adds. 

Next year

Covid is a disaster for the industry, but some day it will be past. “I will be flabbergasted if hospitality didn’t boom after Covid”, says Graham Mongey. “I think that we’ve been so starved of being able to go out and go for dinner and sit down with someone and have a pint of Guinness or go to a café that I really think it will come back very, very strongly,” he adds.

The real danger lies is with those who haven’t evolved over the lockdown and instead have adopted a wait-and-see approach. For example, J.J. Darboven in Ireland continued to fulfil the online orders for their coffee as well as operating a coffee takeaway service through a hatch. 

“There’s lots of people out there, lots of businesses out there that are changing their offering and increasing or improving their offerings. I think the businesses who just are still and do nothing, and then when they open the doors in year’s-time or six-months-time, and expect to have the same level of business, I think they will find it hard. The competition has moved forward a lot in that time to a wider range of products, better products, more sustainable products, bigger spaces, nicer areas,” says Mongey.

“So, I think the competition is fierce and I think the ultimate winner will be the consumer like always. I don’t think hospitality is gone forever, far from it. I think it will probably come back stronger,” he adds. 

Purdy believes that people have become too accustomed to professionally made coffee to ever go back to a time without coffee shops. 

Purdy says: “Customers never get less intelligent. Our palates don’t work backwards. Certainly, there will always be a place for supermarket coffee, but people don’t look back at the halcyon days of tinned ham. The palates evolve and we move forward.”