Kaffe O : The Passion Led Journey

Orla Smyth is the founder and proprietor of Kaffe O, a coffee shop, “Inspired by Copenhagen. Made in Belfast.” I’ve been to the shop quite a lot in the last year since I moved to this end of the city.

I’ve always found the minimalist approach to the decor pleasing. The coffee and cuisine, superb. The approach to Kaffe O is all encompassing. After attending “Good Design For Business”, a Belfast Design Week event in the shop, I wanted to know more.

A week later, I sat down with Orla to discuss the journey thus far, music, design, identity, coffee (of course) and the passion led, holistic approach to all things Kaffe O.


This conversation took place on the Kaffe O premises during the hustle and bustle of a Thursday lunch time, as the Drive soundtrack played in the background. A great read for the coffee lovers and new business owners. Enjoy.


DB: Describe when and how coffee and Kaffe O became a major part of your life? Maybe some background to the story of the brand and the major players? So, Paul [McNally] and Ricco [Sørenson].

OS: Basically I knew I wanted to Kaffe O when I was working in Copenhagen. So I was sent over, well, voluntarily sent over. I wanted to go. When I was working in Danske Bank in Belfast, they seconded me to Copenhagen, Danske Markets Legal. So I moved over there one February, just negotiating contracts with banks and from a legal perspective it was an amazing opportunity. But, it was also time on my own saying, do I want to do this for the rest of my life? And very much it was a no, I don’t. (Laughing) 

I was always a massive coffee geek but Belfast, this was in 2008, there was very little going on for people who were really into coffee. I mean, I was more one of these people who went into coffee shops and had to specifically tell the person making it how I wanted it, and I would always sort of do it myself. (Laughing) Then when I lived in Copenhagen it was just an eye opener. Their coffee. Their culture. Just their whole way of living had a massive impact on my life. It sounds really cheesy that you go away and that happens but it really did. I wouldn’t say I was a clutter person, but my house was full of so many unnecessary things. I would go to Tesco every week and buy a load of shite I wouldn’t use or didn’t really need. When I was living out there, I had no car obviously, I used a bike.

I lived about five floors up this spiral staircase, no washing machine, now, don’t get me wrong it was a beautiful apartment but that’s how they live over there and it made me think what do you really need in your life?

DB: Have you carried that whole cultural thing back here then in every respect?

OS: Oh god yeah, 100%. It got me thinking about a couple of things. Where you shop and how you shop. When I was a kid, I used to go to St. George’s Market with my mum, every Friday but I’d gotten out of the habit of it as I was working. But whenever I came back I started and now I still do go down to the market every Friday morning. There are some things you can’t get there but I’ll try to just get those every 3 or 4 weeks in the supermarket. I actually got really into LIDL ‘cause there’s loads of them in Copenhagen.

The house as well. Whenever I came back, I said to my husband, everything needs gone. (Laughing) So our house is now this white box of minimalism and storage everywhere. There’s a culture here to have the biggest house and in the nicest street. It was that realisation you really didn’t need it. I ended up working in the department with one of the most senior legal people in Danske Bank out there and he invited me to his family home for dinner. It was a small apartment, there was five people living in it and don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful and in the best area but it made me realise that space is so overrated, when you can have as much of it as you want. Do you really need it?

DB: And that’s obviously filtered through to the shop?

OS: Yeah, yeah. I think Danish design is amazing. From their architecture to particularly their furniture but also their women’s clothes. I got into quite a few Danish and Swedish clothes companies we don’t have here. It was things like that where you saw you paid for quality and you got quality. It lasted. Whereas I felt before I went away, I maybe didn’t appreciate that. As Paul was saying in his talk, You buy crap, you get crap.

DB: And Paul is a major part of the Kaffe O journey then?

