The Colin Harmon Interview Uncut

As we put the finishing touches on the February/March 2013 issue of Barista Magazine, I find I’m not ready to say goodbye to December/January 2013 issue cover-boy Colin Harmon just yet. We received quite a few letters from our readers that were laden with thanks for giving this Irish barista the props he so deserves. We also got mail from readers who first learned about Colin and his success with his Dublin café, Third Floor Espresso, through the article that appeared in our pages.

Truly, the honor was all ours to have Colin on our cover. We’re glad you like him as much as we do.

Before we post the new issue of Barista Mag (and by the way, we think you’ll be pretty excited to read about this next cover person, too!), we wanted to give Colin a send-off by posting the full interview he gave to Barista Mag editor Sarah Allen. Think of this as the Colin Harmon John Peel Session, and geek out appropriately.

 

Some basics first please: where were you born, what year, what are your parents’ occupations, how many siblings, and their names and ages please.

I was born in Cork City to Leo and Ger Harmon but spent most of my life growing up in Dublin. I have a younger brother Ian and an elder sister Jill, both 2 years either side of me. My father runs a construction company now but had decided to go back to college to study engineering when my sister was born. Once his studies were completed we moved back to Dublin where he and my Mother are both from. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else now.

 

As a kid, what did you hope and dream to grow up to be someday?

I was obsessed with football as a kid, or ‘soccer’ as you guys call it. If I could have chosen any career it would have been football and representing my country. I had nowhere near enough ability though so representing Ireland in coffee competitions is a pretty good substitute.

 

What was the coffee like in your house as you grew up? Or were you tea drinkers? Any memories you can recount about coffee being prepared in your childhood home?

Ireland really is a nation of tea drinkers and I remember wanting to drink tea when I was 9 years old because we had commemorative tea caddy with the Irish Football team manager Jack Charlton on the front of it. My parents still use that today for their teabags. My first memory of coffee is making “coffee milkshakes” with my brother when my parents went out for the evening. We’d put loads of sugar, milk, ice and instant coffee into a glass and mix at all up before guzzling it. I’m sure that made for an interesting evening for our baby sitter.

 

Can you remember exactly when it was—how old you were, where you were, who you were with—when you had your first incredible cup of coffee?

I liked coffee probably as much as anyone else did when I discovered Hasbean coffee online. I read through the site, ordered some coffee and was instantly hooked. I think it was “Wild Bonga Forest” that first opened my eyes to what coffee could be. I started to search internet forums and coffee blogs and started getting in on “group buys” to share coffees with like-minded enthusiasts. Square Mile’s Santa Rita natural, 49th Parallel’s Beloya and Intelligentsia’s Black Cat all inspired me to learn more about coffee.  I met David Walsh of Marco on a forum before either of us worked in coffee and I went along to London with him and a friend on a coffee trip. I remember sitting down in Flat White in Soho and being served a coffee and thinking “this is the future, this is what I’m going to do”.

 

What did you study in university? I know you worked in finance, but can you tell me about the specific work you went on to do after university? What was your job title, and what were your duties?

I studied Business and Legal Studies in University College Dublin and achieved and honours degree over four years. I’ve also studied Fund Investment, Tax and a few other finance based courses since leaving University but none of them ever really took hold of me. I worked for a French Investment Bank CACEIS as a Trustee. My job was pretty much ensuring that the funds the company managed were operating within legislation and the fund-specific rules. There’s a huge industry in Dublin for investment banks so it was the logical route for me given my education to that point.

 

When and why did you first begin to seek out quality coffee? What turned you on to it—a specific shop, a person, an experience?

Once I decided to get a career in coffee I emailed Karl Purdy at Coffee Angel about a job he was advertising and went to meet him. I’m pretty sure he didn’t think I’d stick it out but gave me a chance anyway. I used to get up at 4:50am and drive across the city to collect the van and then set up in the city centre. It was cold, wet and hard work but Karl gave me an excellent schooling.

 

I recall from the 2010 WBC you saying how you devoted a whole bedroom of your flat to an Aurelia when you were practicing – was this before or after you left your bank job?

