Espresso imbibers, sausage traffickers and tea guzzlers. Yep you read that right, and don’t forget that coffee makes you sexy. You’d be forgiven for thinking I’d drifted off into a fantasy land where my inability to finish a day without having ingested at least three double espressos leaves my brain thinking that every woman on the planet was as attracted to me as a Kindle and books with the words Shade and 50 in the title.
Instead I’m sitting outside That Wee Café talking to owner Andrew McMenamin. The café sits right next door to St Mary’s University in the Gaeltacht area of West Belfast. The space has had been many previous incarnations, including a middle-eastern/Belfast café. It went back on the market for rent and that’s when the West Belfast man and his wife Tasha noticed it online. The pair were living in Tasha’s home city of Perth in Western Australia at the time but family circumstances meant they were thinking of packing up and moving back to Belfast.
“We had an idea in our head that we wanted to do something like run a café or something small and we saw this on the Internet whilst we were still in Australia,” said Andrew.
“We had a look at it and it was just as we were coming back so we came and looked at it and looked at the books and initially thought no way!
“It looked like a dentist’s waiting room when we took it over but all we did was a lick of paint, some smaller tables and simplified the menu and it has worked for us.”
Born and bred in Lenadoon, McMenamin is “West Belfast and proud of it”. Moving to Australia in 2002, he’d already had five years in the hospitality industry under his belt here.
“I spent three years in the Eg doing all sorts of shit and another two years in Duke’s as a restaurant supervisor, but that was old school. There was no such thing as service back then. It was a good place, relied solely on students and everything was cooked in the steam oven so everything was served up the same way. But after that we went to Australia and it’s there that my love of coffee started.
“I’d already been fond of wine but they have such a brilliant coffee culture out there. We went to Perth, right on the doorstep of Swan Valley and Margaret River, which produces some of the best wines you’ve ever tasted.”
We discuss a beer I’d previously mentioned on Twitter, Little Creatures Pale Ale, a local brew he was more than fond of.
“I basically spent every Sunday for ten years in that brewery, it’s sensational. It’s a big factory, vats down one side and a full length bar down the other side.”
Starting off working in off licences, or bottle shops to give them their Australia name, he moved into winery – an Irishman tasked with selling Australian wine to Australians who more often than not didn’t want it.
“The accent did help over there back then. I worked for Constellation Wines who were Hardy’s, though I think they’ve changed their name. Again that was just my interest in wine and it meant that I could see where it was made and get lots of free wine. Predominantly, why did I take the job? To get free wine.
“To be fair, wine reps are hated. You’d walk into some places and the guy would just say ‘McMenamin, out to fuck, I don’t want to see you’. That was the bad part of the job, I’ve lost count how many times I was told to fuck off. Because you were going into places like this – a small family operation – to try and sell them wine that they didn’t need. They’ll either take it off you or tell you to fuck off and more times than not it’s the latter.
“But it also gave me a fantastic insight into the restaurant trade as well. I never paid for a cup of coffee for two years!”
As a Café there’s the usual things – its staples are the fry, milkshakes in a wealth of variants, sandwiches and a pretty damn fine cup of coffee. But it’s the café’s marketing that makes it stand out. Driving to my nearby office every morning I notice the sign outside that changes almost daily with random comments including everything from burnt paninis to “if you can read this, it’s not raining” or “I can’t remember what I’m supposed to be advertising”.
Then there’s Twitter account – which can best be described as having a touch of the sarcasms mixed with a healthy dose of nostalgia and irony.
Tweets like “Good luck to all getting their A Level results today. And remember, University is not just about sex, it’s also about Buckfast & Boojum too”, are standard.
Their Twitter account manages to straddle a balance between sparking up interest and being slightly bonkers at the same time, even if many people don’t notice the irony. If you’re not following them, you should do so immediately.
“We’ve over 2000 followers and we don’t advertise our products. Twitter is a social marketing tool, it’s not a social advertising tool.