OS: He is because he got really quickly, straight away got what my design and vision for it was. It was to be Scandinavian influence so when you go in somewhere it is clean, it’s organised, it’s efficient. It’s not chaotic. I know it’s chaotic in here sometimes but there are systems behind it. (Laughing) From the design perspective and all our branding. I needed that clean, minimalist feel. My issue though is that some people can say those aspects mean it isn’t warm or friendly. I don’t feel that in here. I think you can get minimalism but not have the cold atmosphere. So that was working with Paul to achieve that. 

DB: It is very much a brand. You’ve obviously got the clothing going on and stuff. It’s definitely more than just the signage or the coffee.

OS: Yeah, that’s what we always wanted. When Paul designed our logo which is the wee cup, I just loved it as an image. We just thought we could do so much with it. What we have here is nothing compared to what we thought we would do. I’m looking at your hat (Carhartt) and it’s so simple but that makes for the best design.

DB: Exactly, yeah. And what about Ricco, how did that whole situation play out?

OS: Basically, when I was there, I used to just go around coffee shops all the time. My favourite one is in a place called Istedgade which years ago, would have been a run down area, red light district type of thing. That’s where Ricco opened his first shop. It was the tiniest coffee shop. At that stage, you were still allowed to smoke in it, not that I smoke, but it was just a very unique experience. (Laughing)

DB: Yeah it’s weird when you go to other countries and see that again.

OS: Yeah, well, actually, they’ve stopped it now but literally, the coffee, I just thought was unreal. I drank it every day and then when I came back I just genuinely couldn’t get anything as good. I ended up getting in touch with Ricco, chatting to him and saying, Right, I need your coffee over here. We met up a few times and he’s a bit like me, maybe a little eccentric. I think I’m a little bit eccentric (Laughing) So we get on very well. He’s a really cool guy. So he has around 17 shops now but when I was over there, he had 2.

Ugh. Our sign’s away. Sorry, two seconds. 

DB: No worries (Laughing)

OS: You don’t need to put that in the interview. (Laughing)

DB: Aw I’ll keep it in, Northern Irish weather.

OS: Yeah. So to be honest, it did take me from living in Copenhagen to actually deciding to do it, I gave up my job probably about a year and a bit later. I thought, right, I’m never going to find out what I want to do unless I leave and have a bit of fear. 

DB: Yeah, it’s very important…

OS: It is ‘cause I knew I would have hit 40 and still been sitting in the bank working as a lawyer and it’s all very comfortable but I was going out of my tree with restlessness, I would say and boredom. I ended up back in law again and then, I think, it sounds really bizarre and really cheesy. But it was at a yoga class, one Sunday morning, I remember we were all chatting at the end of the class and it was just this lightbulb moment where I thought, no I need to do this now. It all started then, working 4 days a week as a lawyer and 3 days a week trying to get this place set up.

DB: Do you ever see yourself heading back to Copenhagen?

OS: I do go back pretty regularly to meet suppliers, see Ricco and stuff. I’d live in Copenhagen tomorrow but my husband’s very involved in gaelic football so it’s just not really going to happen. I have two favourite cities in the world, Copenhagen and San Francisco. Send me to either of them. I’ll happily live there forever. Copenhagen has a better work life balance. 

DB: I think, weirdly there’s quite a similar sensibility to here, the nature of people on the whole and even down to the weather. 

OS: 100% Totally. I was back on a holiday not that long ago but I lived out there for a while and it’s just, I think I’m a city person, with always living on Ormeau. I can escape to the country but I need to have the city within a 10 minute walk. San Francisco and Copenhagen have an atmosphere about them. It’s probably the multi cultural aspect and really good food as well. That’s amazing.

DB: You’ve been open just over a year now, have you noticed any major differences between launch day and now? 

OS: In the shop or in general?

DB: Well, probably the shop but I suppose that directly affects you…

OS: I suppose from the start, the fact that I’m sitting having this conversation with you and I’m not the most stressed person in the world. That’s a good change. (Laughing) ‘Cause the first 6 months were [expletive] horrendous. And they were. I remember people saying to me you must be living the dream and I swear I would have swapped places just like that within first few months. Being genuine, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Being a lawyer was easy. Totally easy. 