I’d been working at Coffee Angel for 6 months when I won the Irish Barista Championships for the first time. It was as much a shock to me as it was to everyone else but I knew I was going to the World Championships as the Irish Champion, the year after the last Irish competitor Stephen Morrissey had won the title. I was motivated not only by patriotism and ambition but also by the fear that having so little experience would mean I’d make an absolute idiot of myself in front of all my peers. In an effort to boost my chances I built a complete replica of the WBC set up with a competition-spec Aurelia in my third floor apartment. My Uncle Eddie and my Dad pulled out all the stops in making sure it had everything I needed. They were a huge support to me and reassured me when ever I thought I was doing something crazy.

 

It must have been a big decision to go from working in finance and making good money to becoming a barista. Tell me about the thought process, and how you ultimately came to that decision?

My parents and my wife Yvonne were a huge support to me. I think they would have worried if I’d just quit my job and started working in a coffee shop on a whim but I made sure they knew I was serious about my ambition. I remember asking my parents to sit down with me so I could tell them something, so I’m sure they feared the worst when that happened. Once I told them they were really supportive because they knew I wasn’t messing about. They always put a lot of importance in education and my Dad has been hugely successful in his career from a very modest beginning. They both understand that having a successful career is not about getting a safe job and absorbing pay rises as the years tick by. It’s about working hard, being honest and doing your best. Once they knew I was going to apply those criteria to my new career they were 100% behind me. My wife Yvonne was the one that had to reassure me day-to-day though and I couldn’t have done it without her. My salary was more than halved overnight and she never once held that against me. There were times when we went without and had very little time away together but she never made it an issue.

 

What were your aspirations at that time? Did you want to open a café of your own right away? Or did you work as a barista first for another company? How did you develop your skills from a passionate consumer of coffee to a professional?

I’ve always wanted to own my own business and that was always my goal when I started working in coffee. Even before I went to Atlanta for the WBC I handed in my notice with Coffee Angel because I knew I needed to find another gear. That was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do because Karl had invested so much time and energy in me but I knew I had to keep going. Finishing 4th at WBC was great because it gave me a platform and suddenly a lot more people were willing to help me. I spent a year working for various different folks all over Europe, picking up training, consultancy and bar work wherever I could and doing a lot of traveling. It was hard on my wife and family though because I spent a lot of time away and it was very unstructured so it was hard to see a future in it.

 

Where does the name 3FE come from?

Once I had a firm idea of what I wanted to achieve in a retail shop, a problem arose; I didn’t have any capital. I had all my equipment, a great supplier in Steve and a lot of ambition but I had a loan of about €5,000 to spend and no more. In Dublin at the time I couldn’t even cover the key money required for a premises and it was getting to the stage where I needed to do something or just go work for someone else.

Then I met Trevor O’Shea from Bodytonic who ran a nightclub in the city centre that lay empty during the day. He came to see me with a friend in my apartment on the third floor and was blown away by the coffee I served him. Trev pretty much offered it to me free of charge and told me I could start paying rent when I started making money. It raised a few eye brows at the time but on the 5th December 2009 we opened 3FE, or Third Floor Espresso, in the lobby of the Twisted Pepper nightclub. I wanted every cup to go out with as much care as I’d have done in that third floor training room, and I still do today.

We’ll celebrate our third year soon and we now have our own stand-alone shop, a wholesale business working with some of Dublin’s best cafes and a training room where we do lots of tastings and events. Steve has come on board as my business partner and we employ 14 people with a few more to come. Its hard to believe so much has happened in such a short time, we’ve worked really hard but also been quite lucky.

 

How and when did you meet Steve Leighton? What was your impression of him? Did you guys get on with each other right away?

The first time I met Steve was after I won the Irish Barista Championships. I drew up a list of about 10 roasters to approach about roasting coffee for the WBC. I’d already bought coffee from Steve on a number of occasions so I emailed him first just by chance really. He got back to me within minutes and invited me over that weekend to visit his roastery. He said he’d pick me up at the airport too but it was only when I got there that I realised he’d gotten up at 6am to drive for an hour to come collect me. He was incredibly generous, engaging and passionate from the start and made me feel part of the team from day one. I never got to email any one else on the list of roasters I’d made, there really wasn’t any need to.

