My name is Colin Harmon and in 2008 I decided that I wanted to devote everything I had to coffee. The story of 3fe begins as my story, and along the way some really wonderful people came on board.
FROM INVESTMENT BANKER TO COFFEE
I was working as a trustee officer for professional investment funds in Dublin’s financial district when I slowly began to realise that I had chosen the wrong path. A four year degree in Business and Legal Studies had led me to a very lucrative career in finance and although I worked with amazing people, they and I both knew that it wasn’t for me.
At the time I knew very little about coffee but just from researching online, I'd gotten to a place where I could make a better coffee at home than I could buy on the high street. I had a small espresso machine in my kitchen, a list of coffee forums on the internet, and a desire to learn as much as I could.
I got my first coffee job as a barista at Coffee Angel in the IFSC financial district, located in the shadow of my former office building. It was freezing cold, hard physical work, and involved a 4.50am start, but Karl Purdy who ran the business was a former Irish Barista Champion and gave me an excellent schooling in coffee quality.
THE IRISH BARISTA CHAMPIONSHIPS
Six months later, I entered and won the Irish Barista Championships in the RDS in what was as much as a shock to me as it was to everyone else. I had created my own blend and worked tirelessly over the cold winter in an inner-city lockup to perfect my routine. Although I came to the competition as a complete outsider, I reaped the rewards of all that effort on the day.
The national champions of each country are invited on to the World Barista Championships, so the very next day we began preparations for the 2009 World Barista Championships (WBC) in Atlanta. The previous year the WBC had been won by the London-based Irish champion Stephen Morrissey, so I knew all eyes would be on me at the competition.
I knew I needed to raise my game, so I took some pretty drastic action. I sold my car and built a replica of the competition stage in my third floor apartment with a competition-spec machine to practise on (the only one of its kind in the country at the time). The photo below shows the machine installed in my spare bedroom complete with custom made tables, replicas of those they use on WBC stage. I knew that becoming familiar with the competition stage was essential, so having a replica at home would give me a huge advantage on the day.
I also decided to contact Steve Leighton at Hasbean Coffee and asked him if he'd be interested in roasting coffee for me for the competition. I’d been buying his coffees online for some time at this stage and was hugely impressed with his offering. Steve's coffees were amongst the best in the world and it only took one visit to see him for me to be convinced that he was the guy to help me.His generosity, drive, and knowledge were clear from the moment I met him and we pretty much hit it off from day one.
We chose the coffee and set about training for the competition and I put a huge amount of hours into my preparation. Going to the World Championships was like going to the World Cup for me, but where everyone else had football idols, I had barista idols and I’d be competing against them. Coffee luminaries like New Zealand’s Carl Sara, Canada’s Sammy Piccolo, UK’s Gwilym Davies and Mike Philips of the USA were all lined up as favourites and to me it was a dream come true to compete on the same stage as them.
I again managed to cause quite an upset that year in placing 4th at the World Championships in Atlanta. The top six competitors that year made finals and when they called out my name all the Irish contingent there went crazy. It was like our Italia '90, beyond all our wildest expectations.
After the dust had settled from Atlanta, I knew I needed a new set of goals, so I left Coffee Angel and began working for myself as a trainer and consultant. Most of the work I managed to get was outside of Ireland as specialty coffee hadn't really taken off yet. I spent a year travelling to Europe, Japan, USA and Scandinavia trying to learn as much as I could about coffee. I received a few job offers on my travels but my ambition to open a shop in Dublin never changed.
In late 2009, I was testing some coffees in my third floor apartment when a friend popped by and introduced me to his friend Trevor O'Shea who owned two venues, The Bernard Shaw and The Twisted Pepper. Trev was fascinated by the lengths I had gone to in pursuit of the perfect cup and I told him about my plan to open a shop in Dublin. I explained the problems I was having raising finance and the costs associated with ensuring a quality product was delivered.
The next week Trev brought me to see the Twisted Pepper on Middle Abbey Street and pretty much offered me the space. It wasn't being used during the day so Trev told me to take it, turn it into a cafe and if it started to make money, I could start paying rent. If it failed, I would only have lost a couple of grand and a bit of pride. I knew it would be hard but it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.
