Amidst the busy hustle of Holywood High street, surrounded by Ferguson Flower’s collection of giant monsterras, orchids and peace lilies- you'll find the second location of Cargo Coffee.
For almost a year, Cargo’s new second location; on Northern Ireland’s ‘Gold Coast’ (or so Mike McGoldrick would call it) has taken off. Inside,Cargo shares its space with Ferguson Flowers- and together, both businesses are blossoming (oh yep, the puns are back), with their co-space naturally marrying their two businesses and aesthetic styles together.
Matt’s cool brew bar/café and Ferguson’s wonderfully vibrant haven of flora and fauna play well against and with each other to achieve a collected and unique feel for the customer to truly sit back and relax.
But this isn’t the only spot in North Down you might come across ‘Cargo Coffee'. The first instalment of Cargo opened in Bangor back in 2017, when owner Matt Towe began his coffee journey in the form of (in our opinion) the coolest drive-thru experience Northern Ireland has to offer. Matt’s drive-thru location made of shipping containers took the ‘grab ‘n’ go’ coffee culture and turned it, somewhat on its head.
For maybe what seems like the first time, in Northern Ireland anyway, you can go to a drive-thru and purchase locally roasted, speciality coffee from the very driver’s seat of your car. What a world we live in, eh?
Originally hailing from England, owner Matt made the move to Belfast to play for none other than the Belfast Giants Ice Hockey Team. Now, with a growing family and growing business, you can most likely find Matt, not on the ice, but behind the bar or in the kitchen of Cargo’s Holywood location whipping up winning bagel combinations on the daily.
We spent some time with Matt (thankfully for our sakes, not on the ice), as he told us where the inspiration for Cargo came from, and how the move from Ice Hockey star to Coffee Business Owner came about, and how the idea of ‘team spirit’ resides in both of his careers.
So, I guess my first question for you is, why coffee, coming from…?
… coming from Ice Hockey, right?
Yeah! Where did the passion come from?
Coffee for me, started out as a tradition. I was used to drinking it before a game and that’s how it started out for me. Our daily schedule would be on-ice training plus a gym workout and our day was done by 12pm, we’d have a ton of free time- so the guys would get together and we’d go for a coffee. Gradually, it became a bit of a social thing for us all to do. It would, dare I say it, start in more commercial coffee shops and then as we got into coffee a bit more, we’d start hitting some of the speciality and 3rd wave cafes.
And was it from this, that the inspiration for Cargo came about?
Yeah- especially after I started appreciating speciality coffee, I wanted to explore it more. Whilst I was living in Cardiff, Starbucks opened their first drive-thru about half a mile from my house and I thought, ‘well, that’s actually a great idea’. It’s convenient, but why not try to do the same with speciality coffee and focus our USP on quality espresso over the bean-to-cup machine kind of thing that was the ‘quick and easy’ selling point of such places.
When I came to Belfast, I had spare time outside of playing and training- and I got a job in a coffee shop to get some experience alongside playing hockey. And, it gave me something to do whilst also getting to see the actual running of a coffee shop.
The opportunity to set up in Bangor came around, and the site had previously been set up (with containers) - so it was ideal. We had originally opted for a spot by the Ravenhill road, but we were having some issues with planning. The idea was always to have the business ‘Cargo’ run out of the shipping containers- so when we moved, we literally just had to re-brand the containers and re-structure slightly, and that was it.
We’re now open two years this December.
And then the opportunity to open here (Ferguson Flowers, Holywood) came along?
Yeah! I had originally visited (here) as a customer, and I had always noticed how great a location it was- right on the high street which is already a busy spot, and I knew they were looking to turn their café around, and do something new. I thought I would take the opportunity to fire over an email to see if they would be interested in partnering up and they did! Last December we took over the café and it’s been going great.
We’ve been able to create a completely different service style here than with Bangor. In our Bangor spot we’re a take-away only service, so it’s all about speed, and that’s why we use a Bailies Blend there- we know we can have the consistency with the coffee that we need and the blends are total crowd-pleasers with or without milk.
In Holywood, it’s more about the sit in service with some take away added in. Here, we have Single Origins on bar as we have more time to experiment with them on espresso- dialing in different recipes for them. Right now, we have Sao Silvestre on espresso, (which, is tasting particularly good this morning, might I add) and we’ve also been pushing the retail packs also.
We would really love to be doing filter with Microlots at some stage, but right now, we’ve seen that a lot of people are wanting espresso-based drinks with milk- so right now we’re listening to those needs.
What do you reckon is the favourite hot drink amongst Belfast Giants?
