The appeal of Scandinavian stylings and coffee cannot be denied, whether that’s in a grand new concept bar in Melbourne, an avowedly Nordic cafe in Brooklyn, or somewhere like Northern Ireland. At Kaffe O, a brand new coffee bar in Belfast, owner Orla Smyth is importing beans and a design aesthetic from Denmark, and in the process bringing something new and exciting to Ormeau Road, one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
Coffee takes all kinds, and Orla Smyth’s story is a wee bit different than that of your average coffee entrepreneur. Her enthusiasm for this project is palpable, and shines through this interview like that rarest of occurrences: a sunny day in Belfast.
As told to Sprudge by Orla Smyth.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your company, and how it all got started?
Yikes where to start- if I had a tag line it would probably be “kidney transplanted, middle distance runner, former lawyer and coffee snob!”
In order, the kidney transplant came first: I had my first transplant when I was 24 which unfortunately didn’t work, so spent nearly four years on dialysis before I got a second transplant in 2007 and I haven’t looked back. I started running after my second transplant and well have just kept on doing so; in fact, I did my first marathon in the mountains yesterday, so I’m a little achy today! But I do train a lot and have competed in two World Transplant Games and am the current World Record Holder in the 400m, 800m and 1500m, though for the first time my training has had to take a back seat to my new business.
I was a corporate lawyer for over ten years until two months ago when I gave it up to pursue my real passion in life: coffee in great surroundings. I was always an avid coffee drinker and fan but my obsession really started when I was seconded as lawyer to work in Copenhagen, after I had my second transplant. This is when I feel in love with all things Scandinavian!
I loved so many things about living Copenhagen: the lifestyle, design, food and their coffee culture. I spent my free time on my bike riding around all the different coffee places in Copenhagen and taking it all in…until I found my favourite hang out spot, called Riccos. I would spend Monday- Friday negotiating contracts with biggest companies in the world and my weekends dreaming and planning opening my own place in Belfast. However, it took me 5 years to get the courage and for the time to be right to make the leap and follow my dream.
My company is called Kaffe O. Kaffe, which is Danish for coffee, and O, for well, sometimes I am not sure whether it is for Orla, or Ormeau (the road which I am opening the shop on). I always say that Copenhagen was the best and worst thing on the coffee front for me, as when I came back to Belfast five years ago, I found it really hard to get coffee like I had there. The endless pursuit for great coffee began…
Can you tell us a bit about your new space?
I say the space is designed in Belfast, inspired by Copenhagen. I have tried to create a space where people want to be and spend time enjoying not just the coffee but the surroundings, too. Not surprising there are a lot of clean lines, white walls, beautiful wood and splashes of colour. I have also tried to ensure there is good lighting and music to enhance the experience too. The space isn’t that large, but it is quite long. It is in the area which I grew up and it used to be an electrical shop; I have really clear memories of going in to it as a kid and being in awe at the many televisions they used to have and how warm the place used to be. That was a long time before the flat screen came on the market! I am really excited to be rejuvenating a building that was part of the history of the area for so long; I’ve even kept a little piece of the old sign!
What’s your approach to serving coffee?
It’s actually very simple. Espresso with milk. I find that when I go into different coffee shops and ask for a macchiato/cortado, I get so many variations on the same drink that I most often end up saying, “Can you give me a double espresso with this much hot milk?”–and make sizing images with my fingers! I think that there is confusion out there as to the number of different options available so I just wanted to strip it back to its bare bones and raw ingredients.
Any machines, coffees, special equipment lined up?
I have a La Marzocco Linea PB. Not only is this because my roaster uses these in Copenhagen but because I carried out research and consistency is key for me on the coffee offering (as its something I find the most frustrating from a consumer perspective) and this ticks the boxes in that regard. Did I mention it is also beautiful too? I also have an Anfim Super Caimano on demand and a Mahlkönig Tanzania.
The Mahlkonig will be used for grinding on-site for customers to take home.
The coffee is something that I am really excited about! You see, I couldn’t move to Copenhagen, so had to bring my favourite part of Copenhagen to Belfast…the coffee! My coffee is being roasted to order by the amazing Ricco Sorrenson, who owns the Riccos coffee shop ( and many others!) that I spent my weekends in when I was there. I’m pretty sure that I am definitely the only place in Northern Ireland who will have their house blend hand roasted in Scandinavia, though I know that some bring them in as guest coffees once in a while. I joke that Ricco ruined coffee for me as nothing comes close to his magic formula. He’s a great guy and someone I really admire.
Are you working with craftspeople, architects, and/or creatives that you’d like to mention? We’re especially interested in what Danish makers you’re working with (ceramics, etc).
Locally the whole creative side of things is being done by Paul McNally Design. He is unreal, so talented but so intuitive as well, and seems to be able to read my mind as to what I want and translate this in to the finished product.
I have also had help on the actual interior layout and design by John Lavery of BGA Architects. Again, such a talented guy who knows the vision that I want to achieve and produces it on plan.
The non-fitted furniture, I have had some made locally, but the rest I have ordered from Hay, including bar stools, coffee tables, and chairs. The lighting I have brought in from Fransden, and have been looked after so well by the team at Lost Weekend in Dun Laoghaire outside Dublin.