 

Was he a mentor of sorts for you? If so, how?

Steve has been an invaluable mentor for me. I think a lot of people when they establish a business are fearful of the person they’re supposed to become. When you then go on to hire people there’s a lot of pressure on you to lead, motivate and inspire those people. Steve taught me that the best way to do that was to work hard and be yourself. Steve is honest, hard working and obsessed with quality. People respond to that whether they’re staff, suppliers or customers and thats a lesson I was fast-tracked to learning. The best thing about Steve though is that despite all the success he’s had, he’s still Steve. He doesn’t let it go to his head and is fiercely loyal and honest. I hope I can look back at myself in ten years and see I’ve achieved even half of what he has and retained the same integrity.

 

What was the coffee scene like in Dublin 10 years ago? Five years ago? If you could recount some of the history, I’d appreciate it. Bewley’s was around for a long time, but did people really drink coffee? Monika (Palova, Slovakian Barista Champ and also an employee of 3FE) told me that you basically introduced specialty coffee to Dublin, so I’m trying to understand the context for that.

Dublin is like London’s little sister in terms of whats happening so we often find ourselves on a curve that’s been through their city 2 or 3 years before. Specialty coffee was going to arrive in Dublin, thats a certainty, I just managed to get my timing right. It seems like it happened over-night, but the truth is always much different. A lot of really great coffee professionals worked in the city that really got the movement going. People like Stephen Morrissey, Arthur Wynn, Anne Lunnel, Karl Purdy and Deaton Piggot all lay the foundations for what we see today. The SCAE in Ireland is also thriving and without Joe Smith, Jackie Malone, Julie Murray, James Shepherd and Paul Stack there would be no specialty coffee industry here. People see 3FE growing with Specialty coffee and equating one with the other but there’s a confusion between causation and correlation there.

 

What year did 3FE open? What was your initial vision for it – what did you want it to be? (I.e. a small coffee bar where people drank mainly on-the-go? A hang out for young people? A place where you could experiment with coffee?)

What used to really annoy me about going to coffee shops was not how bad it was, but how good it ‘sometimes’ was. The more I travelled and saw different coffee shops, the more I saw a gap between what baristas were capable of and what they were serving. I’d often hear “This is great, but our customers wouldn’t get it” or see baristas make excellent coffee before they open the shop and then watch the quality slide when things got busy.

What I want to achieve with 3FE is a place where you’re always going to get a quality cup. There are huge problems associated with doing that in large volumes but when faced with maintaining quality or compromising to get the orders out, too many businesses chose the latter route and blame their circumstance.

Every business can create its own context, its just about finding the balance. There’s always a knock-on effect and I think pricing is very de rigueur right now for this reason. You have to decide where you’re business is pitched in terms of quality and align all the variables with that in mind. I’m not saying we’ve found that balance yet, but we’re definitely moving towards it.

I’m always concerned firstly with the worst coffee that we’re making because that’s how I rate any shop. The worst drinks are easiest to fix and completely achievable to do so. Any shop can make a great coffee some of the time so proving it can be great sometimes is pointless. Right now I realise it won’t always be perfect but I’m happy with the variance in quality and we’ll continue to work on the low-ebb.

 

Please describe the process you and Steve went through determining your business relationship: he owns half of 3FE, correct? But it is your company to run day by day? Is all the coffee you brew from Has Bean? How often does he visit?

Right now the main business is run day-to-day by myself and Steve looks after his own business, Hasbean. We distribute Hasbean in Ireland and are looking to build critical mass in terms of weight and locations before we begin roasting in Dublin. We had looked at starting a roastery in Dublin from the start but the investment required would have meant we couldn’t have delivered the quality of product and service as comfortably as we can now. The coffee is roasted weekly and shipped over for distribution and it’s a model that has allowed us to really establish a reputation for excellent coffee in both our retail and wholesale operations.