Now it’s stressful but it’s a different stress. When I look back, I think, what were you at?! I hadn’t a clue. Went from being a lawyer to opening a shop and I didn’t even know how to turn the till off. I didn’t even know where to go to buy blue roll which is a necessity. So thankfully, massive learning curve. We got good systems and processes in place and I think it takes you probably about 6 months to bed in and know where you are. We did have some tweaks to the menu. It’s funny, when we first opened, so many people said you can’t just do boiled eggs, you have to do other things and I thought, I don’t want to do other things. You have to do bacon sandwiches, you have to do sausage rolls, you have to do proper bread and I just thought, I don’t want to do that. When things were quieter and stuff in the beginning you were thinking, are they right? Should I be doing that?

I remember chatting to Paul about it and having this really clear vision and thinking if I chop and change, no one’s going to know what it stands for. So when you come in, what do you think? This isn’t a bad question or trying to put you on the spot.

DB: Oh, well there’s a guy in a Kaffe O hat. (Laughing)  [There was a guy waiting for a bus in one of the blue Kaffe O heathered beanies] 

OS: How cool is that? I love that shit. I never get bored of that. I love people wearing the hats. 

DB: Well before the Deadbeat stuff, I ran a little company that was all t shirts, beanies, hoodies…

OS: What did you call it?

DB: Black Blood Apparel. Still exists on the internet but it’s not something that I push anymore. The best thing was seeing someone wearing something that you made, like this guy at the bus stop, for example. You probably don’t know him.

OS: I don’t

DB: But he’s invested enough in your brand to buy something more than a coffee and that’s the coolest thing. But whenever I come in here, it speaks to me because I’m all about the minimalist approach. If you look at the site for example, that’s what I enjoy. Probably to an extreme extent, it’s very monochromatic, black and white.

OS: To be fair, if I could have grey and white and that was it, maybe a little splash of colour.

DB: Whenever you’re talking about the design, and people saying it’s cold and stuff, I’m not on that at all. Well maybe touching on something else that sets you apart. There is a big coffee boom at the minute and you always hear about Aeropress, V60, Chemex brewing methods and that’s not what you’re about? 

OS: I actually wrote a blog on this about brewing in chemistry sets. It’s purely down to the question, what am I passionate about? I’m a massive espresso fan. To me. Thats’s how I want my coffee served. Don’t get me wrong, I do all those brewing techniques at home and I love experimenting at home, trying new beans from all over and taking the time. That’s my Sunday geekoid. Brunch with whatever coffee and however I’m going to brew it. But for me, a coffee shop is an espresso experience. The taste of the espresso that comes out of that machine just cannot be replicated whereas to me, everything else can, and often better at home. There are a few places that get it right and do it fabulously but on the whole I think that’s for home.

DB: Is it that there’s too much choice when you bring all these methods in or?

OS: Well I don’t know if it’s too much choice but I think for a lot of people, this might sound awful, but a lot of people mightn’t know the difference for example when it comes to, is this Aeropress supposed to taste like this? And that’s the consistency point. So my espresso will always taste the same. We change our grinders, we never weigh the coffee, it’s all done purely on extraction rates. 

There are a lot of considerations. You have different extraction rates depending on when it’s roasted, the weather in particular can play a part, especially when it’s warm and humid. It can be a nightmare so you’re constantly monitoring it that way. My view is that I don’t weigh coffee because some days it takes more, some days it takes less to achieve the same result. They’re not massive parameters but it’s there. I not a fan of latte art either.

DB: No latte art…

OS: I hate it. 

DB: I don’t think it matters.

OS: No it doesn’t but I just think, stop drawing a picture on my coffee and just give me it. I’m going to come across like a real dictator here but genuinely my passion is espresso here. I put all my time and effort into ensuring our espresso is perfect. I’m not passionate about other brewing methods. There are people that do those other methods so well but I don’t have the same desire to perfect that. 

