Make that to go: The hurlers on board the coffee trailer phenomenon

Many inter-county players are on board the coffee trailer phenomenon, so Michael Moynihan asked Waterford legend Ken McGrath about the phenomenon. Over a coffee, naturally.
Make that to go: The hurlers on board the coffee trailer phenomenon

CHANGING POSITIONS: Ken and Eoin McGrath at Cleyboy Business Park, Waterford. McGrath says choosing the right location is key to selling coffee. Picture: Patrick Browne

The coffee trailer phenomenon shows no sign of abating, it seems. See if you can travel five miles without passing one.

Many of them seem to have inter-county players involved, so yours truly asked Waterford legend Ken McGrath about the phenomenon.

Over a coffee, naturally.

“With the lockdown people were confined to a couple of kilometres, and there was a market there. If a person got out of the house for a half-hour’s walk or whatever, they’d enjoy it more if they could have a coffee in the open air.

“What else was there to look forward to at that stage?”

McGrath is a good starting point for the discussion. Almost 10 years ago he fell in with his brother Eoin in Mean Bean Coffee, supplying cafes and restaurants with coffee. Now they also have a coffee truck in Waterford, Two Brothers Coffee.

Let him take you through the coffee (business)-making process.

1. Research

There was a decent joke doing the rounds a while back, people saying they’d seen a horse box on the motorway which had a horse in it rather than a barista.

But there’s a bit more to it than clearing the hay out for an espresso machine, says McGrath.

“What some people don’t realise is that you’re really setting up an outside cafe, which is a lot more than just putting a coffee machine in a horse box.

“Eoin and I have been in the coffee wholesale business since 2013 so we’ve been around since before the explosion of the coffee trailer business, we see a lot of what works and what doesn’t.

“For instance, we’ve been delivering to cafes and pubs for years and the busy ones always have a good atmosphere, people are enjoying their time there - and that’s what a coffee truck should do as well. Knowing who the customers are and recognising them, chatting to them, and making the environment as pleasant as you can.

“That’s obvious, but it takes work, like every business, it’s hard work that makes a success of it. Hard work when you start and even beforehand, doing your research.”

Limerick hurler Darren O’Connell would agree.

“I didn’t know a whole lot about coffee up to a couple of years ago, but I was out in the States on my J1 and saw a couple of different-looking coffee trucks and trailers. That’s what put it into my head.

“When I came home I had that in mind, and then when Covid hit it suited to get started.”

Hence his coffee trailer in Mungret, Limerick - Chill The Beans Coffee.

AMERICANO: Darren O’Connell started his Coffee business after returning from the US.
AMERICANO: Darren O’Connell started his Coffee business after returning from the US.

The pandemic was a starting point for another hurler further up the western seaboard.

“I always had a bit of a grá for coffee,” says Galway’s Jason Flynn.

“Over the years you’d see teammates having a coffee before a game or when they’d meet up, and during lockdown I got to like it a bit more.”

During that time Flynn wasn’t working and neither was a pal, publican Cathal O’Byrne: “We were looking for a venture and coffee occurred to us. I reached out to the GPA and they were very good to us, opened a lot of doors for us - including putting us on to the McGraths in Waterford - so I couldn’t thank them enough.

“The two of us bought a trailer and did it up, but we did plenty of research. We visited Ultan Harney, the Roscommon footballer, to see his coffee trailer and learned a lot from him. Ken and Eoin (McGrath) also taught us a lot of things.”

The result? 11Eleven Coffee in Galway.

2. Location, location, location

“A good spot is obviously key,” says Ken McGrath.

“If you can get a spot at the end of a scenic walking route or near the seaside they’ll do well - the same for GAA clubs, which tend to be busy on the weekend with matches and training, so if you’re in the car park there’s a lot of custom.

“We set up a trailer here in Waterford about three and a half months ago and it’s flying, but the location is the important thing - we’re in a business park just off the ring road so there are people coming in to work here five days a week.”

Up in Portumna, Jason Flynn agrees.

“We were looking around wondering where to go - including down in Clare, but two weeks before we opened we decided on Portumna Forest Park, which is a beautiful spot.

ROASTERS: Galway hurler Jason Flynn started up 11Eleven Coffee with Cathal O’Byrne.
ROASTERS: Galway hurler Jason Flynn started up 11Eleven Coffee with Cathal O’Byrne.

“We worked out a deal with Coillte and it’s gone very well - it’s only a few miles from home, which helps when you’re hauling a trailer around, and people go there for a stroll at the weekend in particular; it’s a safe place to bring the kids, and the atmosphere is good, people having a cup of tea or coffee and a chat before or after the stroll.”

O’Connell is also mobile, with a regular spot at the weekend: “I’ve a truck that I bring around - I’d go to a lot of weddings, or to schools if the teachers are running an event, for instance.

“But every Saturday I bring it to a local market (in Newcastle West) as well, so it’s a good mix - different places during the week and one dependable spot at the weekend.”

3. The taste counts

Providing a quality product is Business 101, but there’s another layer to that in the coffee game, says McGrath.

“The reason? If you’re an inter-county hurler or footballer then you’re well known in your area, and people will come along out of loyalty from your club, say, to support you when you open.

Ken and Eoin McGrath at Cleyboy Business Park. Picture: Patrick Browne
Ken and Eoin McGrath at Cleyboy Business Park. Picture: Patrick Browne

“But that’s just the first day, or the first week. If you’re not giving them good coffee they won’t be back - just like any business, if the core product isn’t good it doesn’t matter who you are.

And that brings up another point. People want good coffee and they know good coffee; it’s not like 20 years ago when we’d accept anything in a cup.

“People know what they want when they order coffee and they’re not shy about saying what they want, which is great. Flat whites, extra shots, whatever they fancy they’ll ask for, and you have to give it to them.”

O’Connell echoes the Waterford man: “The first week or two it’s hard to judge, because everyone will come out and do you a turn, in fairness to them.

“But it’s whether they come back after that is the thing - after the opening week or two you have to provide them with good coffee or they won’t come back no matter who you are.

“It’s noticeable now that with people returning to work, and the schools being open again, that it’s quite busy in the morning, people getting coffee before work. It’s a good sign that it’s so busy.”

“The lads hit the nail on the head,” says Flynn.

4. People are coming for a break

As Darren O’Connell says, with people going back into offices and other workplaces there’s more demand for an early morning coffee. And a mid-morning coffee, or mid-afternoon, as a pick-me-up.

“You’re working away and you want a break,” says McGrath.

So you take a half an hour to recharge the batteries and the coffee is a big part of that - so it has to be good, and so does the service.

“You’d hear people talk about what they’d spend over the course of a year on a daily cup of coffee, but that’s missing the point. It’s a part of the day you have to yourself, to enjoy a small treat and to get on with the rest of the day in good humour afterwards.

“You have to remember that when you’re dealing with people. Enjoying a coffee break is important.”

5. And make mine a . . .

“Flat white, short and sweet,” says O’Connell.

“When I’m working a latte or americano could take too long to drink, particularly if it’s busy. It might go cold.

“The smaller coffee is handier.”

“Me too,” says Flynn. “I used to be a cappuccino man but I moved on to a flat white, stronger for when you’re busier.”

“Americano, small drop of milk, no sugar,” says McGrath. “That’s the job.”

No love for the latte?

Philistines.

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