If not for a couple of very scary and hostile Loyalist paramilitaries, there may never have been a Coffeeangel. My name is Karl Purdy and after a potentially violent altercation on a contentious bridge in East Belfast on the 12th of July 1995, I decided to reassess my prospects as a fledgeling photojournalist and my return to Northern Ireland.
I packed my cameras away for - what was supposed to be - a “few months” and returned to work in the safety and familiarity of the bar, restaurant and cafe scene that paid my way through journalism college in Canada. It was during those months back in the service industry that I realised a few things; 1) I loved the hustle and bustle of the catering business, 2) the Belfast of the late ‘90s was entirely devoid of a hip and buzzing coffee scene, and 3) I was the person that was going to change that.
Reflecting on my upbringing in Canada I was convinced that success in Belfast was all but certain. I found the ideal location, counted footfall, assessed the demographics and calculated the money needed to open. Shortly thereafter, I presented an extremely thorough 50 page business plan to a bank manager close to Belfast’s Queens University.
Following my long-winded and enthusiastic pitch, she announced “that she had absolutely no faith in my business idea - a shop that only sells coffee? In Belfast?” I was devastated. But in the next breath she kindly said that while she had no faith in the concept, she had total faith in me and would authorise my loan request.
Fortunately, her faith was well founded and this little coffee shop was an overnight success – in many respects the catalyst that helped to define the Irish coffee culture of today. Less than 24 months after opening I received an unsolicited offer for many times more than my initial loan request. I accepted and in 2000 relocated to Dublin, opened a restaurant and proceeded to lose everything.
The Coffeeangel of today was founded on the ashes of that failed restaurant, the painful lessons learned and a need to focus, heal and again succeed.
Broke I again borrowed some money, this time from a compassionate relative, and purchased a converted, three-wheeled coffee cart and returned to my first love - the world of coffee. There was no grand plan, no vision or strategy for worldwide domination, but I was determined to succeed and committed to providing the best coffee and service that I could manage.
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2004 I stood alone on Howth’s East Pier and served Coffeeangel’s first coffee. I served 150 cups that day and was elated. Today that number stands at well over a million cups served and continues to climb. And although things have moved on I still consider myself incredibly lucky and very fortunate, remaining as happy and fulfilled as I did that very first day brewing coffee in the fresh air and bracing wind on the edge of Ireland.
Over the years I and others have represented Ireland on the world stage as Irish Barista Champions, we have won some coveted awards and had some incredible baristas stand behind our machines. And most importantly, we have been blessed with the support of many, many wonderful people.
The Coffeeangel of today has most certainly grown but “we” - because Coffeeangel is now made up of many incredible individuals - will never lose site of the simple values that have helped us get this far. Smile. Be polite, courteous and efficient (saying please and thank you will never go out of fashion). Enjoy what you do, be passionate and always aim higher. Source beautiful, best-of-season beans… and brew the best cup of coffee you can. Our journey continues.