DB: As with everything else, you wouldn’t do it if you weren’t passionate about it. 

OS: It’s like the poached egg thing. You start doing things because people think you should do them, then I think you’re on a real slippery slope. Having people coming in for poached eggs and a Aeropress. Be loving it. (Laughing)

 

DB: Well, we were chatting earlier about the record player in the shop. Why go for that? 

OS: I don’t care what anybody says, vinyl sounds better. It mightn’t be as clean or crisp but to me, it’s better. I’ve always been a massive fan of music so always had records at home and even from when I was a kid. I remember having a record player in my bedroom from my granny’s, remember one of the real old wooden ones? 

We actually have a deck now, a Technics, because the record player I did get came in from Germany because I wanted it to remove at the end of a side so I didn’t get the click, click, click going in the speakers. I thought that was a real big issue. But to be honest, people are a bit rough with my record player so we had to swap it out for one of those things. They could survive a bomb. 

DB: It’s interesting because there’s this juxtaposition I feel maybe, where people might think the design is cold or they’ve said that but it’s been said that there’s a warm quality to vinyl. That’s quite funny.

OS: Totally. Yeah well Paul’s writing that book..

DB: Five Things?

OS: Yeah he launches the Kickstarter today and the quote in there is “Life without music is unthinkable” and I couldn’t agree more. I could forgo all sorts of entertainment but not music.

DB: What sort of music would you find playing when you come in then? I know the Drive soundtrack was on when we got in there.

OS: Oh god. Just the most random stuff. What’s lovely is that from the start we’ve had donations from customers if you have a look, it’s just the most random collection. I’m a massive Bruce Springsteen fan so I have a lot of Bruce in there but it goes from that to…I love Fats Domino, he’s in there. Fats Waller, loads of that in there. Aw, Tina Turner was on when I came in but that’s banned. (Laughing) I used to veto records when I was in all the time, but there’s two Abba ones that need to go. I had a cull a wee while a go.

DB: Maybe just for clean up when the shop’s closed or something?

OS: Aw it’s when people don’t put the right record into the right sleeve, facing the right way round. What?! But yeah, it’s a big mix, I love a lot of old soul music. The guys crack up when I come back from putting something on. God, not more, but you can’t have enough. Like The Drifters, how can you not love listening to The Drifters? But then it goes to Foo Fighters and Nirvana, Neil Diamond to Neil Young. Someone called it eclectic. But I think that was being polite. (Laughing) 

DB: Now that you’re in a very front facing industry, dealing with the public everyday, you wrote a blog post about it. [Here] The saying goes, “ The customer’s always right” ?

OS: Aye right. (Laughing) 

DB: Well that’s my opinion having done retail in some way for about 10 years.

OS: Well read the blog post ‘cause it’s covered in more detail but my thoughts in a nutshell. We have genuinely amazing customers. We have really, really good customers that you can have a bit of craic with, but, you can’t please everybody all the time. What people forget is, this is a human industry. We’re not robots. Have we had complaints? 100%. But we deal with them right away. My bugbear is the TripAdvisor thing. If anybody has an issue, we deal with it and there’s accountability and responsibility there. Whereas, to me, on TripAdvisor, there’s neither.

People that work in this industry, they’re not earning an absolute fortune, and you know what, they could have all this shit going on in their lives at home but they come in here and their face is out to the world. Someone has a poor connection for whatever reason and next thing it’s on TripAdvisor and it’s personal. I think it’s really inappropriate. What I said was, I was a lawyer for 12 years. There were days where I was a shitty lawyer because I avoided clients and there was loads of crap going on but I hid in the office and closed the door. Nobody can do that in here. 

DB: And that’s not really fair I suppose?