I really couldn’t get anything done though without the team that we have at 3FE. I’m blessed to have Jenn Rugolo and Pete Williams with me at 3FE because they are incredibly talented and hard working. Jenn is originally from Annapolis in the US and she runs the wholesale business, manages the accounts with me and generally puts a structure on everything we do. Pete on the other hand came to us with no experience but had experience in some of the best kitchens in the UK and Ireland. He applied that level of professionalism to coffee and within 6 weeks of starting with us finished 3rd in the Irish Barista Championships. He’s now the executive chef for 3FE and also builds furniture, trains customers, fixes machines and works bar. I’ve a saying in the office that Jenn does everything ‘intangible’, Pete does everything ‘tangible’ and I get all the credit. I’m only half joking when I say it too!

The rest of the team are incredibly hard working and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. We’ve had staff that were nutritionists, designers, pastry chefs, musicians and everything in between but they all bring a skill set to daily operations. I’m quite choosey about who we employ but experience isn’t always essential. We have an unofficial motto that says “make nice coffee, be nice to people” but only one of those can be taught. Once you have the right things in place, making coffee is actually quite easy but the right people will maintain standards, improve quality, work hard and be honest. The coffee bit’s the easy part. Most of the staff at 3FE have often been confused at one time or the other as being the owner. This makes me very happy because they all care about the business like its their own.

 

What was the reaction from Dubliners after you first opened – did they think you were crazy? What was their impression of specialty coffee?

A lot of people I meet when I travel have the impression that its easy for 3FE because we have customers that appreciate great coffee but its actually been something that we’ve worked on. When we opened we had filter coffee on the menu but the only people that ever drank it were myself, David Walsh and the other baristas in the city. The shop was opened in the lobby of a nightclub, three doors down from a drop-in centre on the wrong side of the city but we tried to engage people and help them appreciate great coffee without being preachy or intimidating. I really believe that great coffee can be appreciated anywhere and if your customers aren’t getting it then you’re doing something wrong. It might be that you’re giving them something really acidic and fruity but not communicating that effectively. If you’re taking time to make a hand-poured chemex, let them know it will take a while. There are so many things that we do that regular customers don’t get but 99% of the problems we have can be overcome through effective communication. I’ve been told in the past that we have it easy because our customers like great coffee but thats taken so much hard work to get to that point. Great coffee is great coffee, blaming your customers is just an easy way out of blaming yourself.

 

Please tell me more about your relationship with Steve – how did you guys come up with the idea for Tamper Tantrum? (I interviewed you about this before, and I will include some of that interview in this article, but just to get connectivity I’m asking again).

After the WBC in Atlanta Steve needed to record a video diary for his blog so we sat down in Octane coffee with Ben Helfen and pressed record. We actually went on for about an hour and then posted it on Steve’s website. The reaction it got online was amazing and thats when Steve came up with the idea of making it a permanent thing. We try to meet up every month or so and Tamper Tantrum has become a great reason to do that. During one of the recordings we came up with the idea of doing a live show and last year we held our first one in Dublin. Essentially the idea is to give guests a 15 minute slot to present on a topic of their choice. We’ve held two in Dublin and one at the WBC in Vienna and we’re hoping to do a few more internationally next year. Its become something of a monster considering how its started but its something we’re immensly proud of. We’ve been lucky enough to have some great speakers like Cosimo Libardo, James Hoffmann, Gwilym Davies, Geoff Watts and Matt Perger to name but a few. I think there’s a big appetite in specialty for this kind of thing. It shows we have quite a progressive and mature industry when people are so willing to communicate and share ideas.

 

What is the coffee scene like in Dublin today? Have other specialty shops opened up? Are they doing a good job? Is the barista community friendly?

There was a time when you really had to go out of your way to find anything drinkable but the last 2 years has seen a number of really great places pop up. 3FE works closely with places like Cup, Fallon and Byrne, Roasted Brown and Brother Hubbard to make sure they’re getting the best out of the coffee we’re selling them. We’ve worked closely with a lot of our wholesale customers to ensure they’re providing a quality offering but there’s other coffee shops that we don’t work with that are doing a great job. Places like Coffee Angel, Clement & Pekoe and Art of Coffee are really doing a great job and means the city has more diversity in terms of their coffee offering.

