A Chain Reaction In The Coffee Culture

By Ross McCrea

Perhaps one of the more obvious reason for the ever growing popularity of coffee in Northern Ireland is the increase in the number of coffee shops across the country. In Belfast alone, the number of new coffee shops rose by a third from 2016 to 2018. And while many business were forced to shut during the pandemic, as things begin to re-open, more coffee shops are appearing, as the idea of a takeaway coffee remains popular since before the pandemic.

Alongside the ever growing popularity of the speciality coffee scene in Northern Ireland, cafe and coffee shop chains are a large part of what makes the coffee culture so prominent, the vast amount of shops makes it feel somewhat more accessible.

University student Chris Howard commented on why he thinks chain coffee shops are so popular, “I guess people just like to know what they are getting. So, if they know what they like form a store, they know that it will be the same in any of those stores, and that’ll keep them coming back to it.” From a simple business standpoint, as your business becomes successful in a thriving industry, expansion is often a logical step forward, which can lead to more stores opening and more customers enjoying your coffee.

Bob and Bert’s store located on The Promenade, Portstewart

Coffee and food chain Bob and Bert’s currently has 14 stores located across Northern Ireland, with 5 in Scotland and 3 in England, with their sights set on further expansion thanks to backing from equity investors the Business Growth Fund (BGF). In an article from Scottish Financial News, BGF investor Gemma Hamilton commented that challenges will still come for Bob and Bert’s as a business, but that “remaining focussed and nimble as a business will be pivotal to Bob and Bert’s success in the future.” Although their plans for growth were slowed by the closing of all their stores due to lockdown, this led to a number of new opportunities for the business, such as their online ordering service for collection or delivery through the Bob and Bert’s app.

Speaking with the Belfast Telegraph, David commented on how popular culture has changed over the years, “When I was at university you went to the pub, but now you go to the coffee shop. The culture now is to be a bit more healthy.” Generally, when you think of university students, you generally associate them with big nights out drinking and partying. For Ulster University Coleraine, while there is still a big nightlife with venues such as the Anchor and Kellies, the prominence of coffee shops around the north coast makes them an equally appealing, and perhaps cheaper alternative.

While the surge in popularity of the coffee culture could be seen as the reason for the shift in popular culture for today’s students, the health factor that David mentions could be more important. Over the years, more and more research has been done that shows significant negative impacts of alcohol. In the short term, these can include mood swings, changes in hearing, vision an perception, head pains and lowered inhibitions. Longer terms impacts can include a weakening of the immune system, sleep concerns and even a reduced life expectancy.

While these impacts may seem like a far stretch from the effects of coffee, research has also been done into the effects of coffee. In particular, coffee could be viewed as a drug, with the effects of caffeine causing people to slowly become addicted to drinking coffee, almost relying on their caffeine hit at multiple points in the day. As well as this dependency, too much caffeine can also result in a fast heart rate, insomnia, headaches and dizziness. Caffeine withdrawal can also result in headaches, drowsiness and irritability.

David also spoke to the Belfast Telegraph about how Bob & Bert’s is in a strong position to compete with the big names like Starbucks, Cafe Nero and Costa Coffee. “If you go there, you’re having a pre-packed sandwich, but our food offering is key. We have a full kitchen and cook.” With the coffee culture in Northern Ireland becoming more popular over the years, the market is becoming increasingly saturated, with more coffee shops opening every year. However, despite the crowded market, David feels that Bob and Bert’s unique blend of great coffee, quality food and a good atmosphere across their chains is what sets them apart and makes them appeal to the customers.

Bob and Bert’s is a prime example of how a chain coffee shop has been able to expand within the developing coffee culture in Northern Ireland. The café has gained such success and popularity that they have been able to open stores in Scotland and England, taking advantage of a shift in popular culture, particularly among students. Their success also demonstrates that chain cafes and coffee shops are still as popular alongside speciality coffee shops.