Seattle Meets Dublin – Andy O’Neill and Paul Odom on Fonté Coffee’s Expansion Across the Pond
Seattle is widely known as the international capital of coffee and Dublin is the home of the traditional black stuff. Experts in the art of pulling pints, pulling perfect shots of espresso hasn’t come as easily to us here. With a commitment to changing this, hospitality expert Andy O’Neill has added a new dimension to Irish coffee, bringing Fonté Coffee to Ireland earlier this year with the opening of Fonté Coffee Bar on Parliament Street.
A chance sip in a Café in Las Vegas turned out to be what Andy describes as “the best cup of coffee I ever had” and this led him to seek out the person behind the perfect cup. This search led him to Fonté Coffee and its owner and founder Paul Odom in Seattle, but his desire to bring Fonté’s superior coffee to Irish shores wouldn’t be as easy as signing a supply contract.
“I feel like the ambassador of coffee flavour. I thought to myself, how can I get a place in Dublin to deliver that experience that I’m looking for everywhere I go?” Paul tells me, and for him, ensuring Andy was as committed to the values of Fonté was more important than signing on the dotted line. ”
Andy’s background as the CEO of the Choice Hotel Group and the art of welcoming people is evident in the way he describes what he hopes Fonté Coffee Bar can be for customers. “We’re not trying to get them in the door like the big brands, get them to the machine, get their order and not interact with them after that and flip them to the back of the queue. We want to educate them and we want to talk to them about the blends.”
Interactive, engaging staff who are as knowledgeable as they are friendly, is a given here. I meet James, one of Fonté’s main baristas, who spent three weeks in Seattle immersing himself in the coffee culture with Andy and Paul. His enthusiasm and inviting nature shines like the caramel notes in a shot of Fonté’s specialty F2 blend and attracting passionate staff who share Andy and Paul’s thirst for coffee knowledge is a vital piece in the puzzle.
Fonté’s edge over “the big brands”, which are also Seattle bred, they tell me, is all in the sourcing (Paul has personality visited growers across the globe in search of the perfect beans) and respecting the roasting process, rather than focusing on what Paul calls “marketing BS.” Paul brings business expertise interwoven with in-depth knowledge of the process from bean to cup to Fonté and coupled with Andy’s years of hospitality experience, they seem to compliment each other perfectly.
With all the good will in the world and passion for coffee, Paul feels in many cases, independent roasters just don’t commit the time to acquiring the level of knowledge needed to produce great coffee. “It is all about educating yourself” according to Andy, who feels being around Paul and Fonté Master Roaster Steve has broadened his understanding exponentially.
With many artisans and start up micro-roasteries, the issue, Andy believes, is that they don’t have that level of knowledge of or experience with the exceedingly complex process. I ask, is it perhaps that they’re not looking for knowledge? “Bingo!” Paul says enthusiastically. 25 years into Fonté’s journey, it is safe to say that the title of expert coffee roasters (with only Steve, Paul and one other trusted to carry it out) has more than been earned, with a commitment to “learning every day”.
As well as bringing the renowned brand to Ireland with its own stylish Café Bar, Andy is also conquering a common hotel gripe, one I have made myself on numerous occasions – the fact that good coffee eludes even the most luxurious of properties. Amalgamating his hotel background with his stake in Fonté, Andy has successfully introduced the high-end brand to hotels in the group, including House Hotel Galway and The Woodstock in Ennis, to a warm reception from guests.
“Everybody who drinks coffee thinks that about the hotel issue but we don’t listen to them. “Hotels see coffee as a dry good like cornflakes that sits there. There’s no consideration that this may be the last way a customer interacts with your business.”
“I compare coffee a lot to wine, when you go into a restaurant, you’d laugh if they asked you red or white. That’s the way coffee will be in five years”, Andy says, as he predicts coffee drinkers will seek to educate themselves further in the coming years. It won’t be a case of just ordering a coffee, they will understand bean nuances and use this knowledge to choose the bean for their brew personally. With the expertise at every step of the way with Fonté, they will be seeking to be leaders in this new wave here in Ireland.
As for the future of Fonté here in Ireland, Andy and Paul both feel that Dublin’s coffee culture is moving at a hyper fast pace, and they are braced for the impending fifth wave of coffee. This new movement, already sweeping Seattle and advanced coffee cultures, will see the emphasis put on quality at each stage of coffee production, from sourcing to pulling the shot and every important step in between.
“The fifth wave will separate the stand out players and those that are just there ‘doing their thing’. Proper business practices, proper sourcing and labour relations, it has less to do with positive attitude, it is more substantive. It is all about education and whether you can back up what you’re doing with knowledge”, says Paul.
The benefit of this approach is for the consumer, you go to the big chains and it is commodity coffee. You go to an independent and whether they are doing it right or wrong, they care. The whole thing is more human. We care.
The smell of coffee fresh from the grinder fills the air, intoxicatingly alluring, and what Paul is getting at begins to make sense – this is not your run of the mill coffee, this is coffee, hand sourced, expertly roasted, shipped within hours and treated with great respect. “You’re paying top dollar for your daily coffee – so we need to deliver top dollar quality. I am shocked with what the big names get away with serving” Paul admits and upon tasting the nectar-like shot, I’m convinced nothing he is saying is “marketing BS”.
At the end of the day, it is all about that first sip, which Paul sums up as “caramel, sweet and smooth. That is what you’ll have here and that taste will remain long after your espresso is gone. Done, easy, mission accomplished.”
For more information on Fonté visit fontecoffeeireland.com.