Kaffe O is a Nordic coffee shop recently opened on the bustling Ormeau Road in Belfast. As soon as you step inside this buzzing coffee house, the Scandinavian stylings paired with the distinctive aroma of coffee, (the beans are transported from Denmark, obviously), transport you to a place seemingly far away, where you could spend hours chatting over that unmistakeable taste of superb coffee.
This month Ulster Life chatted to the equally charming owner Orla Smyth. A self-professed “coffee-snob”, Orla’s story is unlike that of your normal entrepreneur. Firstly she was a corporate lawyer for 12 years before her passion for coffee led her to creating Kaffe O; secondly Orla holds the current world transplant games records in the 400m, 800m and 1500m, pretty impressive for a girl whose odds were piled high against her.
As told to Zoe Brennan by Orla Smyth
Hello Orla, tell us a bit about your background?
Well – where do I start? I’m 35 and from the Ormeau Road. I am the youngest of three and mum and dad and my brother and sister still live in the area. I was a corporate lawyer for nearly 12 years – when I decided to give it all up to open a Scandinavian coffee shop – oh I’ve also had two kidney transplants, spent nearly four years on dialysis and hold the current world transplant games records in 400, 800 and 1500m….oh yeh and I’m probably a little unhinged!! I’m married to Declan Morgan who I met in my first year of Uni (who I persuaded to abandon the sticks of rural County Down for the big lights of the City) and we have a very old chocolate Labrador called Denis (I’m also an Arsenal fan!)
We know you used to play football for Northern Ireland as well as winning 7 gold medals in the World Transplant Games; setting 3 world records along the way. How hard was it for you to re-establish your sporting success after your transplant?
Really hard – it started very slowly. Before the transplant I played a lot of soccer and Gaelic football, but given the location of my transplanted kidney – I knew that going back to football wasn’t an option for me. You see I lost my first kidney transplant after three months (nothing to do with sporting activities!!) and I just didn’t want to do anything that could put it in any possibility of harm’s way – so I took up running. Being honest I always hated the pre season fitness side of football training so am surprised how much I ended up falling in love with running. Though when I was on dialysis I wasn’t well enough to do any sport – so I was dying to get back in to exercise as soon as I was well enough. I started just walking, then running and well, kept going – even managing a couple of marathons too.
You’ve overcame massive obstacles to get to where you are. Can you tell us a bit about how having a kidney transplant changed your perspective on life?
In unimaginable ways and in ways which I am actually extremely grateful for – no matter what has happened in the past.
It changes your perspective on everything. I mean I know I am healthy and alive only because someone died healthy and young and donated their organs – and I was lucky enough to get a kidney. I can never thank my donor or her family enough for that so I just think that I have to try and make the most of every opportunity and try and live my life to the full – in doing so I feel that this is the best way I can thank my donor and her family. Its hard though sometimes as it leave me restless, always looking for the next thing to do to squeeze the most out of life that I can.
You were a lawyer before starting Kaffe-O, what ignited the flame to change direction and start your own business?
To be honest – I always felt like a square peg in a round hole as a lawyer. I would say I fell in to law as it was the safe option when I found out at 21 that I was entering end stage renal failure. I was lucky enough to do well and worked for some great firms during my career – one of which was Danske bank which is what actually ignited my passion for Danish design coffee and food as I was seconded there as a lawyer and lived and worked in Copenhagen for a short time. However that was five years ago. I think meeting all the amazing people at the world transplant games and actually losing a couple of friends who died very young last year – brought me to a cross roads where I thought enough talking about it orla, time to do something about it! I also worked very long hours as a lawyer and was haunted by the flashing red light of the blackberry so I figured I may as well put all those hours in to me!
What were your biggest influences when you were learning to run a business?
Experts – I literally asked everyone and anyone in the business for their advice. I did a lot of research and had some amazing mentors along the way who I still lean on – every day is literally a school day – in fact I learnt how to clear a u-bend today, so can add plumbing to the CV now too!