Most of the guys are big on filter- the batch brew is set up in the morning before practice and for most of the guys, it’ll be a strong black coffee before the training session. It’s huge in the States and in Canada-which is what we really wanted to push in the drive-thru, but here, there is a lot more demand for milk-based coffees which we offer across both sites.
I’m curious, coming from the professional sports scene, do you think that some of what you have learned over the years has prepared you for running a business? Is there anything that you’ve taken from this experience that you’ve been able to apply to your business?
I think that it’s prepared me for the front of house aspect within the coffee shop business- interacting with the customer.
Sport, and particularly Ice Hockey is a very open sport and you tend to meet a lot of the fans. It’s a lot more interactive with fans than most sports would be. A lot of our sponsors would involve the team at their events, and I really enjoyed being a part of that. Face to face interaction with the fans- chatting with them and getting to know them- that’s probably my favourite thing about running a coffee shop also.
You get to know your regulars; you get to know their names, what they do for a living, get to know their families. And I just tell my staff, just be polite and, most importantly- be yourself- that’s the best thing to do when talking to customers.
I don’t want there to be a stuffy atmosphere here, because all the staff here have such great characters and personalities. So, I tell them to aim to give the customer the best experience they can have, and, have fun! I’m not going to tell them ‘now do this’ and say ‘that’- the mantra here is very much allowing you to be yourself- because the staff here, in my opinion, are great people and have a real passion for coffee and that’s what counts.
So, then what would you say is your management style or ‘coaching’ technique in running your coffee shops?
My thing is to surround yourself with people that are better than you. It’s my personal goal to create a team where everyone feels confident in what they’re doing, and I can oversee in order to keep the flow going. However, I’m still very much here every hour of the day, so I’m just as much a player in the team as well as the manager. The key for us here is that we all pitch in to do every job. Whether it’s the till, or the toilets, or clearing tables, it’s being a part of the team whilst leading the guys- as opposed to cracking the whip. And that’s the way I see people getting the most out of their day.
And most recently, some of your team competed in the NI Aeropress this year, is that right?
Yeah, our guy Pedro was unfortunately knocked out (nods over to Pedro at the bar)- but it was good experience for him, and we always have some time out when we would brew up coffees from various roasters- staff, we they have been travelling, they always bring back coffee to experiment with. It’s kind of our ‘thing’ amongst the staff to hang out and try some manual brews, because it’s good practice. And hopefully next year, everyone might get involved, potentially myself included… maybe! I’ve got zero experience on manual brew, but I’m willing to give it a go and have a laugh. Even the Latte Art Competition Bailies hosted, one of our former baristas AJ won that which was class.
(Pictured above: Peter (aka Pedro))
It’s a fun thing to do to take part in those types of competitions, especially in Northern Ireland, there’s that real coffee community and coffee scene which I do really like, and especially with Bailies hosting and supporting a lot of those events- it’s really great to be involved.
Speaking of Bailies, what made you pick us as your roaster?
I had tried a lot of roasters around Northern Ireland and Ireland, but the service in general, was what drew me to Bailies. Not only do we get great coffee, but they invest in people too- you’ve got the Irish Brewers’ Cup Champion working in the roastery, competitors and finalists in the Irish Barista Championships, Irish Aeropress Competition, etc., too. If we have those guys behind the scenes - I know there is going to be good coffee and great support.
From the whole service point of view, whenever I’m struggling or need something- Bailies have always gone above and beyond to help me and the guys out- despite that it is quite a big company, you’re never more than a phone call away and someone is there ready to help. That’s why I really push Bailies- because of this. In addition, I’m also always pleased with the quality of the coffee.
You were talking earlier (during our photoshoot) about hoping to expand your kitchen, add more to the menu potentially?
Yeah! When we first opened, the idea was to pioneer the bagel- I don’t think anyone has really taken that on yet around here. We’ve got a great menu and we’ve stuck to that from early on. But we have come to realise as well that there are of course, those who don’t eat bread or don’t want to, and you want to cater to everyone’s needs, so we put on a brunch menu and a lunch menu which offers some different options. Porridge is a popular staple for breakfast, or sourdough with mushrooms and truffle houmous as well as soups and salads at lunch too.
We like to play around with the menu. Whilst we have the classics there and we also have some specials on, and we should be dropping new menu additions in the next month or so which is exciting and a bit more seasonal that people will hopefully love!
The kitchen is quite small, it’s a juggling act in there! The best way I plan a shift in the kitchen is basing it around how you plan your orders that need made using the two hobs we have. So, if someone orders scrambled eggs, and someone orders poached eggs, and then you have a porridge order- it’s a fine balance of getting them all made up and served at the same time! We’re looking forward to getting some more equipment in the kitchen soon that will really provide the opportunity to get more exciting additions to the menu, and hopefully more business through the door!