“There are times when I will do it, but I find that I get a lot less reaction from an advert – here’s our today’s soup – you get no replies, no retweets. You get nothing, you might as well not do anything at all.
“Twitter came off the back of Facebook. Facebook was working for us and someone said we should try Twitter because it was a bit more instantaneous – gives you the opportunity to directly engage with people there and then and that’s what it’s doing for us.
“If you do it [write constant advertising messages] all the time it becomes like wallpaper. There’s a few places around here – I follow them, they follow me, but I don’t read their tweets. All it ever says is ‘our food is brilliant, why would you go anywhere else? We do the best fry on the road. Fifteen courses for £7.95’. I don’t give a fuck about that.”
It moves us on to a topic that is a pretty large bee in his bonnet – the quality of food in the west of the city.
“I’d applaud anyone who comes up the Fall’s Road and tries to do something different – you’re up against it from the start.
“But I’ve got an issue with what’s going on here in West Belfast at the minute as regards to food. We were in the Devenish for my mum’s 70th. The table next to us got the menus and proper West Belfast said ‘If I wanted something from the Whitefort, I’d go to the Whitefort’ and they left.
“That’s my issue. A lot of places serving the same stuff at the same price and it cannibalises each other.
“We have brought people to the West to eat, but more so for the convenience than anything else but when our friends or sister comes over from London we take them to East Belfast, to Il Pirata. We’re booking into Ox next month and we’re in Coppi every other weekend. I’d love somewhere like that over here in the West. Somebody needs to take it by the scruff of the neck and do it.
“Are we not ready for what the likes of those restaurants are doing here in the West? Are we not ready for truffle oil and steaks that are pink? I’d love it to happen, but can I see it happening? No.”
The café sits in prime position for the St Mary’s students but that does leave problematic summer months. “It’s not as busy during the summer but that’s fine. We always knew it would be seasonal. When the students are here, we’re up here and the bank loves us. During summer it’s middle and we just continue on. I’ll not lie, when we took this place over they were doing £300 per week. A week. And everyone said to me you’re wasting your money. I only spent £10k on the place but people said ‘don’t fucking do it’. Everybody said it to me. The guy who sells me our coffee said don’t do it. Even though I’m a customer and he’ll not get my money if I didn’t do it!
“It’s a struggle even for such a small place. All we’re doing is frys, sandwiches and milkshakes and coffee. It was a struggle to start with, all the money was heading that way and it took about six months for some of it to start coming back this way, but we’re still enjoying it.
“We’ve got a good following and the challenge now is to find somewhere else and see if it’ll work again. That’s the biggest challenge. We’re not looking at the minute, but it wouldn’t be West Belfast.
“Our biggest problem, by 3pm all we want to do here is have coffee, milkshakes and afternoon stuff but people come in here and they’re looking meals and potatoes and we’re not that place.
“I think very few places on the Fall’s Road could be a Starbucks. I hate using their name but that style of coffee shop. We need frys to keep going. If we didn’t have those, we’d have went out of business four months after we opened. We’re giving people what they want.”
And when it comes to discussing coffee in the city centre, it’s like poking a red flag in a bull’s eye.
“For coffee, Belfast city centre is a barren wasteland full of shit Café Neros and Starbucks. There’s nowhere in Belfast city centre to get a good cup of coffee from an independent operator, and that’s my view on it.
“I make an effort of going to Ground in Waterstone’s, their coffee is good. Belfast Coffee company is good, but I haven’t been in there in a while.
“There are some good operators around – Attridge & Cole, Krem, Darren from Ground. They’re the guys.
“But where else is there? Café Nero, Starbucks, Costa? If your cup has two handles on it, it’s too big. Your stomach can’t handle that much milk. We actually made the leap, and we were told not to do it, but we have reduced our coffee cup sizes to 8oz. We haven’t had any complaints yet.
“I was told by everybody under the sun, Falls Road people want big massive cups of coffee. Well, we’ll see about that. It took a year and a half but we’ve done it.”