What makes Kaffe-O special?
For a start I hope the coffee – which is totally unique to the UK and Ireland. My roaster is based in Copenhagen where he has about 12 coffee shops and he doesn’t supply anyone else. He roasts his house blend ( 50% Guatemala, 25% Costa Rica and 25% Ethiopia) on his farm in Sweden and ships to us every couple of weeks, so the coffee is really fresh. I have also tried to incorporate Scandinavian design in to the shop and all our ceramics and crockery are from Denmark – our menu is Nordic influenced as well, though tailored to the local market! I also love music and have a record player where customers are free to change the tunes (though have had to hide a couple I’m not so fond of…..)
What have been some of your low and high points when starting Kaffe-O?
Low points – running out of coffee on day three as had no idea how many kilos we were going to go through in a day and of course the pure exhaustion- the first six weeks were a complete blur.
High points are the customers who are coming back again and again and tweeting about it and talking about it on Facebook! Getting to know them has been the best part of the business. I spent so many years stuck behind a desk on the phone all day that I just love chatting with the customers.
Also seeing the kaffe o team develop has been great too.
Is running your own business harder than you thought it would be?
By a million times. I really cannot put down on paper just how hard the first six weeks were. I literally didn’t eat sleep or practically go the bathroom. It feels like the whole world wants a piece of you and you need about three of you. You are just fire fighting every single day and to be honest I felt really vulnerable and well a little fragile too!
I am finding my feet better now and things are becoming more routine but it makes sitting in an office dealing with demanding clients seem like a day off sometimes!
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start their own business?
Think really really hard about it and what you are going to have to sacrifice in the short term. It literally took over my life for the past three months and absolutely everything else has to take a back seat – family, friends, training, everything. Also – you have to really want it and be really passionate about your business as it really will test your love of it all!! Think of your most stressful day in your current job, multiply it by a million and if that doesn’t put you off – go for it!
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Honestly I never look that far ahead – I try really hard to just live in the present and deal with whatever happens now – not always easy but I really try. I would love the kaffe O brand to develop and grow and will work so hard to try and make that happen but as for ten years, all I can hope for is that my kidney is still working, I’m fit and physically and mentally healthy – if I have those things, no matter where I am, I know I’ll be ok
You’ll find Kaffe-O @ 411 Ormeau Road, Belfast (on the right hand side heading out of Belfast in the direction of Forestside)
T 02890 642434
Some quick Q&A’s to finish!
If you could only have 3 items what would they be?
My trainers – so I can always run.
My digital radio – couldn’t survive without good music
My kaffe O coffee-literally couldn’t survive without my daily double shot espressos – and don’t ask me how many I have – we all need some vices!
What is your ultimate beauty must-have?
Dermalogica everything – couldn’t pick just one product as they are all essential though you’ll laugh, you know you are running your own business when you go in to boots and ask for the budget version or touché éclat!
Green Tea – I have worn this for years-but my “good“ perfume is Jo Malone – French lime blossom, love this.
I sort of have two – as one is regular haunt and the other is less frequent – we are boojum regulars and love it and yes we have the addict tee shirts…and for somewhere really nice – it has to be Ginger- adore this place, have never ever had a meal here that I didn’t come out raving about.
Well I know coffee doesn’t count – but actually its water- I drink it by the bucket load as when I was on dialysis the amount of fluids I was allowed daily was really restricted – so I try to permanently have a bottle of water on me.
However my guilty pleasure is Guinness – there is nothing nicer than running in the mountains and then treating yourself to a Guinness after wards – heaven, I mean it’s practically medicinal.
Eckert Tolle – the Power of now- this book literally changed my whole way of thinking and looking at things – I should have shares in Amazon as I think I have bought this for nearly all my friends too.
If you would like your business featured please contact Zoe @ firstname.lastname@example.org