Obviously, your coffee comes from a local roaster in ourselves, Bailies, so with regards to how you source your food- is locally sourced food produce just as important to you?
Ideally, we’d source local 99% of the time. As you said, with our coffee; we use a Belfast roaster, we use milk from Lisburn, and our meats and veg are local too. We use Yellow Door for our bagels- because, it’s quite an art to make a bagel just right, and we’re always so pleased with the quality that they provide us.
The key is local always and, that’s pretty much from day one we’ve been sticking to that. The consumer is more educated these days and can appreciate that and see the quality in it for sure.
What is your favourite thing on the menu- hands down?
‘The Reuben’ on the Cheddar bagel for me is my personal favourite. That’s my go-to. We get a lot of customers that ask what our best and/or our personal favourite bagel would be. Where the best-selling would be the ‘Harland’, we tell people that if they want to try something special, go for the ‘Holy Guac’- it’s got a ton of flavour especially with added bacon- if they’re a meat eater of course!
(Pictured above: The infamous, 'Harland' bagel and the veggie/vegan friendly, 'Nutty Geezer').
It’s funny though, it does depend on what’s happening seasonally and weather wise! Over the summer the ‘Smoke Show’ Salmon bagel went down very well, but what’s great is there is something for everyone. All the bagels, barring the cheese bagel are vegan. Our whole ethos- which is that we really want to cover the needs of 95% of people who walk through the door- that they will be able to find something they will be able to enjoy.
Are there any sources you take particular inspiration from?
To be honest, I see inspiration in a ton of different things and I’m a big Jamie Oliver fan. I think he’s great- plus my mum gets me his book every Christmas, so I can’t avoid taking inspiration from him! I like his cookery books and shows that focus on the idea of ‘casual dining’ and that’s ultimately where we want to end up.
I’m hoping that there could be the option of homing in on some of that inspiration and eventually opening late nights- maybe sometime in the future.
But another big inspiration I guess is Instagram. I follow a few Michelin star chefs and places like ‘Noma’ on social media- who push ingredients such as sauerkraut, etc., - and I’d really love to get into that more and play about with pickling more veg and fruit, because the flavours are great.
Do you ever get suggestions from the rest of the Cargo crew about what they’d think would go well up on the menu boards?
Oh yeah, Josh, Johnny, Pedro (Peter) and William are working today- and when they’re not working, they’re in coffee shops! They just love it!
So, we were doing a bit of a brainstorm yesterday about it. Johnny- he had just spent three months in Budapest, and he was giving us plenty of cool ideas from what he seen over there and there’s potential to try some stuff and do something quite different and see if maybe some of those would have the potentially to work here.
The guys all chip in with ideas when they have any. And that’s what I was saying before; about this being an open environment to be yourself, enjoy the job and if someone has an idea- tell me the idea- if it’s commercially viable, then let’s give it a go. That’s part of the teamwork spirit here, because five brains are always going to be better than just one.
There’s inspiration everywhere, and I sometimes just happen upon it when I’m out in different places. But it can be tough because you can fall into the trap of comparing yourself with other places, and with each other- overthinking about who does what well, and maybe who doesn’t, but you can learn from others too and apply what you’ve learned to your own practice too.
Finally, I must ask- are you still playing ice hockey this year for the Giants?
Not this year I’m afraid. I played one game last year, but with a growing family and business to match there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Most away games happen on a Sunday also, which is my day off and it’s all about family for me.
Thank you so much for your time Matt, and you never know we might see you sooner rather than later if we have another Latte Art Throwdown at some stage…
Well, I might have a go! I usually make one coffee a week because I’m mainly working in the kitchen, but I’m willing to give it a go- it’s all fun and games right?
(Pictured above: Cargo's drive-thru location in Bangor, and owner Matt Towe).
Sadly, for one day at least, our trip to Cargo came to an end. With our appetites satisfied and the morning's coffee intake sufficiently met- we left Matt and the guys to get back to work, and prepare for the day's lunchtime rush which was steadily approaching.
With Cargo, we're truly spoilt. Great coffee and food at two locations. Holywood offers the chance to truly take your time, relax and enjoy the cool and casual atmosphere with the friendliest of staff. Whilst you're on the go- Bangor is the ideal spot. It's a drive-thru that's offering top notch service; coffee and food to go that's sourced locally and served to perfection.
Matt's on a winning streak here, and long may it continue!