Pádraig Hoare: The Monday Interview - Irish coffee culture is full of beans

Grace O’Shaughnessy, managing director of Java Republic, in the company’s headquarters in Dublin: ‘Pretty much two in 10 drinks per day consumed in Ireland are lattes and cappuccinos. The bar has been raised. With that comes a refusal to accept poor standards.’ Pictures: Moya Nolan

Savvy consumers are consistently raising the bar — in terms of taste, quality, and transparency — for Ireland’s coffee makers, Java Republic managing director Grace O’Shaughnessy tells Pádraig Hoare

Ireland can hold its head high on the world coffee stage, according to the boss of one of the country’s most recognisable indigenous brands.

For managing director of Java Republic, Grace O’Shaughnessy, that means reacting to the constantly higher bar being set by coffee consumers, who now drink two of every 10 beverages poured in the country.

“Traditionally Ireland would have been a black tea-drinking nation. Coffee, latte, and cappuccino — we now drink more of those per day than ever. Pretty much two in every 10 drinks per day consumed in Ireland are lattes and cappuccinos. When we look at the marketplace as a whole, it is all age profiles.

“The bar has been raised. With that comes a refusal to accept poor standards.

“Ireland is now on a platform that can hold itself against any world stage in coffee. It held the world barista championships a couple of years ago, and as we travel the world to look at coffee, we see we are not playing catch-up any more. We have a marketplace and a wealth of talent in the barista community. That is half the battle when people care about what they are providing,” said Ms O’Shaughnessy.

Founded by David McKernan in 1999, Java Republic recently invested €500,000 reinvigorating its brand. There are more than 1,200 venues across Ireland serving over 100,000 cups of Java Republic product daily.

Since Ms O’Shaughnessy became managing director in 2008, she has successfully managed the transition from a 5,000 sq ft facility to a 23,000 sq ft facility, increasing staff from 27 to 60, and has overseen the building of the world’s first custom-built carbon-neutral coffee roastery.

Forgoing the high-street presence, Java Republic instead partners with the likes of hotels, offices, and restaurants and cafés.

“What differentiates us from the high-street brands is that we don’t have a high-street presence per se, in terms of our own branded cafés. What we do is rely on our customer base to deliver what we believe to be the best coffee on the ground in Ireland. We do that by going further and deeper, we believe, than anyone in providing a fantastic coffee experience in the market.

“In the downturn, the first thing to be put away were the perks. But now, coffee is a very important factor to give back to employees in a workplace. It has now got to a point that the coffee experience should be as good, if not better, than that in any high street arena. People are looking to consume more but want that quality matched.

“Not all need to be a connoisseur but they know what they like and want to taste. That is where we are positioned to help our partners. Not just in roasting and providing coffee, but service to machines to quality to training to baristas,” she said.

There is little on the horizon to suggest coffee fatigue from consumers, according to Ms O’Shaughnessy.

Grace O’Shaughnessy in the Java Republic’s roastery, the world’s first custom-built carbon-neutral coffee roastery.

“If anything, consumer trends would indicate that coffee consumption is growing here at an exponential rate. The Irish marketplace is a very competitive landscape in a very small footprint of people. Our population is growing and I am sure that is going to grow even more, when you look at our nearest neighbour.

“We look at trends in cafés — currently in Ireland, there are more than 500 independent cafés, and that is set to grow to over 800 in the next two years. There seems to be no slowdown there,” she said.

Consumers now demand fair play as much as good coffee, she said, which Java Republic takes very seriously and has immersed fully into its business model.

“We just had a team back from Rwanda who went and met new farmers on the ground in Ruhango, a townland where we have now committed to buy coffee from the farmers directly but, more importantly, to give back to the community.

“We are supporting their own private health insurance by going over and above just trading. Java Republic goes further and deeper to find better coffees on the ground.

“It is not a corporate social responsibility element. We believe we are actually creating shared value. Sometimes a CSR programme can be seen purely from a reputational point of view, but creating the shared value element is more than just looking good.

“This is actually doing something that matters to our farmers on the ground. They know who we are, we know who they are, they are getting a fair return but, more importantly, they know they have a trade channel to sell their coffee and we want to help them on the ground also. It’s not just lip service,” she said.

“More than ever, coffee-growing regions are acutely aware of the importance of coffee to the end consumer.

“What we find on the home front is that we have become acutely aware of what consumers demand. Of old, it would be okay to have a great tasting coffee in the cup. Now young people are looking to go one step further. They want to see transparency. They want to see what you are doing to support farmers on the ground. They want to touch and feel that with credibility.”

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