Music obsessed mates John Boyle and Tom Edwards opened Stone Valley Roasters in 2018.
The idea was simple: serve ‘great quality coffee, locally roasted, with a great soundtrack’ to caffeine fiends all over Ireland.
After a busy year that saw their tasty small batches turn up in some of Cork’s coolest cafés, next month they’re making a dream come true for themselves (and the people of West Cork, presumably) when they open the doors of their first Stone Valley Roastery and takeaway coffee counter on Clonakilty’s Ashe Street.
Here, John tells us how they’re working it:
“Tom and I met through playing gigs together in various bands. We would spend our breaks between sets talking about different coffees we’ve tried or different brewing methods. We actually decided to start the business driving to a gig in the midlands! We like to give a nod to that by naming all of our coffees after songs we love.
We both got into coffee through Marc at the Golden Bean in Shanagarry so we always admire what he’s done. Places like The Rocket Man, Ali’s Kitchen and Paradiso always make us happy and inspire us to keep our standards up.
We decided day one that we didn’t want huge debt and borrowings so we bought a small 1kg roaster from money we had saved. It meant that as we got busier we were under a lot of pressure to meet production but that is a nicer pressure than large loan repayments. We then added to what we had bit by bit as more money came in. You wouldn’t believe how happy we were to get special coffee scoops a year later! It’s a slower rate of growth but when you get there you can be very confident that the business is as lean as possible and running efficiently.
My background is all in music but I had a lot of experience on the management side of booking gigs and running bands that was very useful. Tom is also a working musician but he had all the real coffee experience. He had done everything from working as a barista and training staff to working in a roastery and cupping coffees so he was able to really guide things from day one.
Finance and finding new customers is always the hard part. You realise early that having a great product is pointless if nobody knows about you. Usually the idea of a challenge is much harder than the challenge itself so if you can stay proactive you can get most things done.
We found the advice and supports from the LEO in Clonakilty very useful and valuable to us. They have lots of events and contacts for small businesses that we found very helpful and I would recommend anybody starting a business to get in touch with them.
At the start we were very product focused and expected people to come to us once things were perfect. Obviously being very product focused has served us well in the quality of what we do but you always need to balance that with customer interaction, market research and advertising.
Most of our adverts were through our social media channels. We’re focusing on making people aware of who we are and what we do rather than any specific strategies or plans. We’ve never been too interested in projecting a very curated and airbrushed concept of us or the product. We’re just two guys who love coffee and music and we’re happy for that to come across, warts and all.
The best piece of career advice I’ve heard is the idea that you should set yourself specific goals rather than very general ones so that you can honestly and clearly measure how you are doing against how you projected. Also that success isn’t always measured by a bank balance or a number of outlets and instead can be measured in the time you get to spend with your family and doing the things you love. Sometimes it’s okay to let an opportunity pass in favour of quality of life.
I love going in to a cafe and seeing our coffee on the bar or on the shelf. Having worked for so long in a service industry I still get a thrill from a physical product! I also love meeting the cafe owners when out on deliveries and getting real first hand feedback of how the coffee is going down. Obviously the big one is getting to taste so many really high quality coffees and ordering more of my favourite ones.
There are lots of coffee shops and roasters now in Ireland so you have to be good but also you have to have a sense of what makes you different. It doesn’t have to be anything huge but you have to consider the experience people have when they are in your premises and how you can make that as positive and as memorable as possible. You can never compete with the chains on price and location so you need to bring something else to the table that people will enjoy.
I think the key to a good social media presence is consistent posting and an overarching sense of who you are and what you’re trying to create. It’s more valuable to have a smaller number of engaged followers who love what you do than a massive number who have no real interest in what you do.
The coffee market is huge but within that there are different tastes. Generally the type of specialty coffee that we do is preferred by a slightly younger audience so that meant that social media was a very natural place for us to promote ourselves over, say, print or radio.
Our next big plan is moving our roastery to Clonakilty in March this year. We will be doing all of our production there and also serving really great take away coffees for the locals and the tourists. For so long we’ve wanted a storefront where we can represent our coffees in exactly the way they were meant to be served but it will also give us a great space for training, classes and events in the future.
We plan ahead and have weekly team meetings to stay on top of things and make it as clear as possible who is doing what for that week. That way fewer things get missed and everything runs more smoothly.
Everything that happens in the journey of a business is necessary and something that you can learn from. Obviously there were times that were challenging but that is the best way to learn and retain the lessons. The only thing that I would change is that there were a few industry events that we felt we were too small to attend last year. In hindsight we could have attended and taken a lot from them to apply to our business.
To switch off, we play music and spend time with our families. Playing music is great because it’s such an ‘in the moment’ experience that you can’t help but let your worries about the business melt away for a few hours.”