It's a miserable early August afternoon. The summer has begun to quickly fade away and the rain is pouring from the heavens. Luckily for us, we're sheltered from the grey clouds outside- staring out at passers-by rushing through the rain from the shelter and comfort of Finegan & Son- an unassuming yet, prime speciality coffee spot far from the bright lights and hype of Belfast.
From the outside, Finegan & Son looks like it could have been the inspiration for the shop fronts of Diagon Alley (that's one for you Harry Potter fans). Inside, the cafe is minimal, yet quaint- presented in an airy space, with wooden flooring, tables and chairs accompanied by giant windows that allow light to envelop the shop, and allow for the act of casual "people watching" along the Quays.
These details, even the smallest; the colours chosen, or the idea to have the chairs aligned in a certain way- to allow for the illusion of space- was the design concept of co-owner Anne-Marie. And it makes for a homey and comfortable space; one that has a sense of the archaic about it- where you can feel the slight shake as busy lorries and cars pass by outside.
In actual fact, the shop hasn't been changed much since joint owners Graeme and Anne-Marie took it over. They opted to keep the authenticity and character of the popular outdoor sporting shop it once was. Stripped back walls with exposed brick and low hanging lights boast a simple design that allows for the space to speak for itself. The old shop front is well-known for its past life, much like it's home city of Newry.
Settling into our seats, we sampled some of the coffee tastings on offer- courtesy of resident barista, Aaron. We were served up some delicious Ethiopian Odo Shakiso on V60, and Costa Rican, Cerro Dragon on espresso as we sat down with Graeme Finegan himself- who got into interview 'zone' with the help of none other than instagram favourite; his son James, as we picked his brain on all things coffee; food and the passion behind the marvellous space that is Finegan & Son.
How long have you been working in coffee? What was your first experience of coffee?
I’ve been working in coffee about 14 years now. My journey with coffee began initially in Costa and I was there for about 7-8 months. I took a job there because I wanted to experience working in a coffee shop, with the idea that it would give me some insights into owning one- so I could test if I actually liked it!
I guess I properly started to get into coffee when I began home brewing- I had my first V60 at home about 11 years ago. I became enthusiastic about coffee- I really wanted to learn more, but Costa wasn’t the place where that was really going to happen.
What made you want to be a barista and then eventually become a coffee shop owner?
All through university, I wanted to own a coffee shop. So, yeah, I guess it was always my plan. I studied to be a radiographer and finished university, and only worked as a radiographer for a short spell before opening my first shop; Grounded, which, along with Finegan & Son, is also in Newry.
What makes coffee special to you?
It’s about the transparency for me. I like being able to tell a customer the story. I know how to make the coffee I’m serving; I can tell them everything about it- the varietals, taste notes, what it tastes best served as, right down through the chain of it being roasted at Bailies, and oh yeah, because of where it’s roasted and how it is sourced- I can tell a customer about the farmer/farm and their process too- and that’s what's really class.
Why Bailies at Finegan & Sons? What made you chose us as a supplier of coffee?
It was clear to see that Bailies were passionate about coffee, even at that time 11 years ago- they were at the forefront of coffee scene. But Bailies also understood what it’s like to be a small business- to struggle through the tough times, they understand it’s not instantaneous success.
I initially was contacted by Russell Bailie all those years ago, because I guess he must have caught wind that I was looking for a machine. It was an FB80 La Marzocco actually. Russell called me up to tell me he could source me one, at the same price it was offered to me by another company. I went with Bailies because, well, as I said, at that time they were the coffee scene here and they knew what they were doing. And that’s how it started.
And it’s crazy how much it’s grown, because I remember at that time Bailies only had 5 or 6 staff!
Favourite coffee on offer from Bailies at present?
I think probably the Kenya Gakui AA- we have it on bar at the moment, and it’s a great tasting coffee- I even took it with me on a recent holiday and it was tasting great the whole time.
For a solid “coffee” coffee- definitely the Colombian Pueblo Nuevo.
Favourite coffee – ever?
It was a coffee from Bailies actually. It was the Sasaba, an Ethiopian Natural that was f***in’ unbelievable- for me, it set the benchmark for all other coffees for me, especially naturals! It was class.
At Finegan & Son- local produce seems to be the main highlight of your menu board- why is it important to you to source locally?
We want to do the same thing with our food as we have done with our coffee- we want to place an importance on the food we use, how it’s made and of course where it comes from. There are often times, you can go somewhere for food and the coffee is terrible or vice versa- one of the two is always disappointing and so we wanted to get both to be at the same level. One way we achieve that is having great local produce- which is super important to us because it’s transparent- you know what you’re getting, much like when buying our coffee from Bailies. Another way we achieve this is through our chef and his passion in the kitchen- it mirrors our passion for coffee- which speaks volumes on the plates we serve and the menu we have.
(Image from @fineganandson)
Why Newry? How has the reaction been to your shop over the years you have been open?
It’s been great here. We opened our shop, Grounded in Newry first, and it has been doing really well- but we wanted to bring speciality coffee to the fore in Newry, and that meant opening a place that only sold and served microlots on both filter and espresso- which isn’t typically everyone’s preference, especially in more rural areas that have built associations with coffee being traditionally darker and more developed.
The food in grounded is constant, but the first year of Finegan & Son, we didn’t serve food, we just had coffee and that was a tough sell sometimes. You don’t want to be shoving only coffee down people’s throats. But we now serve food and we chose to pair our food to the coffee offering here too. We’ve been open four years and for the most part, we’re still brand new. Some people who live in Newry have only just begun to discover us!
(Image from @fineganandson)
Where do you see speciality coffee in the future?
Hopefully sometime in the future speciality coffee will be everywhere. I know that people complain about the pricing, but these days, it’s pretty much the same price and you don’t pay extra for the knowledge and transparency- that comes free, and it comes as a given when buying speciality.
But hopefully it continues onwards and upwards. I think we’re already starting to lose the people who travel for a good cup of coffee- mainly because there are so many places that are more accessible for people, with less of a commute to far out places- but that isn’t necessarily true for everyone. But if that is the case, then I guess that proves that it is growing and that more and more people are getting into it too.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in building your business in coffee?
Balance is key. There is always the stereotypical image of speciality coffee being extremely pretentious and I think there is a balance to be had in how you approach a customer. You can learn to read a customer- it takes a while, and I can’t say everyone can do it, but you can have a chat, engage with someone and get an idea of what they like, what they dislike and discern that, ok- they aren’t going to appreciate if we have a knock-out washed coffee on filter, they just want a flat white and that’s fine. It’s just about tailoring the approach.
If you do this right- you can help a customer become a regular. A regular has trust in you and your shop- they may eventually take a recommendation to perhaps try something new, and then that becomes their new routine. It’s a cool thing to watch someone’s tastes evolving.
Also staying true to the visual. For that part that’s all Anne-Marie, she’d kill me if I tried to take credit for that! She did all of this; (Graeme points out the tables and chairs to us, the layout of the shop) without Anne-Marie, it wouldn’t look this good. She’s the boss- she does everything, I just order the coffee!
You have been very vocal about how Finegan & Son is for your family but it is not something that you expect them, or in particular; your son, James, to take over- this is a really wonderful sentiment, can you speak more to this and what your hopes are for his future?
James is here a lot of the time- it allows us to spend time together, whilst we’re at work, and he helps from time to time, which he seems to enjoy!