Taste the Nation: This Cork coffee company has capitalised on our love of the perfect brew 

After the Covid-19 crisis saw Cork coffee roasters Velo shift gears by selling their city-centre café and focusing on retail and direct sales, general manager Suzanne Casey talks about coffee, community and world circumstances.
Taste the Nation: This Cork coffee company has capitalised on our love of the perfect brew 

Owner Rob Horgan and General Manager Suzanne Casey of Velo Coffee Roasters with a shipment of coffee - heading to Malaysia.

“Coffee was one of those lucky areas during Covid where people weren't going into cafés and restaurants, and people started investing in their home setup. We got quite lucky in the sense that we were in the right industry, at the right time, and saw quite a big uplift from our own side in retail.” 

As Covid-19 moves to a new phase, consumer confidence has picked up despite a wide array of challenges, and Ireland’s indigenous food and drinks businesses are seeing the uptick, both in terms of business and a wider interest in the sector.

Having operated as a quayside cafe in Cork’s city centre before the pandemic, before selling up and pivoting to a focus on retail and direct online sales, Mayfield-based coffee roasters Velo have been no exception to the nature of Covid-era change. General manager Suzanne Casey discusses how it’s been for the business to stay in the saddle.

“We had just started to tip into food service a couple of weeks before Covid hit, so obviously that piece never took off, but we're seeing more of it now, with more offices coming back and a lot of offices now are looking to invest in a better coffee offering for their employees. So that's become a bit of a surprise market for us, which is great.” 

The Vélo range of coffees
The Vélo range of coffees

The onset of the Covid-19 crisis changed everything for Ireland’s food and drinks businesses, from interruptions in the supply chain to changes in consumer behaviour, both in terms of a further shift from high streets to online shopping, and in terms of people taking up new hobbies and interests over the course of lockdown.

The latter phenomenon took many forms - from the rise of home baking, to a wider interest in vegetarianism and veganism. For Velo, that increased curiosity in all things culinary served as a lifeline, as an interest in coffee and the art behind its creation saw a spike in orders for their upmarket blends, as well as high-end coffee equipment. Casey talks about dealing with an increasingly discerning customer base.

“Restaurants and cafés, particularly cafés, started opening up a decent while ago, even for takeaways and all that, and we haven't seen a dip yet. I think people have changed habits a lot, and in terms of coffee, people are really willing to invest.

“They all switch to really nice coffee and are supporting local coffee roasters, and I think they're seeing that there's such a big difference in the quality that you get from a smaller batch roaster, and they're happy to stick with it. In retail, there's just a general incline of consumers who are switching to our coffee, and investing in speciality coffee.”

Velo coffee in recyclable, retail-ready bags
Velo coffee in recyclable, retail-ready bags

One defining factor of the city’s culinary scene in the post-recession years has been the rise of a wider café culture, from the opening and expansion of Cork Coffee Roasters to the hip, minimal appeal of SOMA’s in-person cafés and growing offering of speciality coffee products.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the coffee scene in town, especially as the introduction of outdoor seating around the city centre hastened the onset of much-needed in-person reunions of friends, colleagues and loved ones.

“It's a big change in consumer preferences that we're seeing, and the greater globe is seeing, really, switching from that darker, punchy, hit-you-in-the-gut, morning cup of Joe. People are approaching coffee similar to other specialty drink and food products, where they're looking for flavours, and the focus is on quality, where it's coming from, and the story behind it.

“We often compare ourselves to the UK, as to where we're going. The UK has been on that journey for a few years, and Ireland is just embarking on it as well. It's a fantastic culture and time to be in coffee, because it's great to see people caring about where their beans are coming from, in who's growing it and what's behind it.” 

Maydson Savner and Aoife Kirwan having fun with Velo coffee.
Maydson Savner and Aoife Kirwan having fun with Velo coffee.

One of the areas that the company has explored in a big way, in terms of direct online sales, has been its regular coffee subscription - different tiers and frequencies of delivery are available, and with every installment, a mystery bag of high-end coffee has found its way to the company’s discerning core custom, who are then surveyed for notes of new blends hitting shop shelves and the company’s online shopfront.

