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Ballymena Today Interview Jonathan from Middletown Coffee Co

Middletown Coffee Co is one of our favourite places in Ballymena. We took along Rachel from the Ballymena Today youth team to find out some more about them. Jonathan, who runs Middletown Coffee Co with his wife Emma, was generous enough to give us some of his time. We asked him some questions about coffee, setting up business in Ballymena and about living the dream at Middletown.


Ballymena Today Interview Jonathan from Middletown Coffee Co

So, when was your first cup of coffee?
Wow! So, my first cup of actual coffee was in my parents’ house on the Carniny Road, Ballymena, and it was instant. I was probably about 8 years old and back then, I suppose, that was what coffee was to me!

In 2015, you won the Northern Ireland Aeropress Championship! What was that like?
It was absolutely great and something I really needed to do. The NI Aeropress Championship is very popular now, and is one of the most fun competitions you can do in any barista style. But for me, I wasn’t going in with the attitude of having fun! I actually went in with the mindset of having to win it. I knew that we were going to open up Middletown, and I knew that it was something that I needed to do personally – not necessarily to help our business, but just for me. I loved every second of it!

What benefits has this had for you and for your business?
By winning, it got me a place in the world finals. I got to meet lots of people within the coffee industry who I will see again.

It got me a lot of good contacts who I am still in contact with – for example, Brendan. He owns coffee roasters in Seattle. We have conversations over the Internet, and recently his coffee guested here at Middletown. This was the first time that this happened in the UK – it was very exciting.

Why did you decide to set up business in Ballymena?
Mainly because Ballymena is home – and home is the best place you wanna be. But home is only good if there are good things around home – good places to go and things to do for all ages in the community.

Ballymena is our home as we were brought up in Ballymena, and we simply wanted Ballymena to have this. Middletown is more than quality food and service – it is a place for people to meet up, relax and be at home, which is so important nowadays!

We want to break down barriers between people. We provide good services, food, and of course coffee. Also, so many businessmen and others have had meetings under this roof. I wonder what goes on in these meetings, and the decisions that could be being made – it’s amazing!

You have been here since last December, but we went along to your pop-up event in Ballymena early in 2015. Why did you organise a pop-up event?
We did a series of pop-up events – Ballymena, Good Folk, Ballycastle and more. We did it to meet people who could be potential customers, and also to see if there is a demand for specialty coffee, which is still relatively new in NI. Although the pop-up events took so long to get set up for even one day, they were so good and so much fun! Some of our customers now had only gone to the pop-up event and have simply followed us from there – whether by Instagram, Facebook, Twitter etc – looking for updates. From there, relationships continued. We didn’t expect it, but the response has been overwhelming! Once you gain people’s trust, that’s where the magic happens, and you can break down those walls.

What steps did you take when setting up your business?
Many nights of no sleep, and fear! Looking back, I was lucky to have worked at Established Coffee in Belfast. The owners were good to me and that helped me to be able to run Middletown. For them to be open and to pass on so much information to me – it was great! It wasn’t just plain sailing though. There were small things, like getting a bank account. It dragged on for weeks, with so many questions and so many forms and it got super stressful; we lost so much sleep! But looking back though, it all seems very small. It was a rollercoaster of a ride. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a magic pot of money: we had to have a limited fund in order to do this. Essentially Middletown is still a work in progress – but that’s the fun thing about it! We just got the tiling on our step done recently, and it was like Christmas again – it was great!!

What were the easy bits, and what was challenging?
The easy things for us would have actually been having insight in coffee – we knew what we were doing, we had the experience, and we knew how to get great quality. Emma, my wife, had a cooking background, so she is comfortable in a kitchen and has a great ability to come up with new, great tasting dishes.

The hardest was simply not knowing. This is all well and good now, but when we first opened we had zero pounds. And, there was no guarantee people would come, or even if you can pay your staff after the first week. That it why it is so important to have good service and quality – you need those people to come back! If someone has had a bad experience, they might not come back.
We are consistent in what we so, but are still constantly changing and building relationships with customers. We never get to a point where we are comfortable with what we are doing – we are always looking to how to improve.
Similarly, when you were building up the business, was there anything unexpected?
Lots of things – one being cash. We ran of money when we still had half a coffee shop to build!! So, looking back now, we learned that if someone tells you something is going to cost £1,000, it’s not – it’s gonna cost £4,000! So if I had to do it again, I would be more aware of the cost of things.

Would you do it all over again, if you could?
I would totally do it all over again. Yeah. We love it!

What is your typical work day? Is every day the same?
No – every day is different. So, let’s go into this in detail!
Alarm goes off at 6:30 – but that’s not early! Up, washed, changed, out the door, get here, turn the key and turn on the machines. While everything is heating up, we get out the sweet bakes.

Ballymena Today Interview Jonathan from Middletown Coffee Co

Then, it’s the most magical part of the day – we get to dial in the coffees. And that is just something really great.

Basically that’s means that we need to get that coffee tasting at its best on that particular day. It won’t be the same as the day before – as coffee beans change a lot.
We go through a series of events to get the coffee dialled in – we make one and test it – if it is not great, we change the variables – for example the grind size. Once the coffee is of a good standard, we put it through a machine called a refractometer! It shines a beam of light through a coffee sample, finds the percentage of how much of it is coffee – and gives us a TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) reading.

From there, we put the data into an app, which gives us an extraction rate. It is a great tool! However, it only tells us the direction to go in – so always rely on your own judgement – which can be hard if you’ve just had 10 espressos. However, there are definitely no jars of instant coffee in here!

We turn the key for customers at 8:30, and close the doors at 5:30. A lot can happen a day – every day is different. Each day has a different time of rush: whether breakfast, lunch or afternoon. In Belfast, we had it down to a 10-minute time frame , but in Ballymena the rush is not predictable. It is something we have learned to adjust to. It took a long time, but you just got to roll with it! We always aim and strive to do better, and obviously hope that the customers come back.

Middletown Coffee has been short listed for theBallymena Business Awards 2016. If you would like to vote for Middletown Coffee Co for best small eatery in Ballymena simply text SMEAT 4 to 88802 (don’t forget to leave a space between SMEAT & 4). Voting closes on Saturday 17th September.

Please stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Jonathan from Middletown Coffee Co.