How did Root & Branch come about?


BEN

“Root and Branch started as an idea to do some ethical business that involved coffee and organic farmers. I was interested in starting a cafe, but learned that only 1% of agriculture in Northern Ireland was organic, and there wasn't enough produce locally to supply the kind of cafe I was interested in. I got stuck in with John McCormick of Helen’s Bay Organic to try and help grow the organic market, and did a whole load of pop-ups where I got to meet the organic farmers and started to build some presence online, and that generated some momentum. From there we began to work with food and coffee, and developed a blend based on some coffee that I’ve loved from Stumptown, and so that was the first iteration of Root & Branch. Many pop-ups later I crossed paths with Simon through living in the same apartment building.”


“The feedback on the festivals and pop-ups we did was incredible, and people were keen to find out where they could visit us. After about 9 months researching what we should do, we ended up deciding that the gap was in-house speciality coffee roasting, and we wanted to take that journey. We found 1b Jameson Street in January 2016, opened in May 2016, and have been going well since then!”


SIMON

“We both came from backgrounds working in the charity sector, so it was important to us that Root & Branch was not going to be a business conducted with the sole intention of making money; it was about how we can create and foster change within society by doing business better? Hence the name Root & Branch, which is a metaphor for creating systemic change. For us, it was multifaceted, both for systemic change and environmentalism, which really resonates with what we are about.”


It seems like ethical and environmental business is important to you both, how does that influence how you run Root & Branch?


BEN

“Because of our charity backgrounds we wanted to have an ethical base to the business, and we wanted that to be social and environmental, but we also wanted to be adaptive and have creative control. We decided, in the end, to go for a business structure, but with an ethical base, so we look for a social, ethical, and environmental return on every single investment that we make. For example, we only use compostable packaging; our coffee bags are the first compostable coffee bags on the market and we’re the only business in Ireland using them, and our cups and our lids have been compostable since day one. For the coffee beans, we typically pay 30% or above fair trade prices, which goes towards our desire to reward the people involved within the industry, and to help push the industry forward in terms of incentivised quality.”


SIMON

“In terms of the ethics of our company, we weren't aware that anywhere else in the world was using 100% compostable bags, so we had to scour the earth to look for these particular ones, and the manufacturers told us we were the first to use them. Now, more and more people are using them. The environmental side of how we source and package our coffee has always been a top priority.”


Having been involved in pop-ups and festivals all over Ireland, why did you settle in Belfast?


SIMON

“We both lived here and we’re very committed to Belfast. I lived away for a very long time after growing up here during the Troubles, and, like everybody, I was affected personally. When I moved back I lived in quite a creative house at the time, sort of a hotbed of creativity. So for us, the natural thing being coffee lovers was to get together and brew everybody a really nice cup of coffee. We could’ve done Root & Branch as just a cafe, but there’s only so much depth you can have with a cafe, with a coffee roastery you can go so much deeper into the into the coffee-making process, so that’s why it was natural to both pick Belfast and pick coffee.”


BEN

“We decided on Belfast because we are both based here, and we felt that a specific speciality coffee roastery that is open to the public was missing. There are examples of that in other places in Ireland and farther afield, but there was nowhere doing that in the North. We want visitors to feel welcome, and know that this isn’t a kind of stuffy, snobby institution, but it’s somewhere that makes speciality coffee accessible.”


The coffee community in Belfast has really exploded in the past few years, how do you feel you come into that?


BEN

“We come into the growing Belfast coffee culture by bringing roasting to the community, and with our own particular personality, ethos, and personal aesthetic. We’re intentional with how we design and use space, in terms of how we want people to feel and how it integrates into its surroundings. So, here in Jameson Street, we’re in a neighbourhood, so we wanted it to feel very accessible and neighbourhood-like, whereas at the Ormeau Baths location it’s a little more business orientated as a location.”


SIMON

“Not in terms of comparing with anyone else, but in terms of our own DNA, one of the questions we always ask ourselves is why? Why do we believe what we do, and try to do business this way? For us, it’s not necessarily about looking at the landscape and trying to be different, but it’s about what inspires us personally in terms of how to run a business. Not being creative for the sake of it, but asking questions about why we do what we do, and letting that drive how we do business.”


BEN

“Being rigorous with that, and also being selective about procuring the best equipment for what we do is also important. Whether that is making espresso, roasting, or all the other aspects of coffee-making, we’ve always tried to find the best possible item to deliver on that job.”



You’ve done quite a bit within the community, from your live music Sundays to cuppings and home brew classes. How do you feel engaging with the public affects how you do business?


BEN

“In terms of the events that we do, we aim to bring people together over something that’s fun to engage over. In its simplest form that’s a cup of coffee, but also through our music events and home brew classes. It draws people together, which is one of the key things we want to achieve. Cupping, pop-ups, events, and partnering with local businesses are awesome and allow us to engage with the community. Simon’s ‘Riding Roastery’ around Ireland has also allowed us to go out and meet people, and spread what we do across the island. Social media as well has been something we have put a lot of effort in to, which has led us to meet some fantastic people.”



Your partnership with Bushmills generated quite a bit of excitement and publicity, how did you find partnering with such a large and established business?


SIMON


“Bushmills USA had an idea for a collaboration and invited us to work with them, with the initial concept being to try and fold our coffee into the whiskey-making process. For example, would it be possible to add ground coffee to the malting stage, which would in effect create a coffee whiskey in a bottle like they did the honey whiskey? We were not very excited about that and couldn’t see how it could work, but there was a seed there that we could explore and really pushed our creative buttons. We wanted to bring our skill set to really marry coffee and whiskey together to make the perfect Irish Coffee, and the answer to that was the cask-aged blend, designed specifically to pair with their 16-year blend.


Logistically, the timezones and working with such a big corporation like Bushmills was a bit of a headache, but from a creative point of view, having their resources was absolutely fantastic. They brought us up and let us try the old 21-year casks in glasses they had engraved with our logo, so we were treated really well from the beginning and always felt very welcome. The response to the final result of the cask-aged coffee was overwhelmingly positive, and it’s brought about the potential for other collaborations, both with Bushmills and other companies.”


BEN

“A lot of thought went into choosing the coffee that would pair with their 16-year to create the perfect Irish Coffee. One little lovely, poetic thing that is nice about the selection of a Brazilian bean specifically is that in the lore of the discovery of an Irish Coffee when it was made in Shannon Airport in the 50s and served to an American passenger, he asked, ‘Is that a Brazilian blend?’. The response was, ‘No, that’s an Irish Coffee’. That little tale sparked the Irish coffee coming to be. So the Brazilian element is a nice little piece in the making of the collaboration.



What’s up next for Root & Branch?


SIMON

“We are going to be doing food this year! It’s going to be really simple; one of our frustrations with speciality coffee is that it’s been so dictated by the Southern Hemisphere, by countries like Australia and New Zealand. Their menus have just been lifted exactly as they are in Melbourne and imposed on Irish cuisine, which is great, but there’s only so much avocado and sourdough! Many of those food products have to be imported, so the question is how do we keep our food offering authentically Northern Irish, because there’s so much to celebrate in our own cuisine. Especially with Ben’s organic farming contacts, we want to start bringing that into what we’re doing in a very streamlined and simple way.”


BEN

“We want what we offer to be inspired by what is here and what is local. I think it’s also about a pursuit of learning, and wanting to push forwards. We’re never done learning, always going off and challenging ourselves in every single area that we operate.”


Written by:

Kalie Reid

Photographed by:

Phil Magowan