“It's new enough to us, we started it only a couple years ago, so we're working on it all the time. We have a full range of types of coffee, from your more traditional, chocolate-y, nutty coffees, all the way up to the weird and wonderful. What we really found is, when people are ordering on a regular basis, what they want is to try something new and something different, so a lot of people have our mystery subscription.

“We're still teasing it and working it out, and we have big plans down the line to make it more interactive for customers. Definitely a work in progress, but it's great to see the numbers grow with subscriptions, and see people enjoying a brand-new, different coffee that they're excited to try every month.” 

Velo Coffee Roasters' small team has gone from running a café in Cork City to retail contracts with Tesco and Aldi among others
Velo Coffee Roasters' small team has gone from running a café in Cork City to retail contracts with Tesco and Aldi among others

While roasting the coffee beans themselves in Cork has allowed them to lean into the support and identity of the local business community, there’s no getting around the fact that international circumstances in recent years, from changes in the supply chain to political instability, have dramatically altered the state of play for import-reliant businesses.

The coffee business is a strange beast at the best of times, never mind times of crisis - and working with their suppliers, Velo has made the best of trying circumstances.

"We've worked with the same suppliers since we started in 2018. They were well set-up and prepped for when Brexit hit, so we were actually getting a lot of our larger quantity being delivered direct into Dublin. It's great to have a partnership with a supplier, because you can tease all that out. They managed to keep up their supply chains during Covid. Things took longer, but all in all, we were able to keep the product on the shelf the whole time.

"But where you get stuck with coffee is that the price of coffee is just going through the roof. And a lot of that is: it's more expensive to transport it. There's so much unrest in some countries where coffee is produced. So you can have issues just getting the coffee from the farms to the port, like Colombia and Brazil can be quite difficult.

"Again, we're lucky that our supplier is good to their farmers as well. One of their farmers lost an entire crop in El Salvador to a drug gang that infiltrated the farm, but they still ensured that he was paid for the crop, even though they didn't get it. That can affect our prices, and we're already on the higher sides, because we're a speciality grade, but because we're also looking at giving back to the communities where we're purchasing coffee.

"We're looking to develop a project in Colombia this year with our supplier, there's different things that they do, there's water projects happening in Guatemala, they will build bridges in neighborhoods to help kids get to school easier.

“It can be quite difficult, I suppose, in terms of getting it in, you always have to be prepared and we had to learn to buy ahead, a lot more than we'd want to, but it ensures that everyone at origin is getting paid properly, and we know ourselves that at least the farmers that we're dealing with are being taken care of.” 

Rob Horgan, owner at Velo Coffee Roasters, at the business' roasting facility on Cork's northside
Rob Horgan, owner at Velo Coffee Roasters, at the business' roasting facility on Cork's northside

Among Velo’s own community projects closer to home has been to work with paediatric ambulance charity BUMBLEance on its fundraising coffee mornings earlier this year, working to raise funds and awareness for specially-adjusted emergency transport for children with life-limiting conditions and in palliative care.

Casey talks about how the relationship came together, and how it’s been to be part of it.

“We stumbled upon BUMBLEance when they got on to us about a coffee morning, and one of the girls in the office asked if we could do something for them. That was very much a yes, like, whatever we can do, we'll do it if it's within our capacity.

“The more we read up on BUMBLEance, and the more we actually talked to some of the girls there, we just fell head over heels for what they're doing and the service that they're providing. We started talking about it in the office and you know, 'what else can we do?'. We're a small team, so there's always that community aspect here.” 

After the period of change that we’ve endured in the past two-plus years, it’s good for us all to look forward, and with spikes in different parts of their business becoming the foundations on which to build, Casey is optimistic about the next stage of Velo’s coffee-roasting tour.

"We're excited. We realigned a lot during Covid. We sold the cafe at the start of Covid, we have just been focusing on roasting coffee with a major focus on retail, so it's great to see the orders roll in. We are exporting to the UK a lot online, and we've seen a big opportunity for us to take our products outside of Ireland, which has a lot of challenges, and we're coming up to the challenges all the time, every day. There's a lot of excitement and there's a great buzz in the place to see what started as a very small roastery go from strength to strength."

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up