Earlier we shared the first part of our Interview with Jonathan from Middletown Coffee Co. Here is the second part – written by Ballymena Today Youth Team member Rachel. If you haven’t already read it please click here to read the first part.
Where do you get the ideas for the lunchtime meals, traybakes and delicious recipes?
Emma is amazing at coming up with new recipes and dishes. We have Wednesday Special – which is a really interesting dish, and a bit ‘different’ – it can include ingredients that some people have never tried before. This is a trust issue – even if the customers don’t know what it is or never have tried it, they might love it. Then, they can take that experience out and about too. For inspiration, Emma reads a lot of cookbooks and articles. Also, we base our dishes on the season – if it is summer, we make light dishes. We are closed Sundays, so we sometimes try to go out for dinner, and if we see nice dishes, it inspires us.
How do the Ballymena customers differ from those in Established in Belfast?
I could write a book on this! They are very different! Belfast is 34 miles from Ballymena. Firstly, the average age in Ballymena is a lot older than it is in the city – but that’s natural. There are not as many younger people – but that’s not what this is about. This is for all age groups. People in Belfast would be more acceptable of change, and more adventurous in their eating habits. People here tend to be more stuck in their ways, and might find change difficult to deal with! It takes a while to evolve the trust issue. Sometimes, though, a certain dish might not simply be for everyone – and that’s fine! But if we tried to do something that isn’t “us”, we wouldn’t be true to ourselves.
We know that lots of your customers visit Middletown from other places – where would you recommend them to visit when they are in Ballymena?
So, obviously, we’ve had the question fired at us at the till before – “I’m in Ballymena for the day, where can I go?” and let’s face it: we bring lots of people to Ballymena for this reason. People have come here, who have stood at our till and said that we are the only reason that they are here. So they ask where they can go while they are here. I would send them to the Ecos Centre for beautiful walks, and to Slemish Market Garden. For shopping, the Fairhill, Goodfolk – they have a nice vibe. Also, just generally in the Slemish direction, so they can see the whole county. But that’s not a big list, which is something that I would like to address. There is not a great deal to do in Ballymena, but we would like to see that change. It’s a bit of a wacky dream – but we encourage people to do something and go for it. Just think, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Opening a business is a gamble – there’s no guarantee it will work out. Colin Harmon, owner of 3fe (stocked in Middletown), said to me once “Learn your trade” – don’t go into something you don’t know anything about.
You have the hashtag #livingthedream. What does that mean to you and your family?
So glad that you noticed! I suppose that this has always been our dream. And to do it in home town and be accepted means more. Essentially, we are living the dream every day. It breaks down walls between people – and so even our Wi-Fi password is ‘livingthedream’!
How does your work affect your home life?
It has a big impact – this is like the million-dollar question! Work basically consumes you – there’s no getting away from it and there are no days off. We’re closed on Sundays, but we’re not off. We have two children, and so need to give them as much time as possible – all about family. We even try to involve them in stuff here. It’s all about balance – which is so important to find.
What things, other than coffee, gets you really excited? *we glance around Middletown* Plants?
Yes! Plants! Indoor, outdoor, gardening, outside – love being out. Family, of course, (I probably should have put that first). Good beer. People – I’m a real people person. I also love meeting new people.
Like a lot of other businesses, you use technology, including social media. How does this benefit your business?
Nowadays, technology is very important – I would even go as far to say that it is essential. Some people may be scared to use it, but it was so organic for us because we always used it. Our favourite is Instagram. It is very popular, and you can express both with words and images.
We have lots of followers on Instagram, as well as Facebook and Twitter. Not as many people use Twitter in Ballymena, unlike Belfast but social media is really important. It gets what doing out there. Dishes, specials, new coffees, important news – all directly out there. People read it whenever they want to and they can see it too. It really affects our work life. Some people come here and say “I saw you on Facebook” – and it shows that social media is actually a great form of advertising.
