Irish Women in Business: Ashley Gribben of Oliver's Coffee Bar
For the latest in our series of editorials focusing on Irish Women in Business, we’re talking to Ashley Gribben of Oliver’s Coffee Bar.
Oliver’s Coffee Bar is the newest café of daily baked breads, cakes and homemade food to set up shop on the Belmont Road in Belfast. Taking their lead from 27 year old Ashley, the café have already built up a strong following for their fresh cuisine and friendly atmosphere.
Ashley tells us why she made the move from marketing into opening a café, learning the ropes and the advice of mentors along the way.
What’s your background, and what made you decide to open your own café?
Well I went to Newcastle University, and did a degree in marketing and worked in two agencies after that as an account manager. It was that I wasn’t happy, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted for the long-term. I’d always worked in cafés when I was studying, and I loved the atmosphere and the buzz. I know some people don’t love customer service, but I actually love working with people. I really enjoy it and the kind of meeting new people and talking to customers day-to-day.
So I left my job in the summer and headed back home to Belfast. I started doing some research and decided I’d do a course. I started the ‘How To Open a Café’ course with Bláthnaid Bergin and it kind of just went from there.
So what were your next steps?
It was during the course I met Peter Oliver, who had bought premises in Belfast. I got talking to him and we decided to open Oliver’s Coffee Bar. He’s a businessman, he’s been a hairdresser and has a couple of shops, where I had the background in catering and coffee. It was great though ‘cause he was investing the money, but he trusted me to develop the menu, choose the coffee, find a tea provider and just run the business on a day-to-day basis.
We met in November, and opened on April 4th so we’ve been lucky. We’re still learning as we go, but we’ve got a good base, and we’re working on just constantly adding to that.
When everything in Oliver’s is homemade, how difficult was it to hire staff?
We were actually so lucky. We started talking to people and really relied on word of mouth. We’re based on the Belmont Road, and there was actually another café that closed a few months before we opened that was on the same road. We got the details of the workers who had been there for a number of years and were able to hire a lot of them, which was brilliant because they know the people, they know the road and they’ve got the experience.
I also joke that Peter cuts everyone’s hair in Belfast. That’s how we actually met Stephen Chisholm, who was the first winner of the Great Irish Bake Off. Peter cut Stephen’s hair and introduced him to me. We met and baked a few things together and it just worked.
We’re all a team here and I’ll test my menus, they’ll give me honest feedback, and they come to me with ideas and we try those too. We spent 2-3 weeks testing all the foods before we opened, so I know I trust them and value their feedback. Everyone here loves food, and more importantly everyone loves homemade food.
What has been your biggest barrier to date?
Hmm… I’d say it’s finding time to do everything. You want to do so much, but you’ve only got so much time. We’d love to be looking at doing takeaways and outside catering, but it feels sometimes like we’re one person trying to do it all and it’s not realistic. We will get there though, but there’s not enough hours in the day to get around to everything and that’s probably what I’d struggle with most.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Blaithnaid who I did the course with in Abbeyleix was a really good mentor to me. This was obviously a dream of mine but I didn’t want to just jump right into it. She really stood out to me as someone who knew how to go about it and thinks everything through. I definitely couldn’t have done it wihout that course. It just gave me such an insight into that industry.
I also did some work experience in the Pepper Pot in Dublin. I just love their standard of food, and it’s what I aim for. I’m still going on about their scrambled eggs to this day! The girls who run it are so lovely. It really struck a chord with me that they’re both really young, but in three years they’d already built up their business, and look what they’ve achieved so far. Their passion just rubs off on you.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
It was from the girls in the Pepper Pot. They told me never to compromise on what’s really important. They taught me not to compromise on the quality of my food. Homemade is obviously a lot more expensive with ingredients than buying in, but I knew that’s what I wanted in order to stand out. At the start I had to talk to Peter and convince him that homemade was better and would pay off in the long-run, but he really appreciates that now.
You have to be able to establish yourself and then the customers will come. Like I make the jams, and Stephen is here at 5am every morning making fresh bread. But I think that’s what really makes the difference and why we’re different to all the other little coffee shops around town. We don’t buy in anything, and everyone seems to really enjoy the homemade taste.
What’s been your greatest moment since opening your doors?
I think when people just love the food, that’s the best feeling. If someone comes in and loves the place, the food, the coffee, you can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s just really nice to hear that. We’re newly opened and I try to invite feedback as much as possible. Like my mum told me last night that a friend of a friend she works with had been in the café and loved the food, and was telling her she thought it was delicious. That’s what I’m really aiming for, and it’s great to hear.
We’re starting to build up a really nice steady base of customers, and just knowing that people really love the food, well that’s the feedback you really want to hear.