The community is really growing as a result and there’s now a serious number of really excellent baristas working in Dublin. We’re not as big a city as London, San Francisco or Melbourne but for a city of half a million people we’re right up there in terms of quality. Its getting to the stage where Dublin could become the place to go to for a coffee trip. Its easily navigable, has 10-20 great offerings and a lot of diversity therein. It also has a really great culinary scene emeging so it’s the ideal destination for weekenders.

 

Would you like to open more cafes? If so, would they be different or similar, and in what ways?

We’re 12 months into our second shop but my gut tells me that you need to be open 18-24 months before you know the true potential of a location. Right now we’re focused on the next level of development that I believe will bring us another 60-80% within the next year. I see a lot of businesses over-stretching before they’ve made the most of what they already have. I’ve made a lot of mistakes with 3FE in the past and although its tempting when I see other locations on offer, I’m adamant that we need to improve what we have first before moving on.

I’d definitely like another shop in the future but it would need to be a significant step up from what we have now. The ideas I have now wouldn’t work if we opened a new space tomorrow and implemented them. The trick is to create the right context and then take an achievable leap with the next shop. Our new shop is flying right now but wouldn’t have worked without the first shop doing all the dog work. Given another year I think we could come up with a pretty exciting concept to explore.

 

Does 3FE do any special events, i.e. public cuppings, training with consumers, etc.?

We do lots of events and tastings at 3FE for people from all different backgrounds. One of the most popular is a Saturday morning event we do where 8-10 people learn how to brew coffee at home and we make them lunch along the way. Its a really social event and we’ve met some really great customers doing it. It helps us too because sometimes people buy a coffee, brew it really badly and then never buy it again. By teaching people how to brew coffee at home it means we can be sure they’re getting the best from it and empowers them to enjoy coffee in the knowledge its been done right.

We also do barista training for people who want to start their own business, or even improve their existing offering. We also get the odd training session from someone who has a full kit at home. They’re always the most interesting students and often the most knowledgeable.

 

Will you compete again? So many people hope you do!

I love competition and always have but I think people over-estimate how much of my life it takes up. I really only ever start thinking about it 4 weeks before the day and try to be as light-hearted as I can about it. I usually make Steve pick my coffee and start out with a very simple plan. The battle is then to keep it that simple. Its harder to leave something out of a routine than it is to keep it in. In January I’ll decide if I want to compete and if I don’t next year I definitely will again. The thing about competition is that you can only really control two factors; how much you learn and how much you enjoy it. After that its up to the judges and you have to take winning and losing the same way. I’ve seen competition eat people and become an obsession, I’d step away if it ever became that for me but while I’m still enjoying it I’ll keep coming back.

 

You and your wife just had a baby—congratulations! How and/or will this effect you professionally, i.e. you might not want to compete if you have a baby!

Our son Oscar was born in August of this year and its been such a wonderful experience for my wife and I. It really has shifted the way I look at things and I suppose there’s an added pressure now in terms of what I can or can’t do. Its definitely focused my mind in terms of the business and I’ve already found myself clamping down on things that I would have let slide before. I don’t think I’ll ever be a tyrant to work with but I’m definitely becoming a little more, lets say, responsible.

I’ve always been ambitious in terms of what I’d like 3FE to become but Oscar’s arrival has given me a pep in my step to kick on from here. We’re three years in business this December so we’re probably at that stage of maturity for a business as it is.

I get asked to visit a lot of places and there was a time when I was happy to jump on a plane at any time. These days its different though and I need to stay home as much as possible and pick and choose the most important trips. I love traveling with my job and really enjoy meeting new people. It seems like I’m always an email away from having a couch to sleep on anywhere in the world and its great to have coffee people to meet up with and show us the real way to enjoy the cities we visit.

 

About the Author

Sarah

Sarah Allen is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.