OS: It’s not even that it’s not fair. This goes for good reviews and bad reviews. I listen to both. It’s just like, think. Think before you go out into a forum and make particularly personal comments about staff where it’s very obvious as to who the people are. Instead of coming to me and saying something, people go to the internet. My staff are amazing and they’re really, really good guys. Complaints are few and far between. 

DB: Yeah, people seem quick to turn to the internet now as a means of airing out things and it can be pretty detrimental at times.

OS: It’s not even that. There’s a forum now for people, who in the past had no forum. There’s now a vehicle there for people with whatever agenda they have in the world. This is the accountability point. It’s people’s livelihoods really. We’re very fortunate the majority are positive but this is somebody’s life and business. That said, if you’re more interested in writing a 20 paragraph review about how you won’t return somewhere for whatever reason. Don’t. Don’t waste your time! (Laughing)

DB: Well I suppose, in that light, Kaffe O is more than a coffee shop obviously. Do you have any advice for start ups or small business owners, creatives who maybe want to diversify? Have you learnt anything you could pass on?

OS: Yeah. It’s far, far harder than you ever think it’s going to be. And I don’t say that lightly. It genuinely is. No matter what research, business plans you have. I had all of that down to a tee because of my background, that’s the mindset I had but nothing actually prepares you for going live. You do get better as time goes on and you get into your wavelength but it doesn’t get easier. 

For me, if you are going to set something up, stick to your vision. If you’re confident in your product and what you’re setting up then be confident because everybody will have an opinion. I mean, everybody. Some people don’t do well because they try to please everybody whereas if you know your market, and you’re happy with that, don’t worry. Just don’t spread yourself too thinly, I suppose, 

DB: Be selective…

OS: Yeah, totally and have a good designer. (Laughing) You can’t launch a business without thinking of all elements. Well, it depends what you’re going for but we’ve developed a brand recognition and that only happens because there’s a hell of a lot of time, work and money. It doesn’t just happen by accident. Even at the minute I’m thinking of what I need to do in terms of getting new posters done, this and that. But I’m not going to just jump on MS Word, type something up, stick a coffee cup in from clip art. (Laughing) But that’s me. I love design.

DB: I went to a couple of other design week events actually. There was a gent, Marc O’ Riain there who referenced a Scandinavian report from the 60’s that suggested Irish people had a poor appreciation for design. Perhaps that’s a bit targeted but I think if the general public don’t really realise what good design is then…

OS: You see, if the design is so good, you shouldn’t notice it. 

DB: Exactly. That’s what I’m trying to say. (Laughing)

OS: Our chairs for example. Yeah, they’re HAY chairs and they’re really expensive. People don’t know why they like them. But my main thing is that it’s not design for design’s sake. It always has a purpose. That’s the best design to me. My coffee pots at home are all Danish, because they function really well. They look beautiful. But there’s no point in it looking beautiful if it’s shit. (Laughing)

DB: What is the future for Kaffe O, do you see expansion on the cards maybe new premises or additional premises?  

OS: That would be my trade secrets and I couldn’t tell you.

DB: I know you were talking about Ricco having 2 shops whenever you left and now he’s got 17…

OS: Oh 17 shops would be my nightmare. Just ship me off. To be honest, I do have plans but I’m just not sure 100% what direction to take things in. We have the online site as well. I just haven’t had enough time to spend building an online market and it’s slower. 

DB: And that’s selling the coffee and…

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OS: Yeah, so we sell the beans and the merchandise as well. My view is that I didn’t leave law to pursue something I don’t love, so whatever way the business expands, it has to be the part that I love doing. I’m still in the motion of that. 

DB: Okay, well awesome. That’s us, thanks!


You can visit Kaffe O, at 411 Ormeau Road in Belfast, from 7:30am to 9pm Monday-Friday and to 6pm Saturday and Sunday where you can grab a coffee, enjoy some food or pick up a t shirt for your body and a beanie for your noggin. Alternatively you can remain hermit-like at home and purchase said things through their webstore at kaffeo.coffee. Thanks for reading.