I wanted to keep the ethos that I employed in my training room and apply that to a retail setting. I knew that dropping quality and trying to focus on volume too quickly would put me on the same playing field as the major chains and that was a fight I was never going to win. On the 5th December 2009, I opened 3fe (Third Floor Espresso) in the lobby of the Twisted Pepper nightclub and set about seeing if Dublin was ready for specialty coffee.
The first day coincided with a music fair so I took in about €250, which equated to about 150 drinks. The Monday after I was hit with a reality check when I sold a grand total of 16 coffees and 10 of them were to my friends. I wasn't disheartened though, because I made sure every drink was tasty and that I made everyone feel welcome. I knew that was reason enough for them to come back.
The next 12 months were spent building the business up cup by cup and trying to grow whilst still maintaining quality. Soon enough, I was starting to do larger volumes and Pete, Jordan and Ger were brought on board to help me out. I also realised that Steve Leighton at Hasbean was paying a fortune in shipping to get coffee to me. I wanted a scenario where we could both benefit, so I decided to give him half of the business and in return, 3fe became the exclusive distributor for Hasbean coffee in Ireland.
This meant that we’d have access to the best coffees we could find and he’d get something back too. More than that, it presented an opportunity for the two of us to work together and create something in Dublin for coffee lovers to appreciate.
In November 2010, we started supplying Fallon and Byrne, one of Dublin’s busiest and most prestigious cafes and set about building a wholesale business. The owners took a huge risk on us becoming their suppliers as we had no experience and although the coffee was incredible, it was very different to anything they had used before.
Fallon and Byrne was a huge success for both us and them and the quality being delivered was a real joy for us to see. We’d managed low-volume quality at 3fe, but this was a whole new level. They soon won the coffee experience award from the Restaurant Association of Ireland and soon new wholesale customers began to show interest.
Today we supply more than 50 businesses all over Ireland and focus entirely on quality-minded operations. Cafes such as Brother Hubbard, Roasted Brown, Cup, Cinnamon and Base all soon joined us as we began to build a network of quality-focused coffee destinations around the city.
OUR FIRST STAND-ALONE CAFE
In September 2011, after 3 years of searching and saving, we opened our first stand-alone cafe on Lower Grand Canal Street in Dublin 2. The premises is spread over three floors with a basement kitchen, ground floor shop and a first floor office/training room. We run tasting courses, trainings, brew classes and corporate events. We also do coffee consultancy for machine manufacturers, tastings for corporate groups, and pretty much anything that involves coffee.
As well as running the shops, we’ve managed to keep fairly involved in coffee competitions of all kinds. I’ve been fortunate enough to win the Irish Barista Championships on three occasions and have finished 4th, 4th and 3rd in the World Barista Championships. We’ve also had latte art champions, a brewers cup champion, and even a Slovakian barista champion amongst our staff and although these are individual awards, there’s always a collective effort behind them.
In January 2014 we began roasting our own coffee here in Dublin from our brand new roastery in Dublin 1. We sourced a refurbed 50-year-old Probat UG22 and with the help of Steve from Hasbean, set about training our staff and implementing systems so that we could keep the quality of the coffee to the same level that we had become accustomed to over the years. Today our roastery is a full time operation that sends coffee all over the country and supplies some of the most passionate business on the island with some of the best coffees on the planet.
We continue to forge strong, mutually beneficial relationships with our suppliers, wholesale clients and customers. We’ve worked with everyone from Jameson to Nuova Simonelli to Dairyland and everyone in between, but always with a focus on promoting the best coffees we can get our hands on.
We now have a crew of eighteen people and growing, each with a passion for great coffee, and each with their own individual skill set. Designers, nutritionists, musicians, bakers, bikers, bankers and many more professionals have come on board at 3fe and really added to what we can collectively achieve. Its always difficult to see staff move on, but we always look forward to meeting and working with new staff with fresh perspectives.
3fe started with an ethos of “make nice coffee, be nice to people and they'll probably come back". Over the years we haven't lost touch with that ideal and we're determined to move forward with that same core principal.
Colin Harmon, October 2012