Do you have any advice for people who are in a business, but are reluctant, or even scared, to start using social media?
Yes – don’t even think about it, that it’s “bad” or that it’s “evil”. Get involved!
Social media is here; social media is what makes a business work nowadays. It connects people, not just locally, but also globally!
For example, we are friends with people working in coffee businesses in Seattle – and we can have a conversation at the click of a button. Its free – and as many people don’t get the chance to travel, social media brings parts of world together over the Internet. We can see what other coffee shops are doing around the world, which gives us inspiration. It helps us in many great ways, so I say get involved! And if you are unsure about how to use it, there are great places which help you get to grips with using it (like www.Ballymena.Today)!
Do you allow staff to be on phones and or/social media during work hours?
All social media feeds are managed by myself or Emma – the staff are not involved with what gets posted online. It is not that we don’t trust them, but it’s just because we want to be and are very clued up by what we want on social media, and what we want our business to look like. We are really fussy. However, if some bosses, managers etc. trust a staff member with technology but are not great at using it themselves, then they could simply tell the staff member what they want to achieve, if possible. Phones are not allowed during service. Customers are our top priority from the moment they walk in door until they walk out. They get 100% service.
Who did you get your advice from for starting up a coffee business?
Easy answer – Bridgeen and Mark from Established Coffee, Belfast. They set us up with contacts in the coffee industry, and they guided us. They were a big, big help, and we couldn’t have done it without them. But this is not at all typical – in fact this is a rare case. Often, in Northern Ireland, people tend to keep things to themselves – which I don’t understand! I think we need to show the rest of the world how we are capable of keeping up with them. Speciality coffee is not new – only in Northern Ireland.
Do you have any advice for people locally who want to start up a business?
Firstly, don’t let the age that we’re in put you off. It is never perfect time to open a business, so just go for it. Do your research so that you don’t go into it blind. Think, “is there a market for this?” Our location in Ballymena is not particularly busy. We were adamant about doing it here, and people thought we were mad! But we thought and knew that we could. People treat us now as a destination, as people walk here. So we must be doing something right.
So in summary, think: Research, Cash flow, Understanding – Don’t be scared – don’t let fear get in the way.
If we let fear determine our every move, we would never get in a taxi, get on a plane, even walk in the street. What’s the worst that could happen?
We want people to like and share our good news stories and articles online to promote our town in a good light. What is your advice, as a Ballymena business owner, to us as we continue to write for Ballymena.Today?
Ok. This is an awesome question. I will be totally honest. This is great, but not everything is great. Not everything is good, and worth a shout-out. If something is not great, and could be a lot better, don’t portray it as doing great. Yes, everyone needs a help with business, but not all businesses are nice, or good, and it is important that we are wary of that. This probably seems harsh, but this whole experience has taught me that you have to be harsh to be kind. You wouldn’t be doing anyone a favour by promoting it, if it is not good. Also, if you don’t give a certain business a shout-out, they might ask you “why?”. Then you will have the opportunity to tell them why.
Nowadays in Ballymena, we need more than just charity shops and filling up empty spaces. That’s me being totally honest!
And finally – what is your favourite coffee?
Lots of stand-out coffees! My recent favourite is easy at the minute – it is from a farm called El Meridiano in Columbia. It is fully washed, by 3fe Coffee, and I am a good fan of Columbian coffees. I will never get tired of tasting coffee. I absolutely love new coffees, and am never bored of the possibilities.
We have a ‘cupping’ event every Friday at 12:15. This is where you can taste 6-12 coffees, right beside each other from different countries. People often walk in off the street, and it’s free.
This weekly event brings strangers together, by starting with a conversation about coffee. The result is that if they try a fruity coffee there that they like, they now know their type of coffee to order off menu. And it is really good fun!
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.
Thank you to Rachel from the Ballymena Today Youth team and to Jonathan and Emma for letting us interview them for Ballymena Today!