A space for people to create their own dreams
Sense of community is as important as top-notch coffee, food and customer service at the Middletown Coffee Co, co-owner Emma Hickinson tells Alyson Magee
Bringing a high-end coffee concept to Ballymena’s Mill Street was a bold move for locals Johnny and Emma Hickinson.
Once the heart of the town, Mill Street had seen better days when the couple opened the doors of the Middletown Coffee Co in December 2015.
Almost two years later, however, the business is thriving and Mill Street is even showing signs of a revival with a few new traders moving in and the nearby Tower Centre earmarked for a facelift.
Inspired by cafes encountered on their travels around the world, and Australia in particular, the Hickinsons set out to create a space where people could come and enjoy quality food and drink alongside a community spirit.
“We’re both Ballymena born and bred, and we wanted to do it in our own hometown,” says Emma. “There were a few similar places in Belfast but nothing in Ballymena along the lines of what we were doing plus we’ve got two girls so it’s easier for us as a family, being in our hometown.”
Each of the Hickinsons has brought their own skillset to the business. Johnny was Northern Ireland Aeropress Champion 2015 and has worked in Belfast’s Established, so has the coffee side of the business covered and leads front of house.
And Emma is a chef by trade, heading up a small but very busy kitchen, turning out innovative and artistic, high quality dishes and baked goods.
“It’s something we’re both very passionate about,” says Emma. “It’s not just about food and coffee, it’s about people as well and creating that community, and a space for people to come and create their own dreams and their own passions.
“We’ve a very good bunch of staff as well, each individually has a real passion for what we’re doing which makes a big difference.”
And yes, there are a few – dare one say it – hipster beards on site.
“We pride ourselves on really good customer service,” she says. “It’s something that’s really important, making people feel comfortable when they come in here.
“You can have really good food and really good coffee and tea and if your service is bad, that’s it, people will not come back.
“It’s been really hard work, doing something a bit different from the norm in Ballymena but people have really grasped it now and are coming in.”
Pop up cafés in Belfast and Ballymena generated enough interest for the Mill Street shop to attract strong weekend custom when it first opened, and business has gradually built to a steady trade across its Monday-Saturday, 8.30am-5.30pm opening hours from about four months ago.
Attracting largely 20-40 year olds at the beginning, its customer base has since widened to include everyone from parents with young babies to pensioners, business people from the local law courts and school children. “It’s creating an environment where it’s actually quite cool for kids to come and hang out and it’s not a pub,” says Emma. “That was a big thing for us because we’ve got two young girls.”
“We do a weekly special and our menu is seasonal, so people come in and ask what’s on this week,” she says. “It’s created that wee buzz. Before we got into this, we decided we wanted to stay true to ourselves and what we believe in and get excited about. We’ve had to be quite strict about that, and believe what we serve is top quality. For us, there’s no compromise on that.”
And while the shop was initially bigger than what they were looking for, it has proved a versatile space, allowing the Hickinsons to host private functions and run supper club-style events such as curry and beer nights in collaboration with Hillstown Brewery.
Coffee cupping sessions are held every Friday, with the general public invited to try the latest brews for free. “It lets people taste the range of coffees we work with and helps us and the guys making the coffee to distinguish whether it’s a good coffee, or could be better, or works better in an espresso or filter, and then we can relate that back to our roaster and work alongside them.”
Filter coffee brewed on the V60 is the most popular choice, with regular customers often trusting the staff to make recommendations.
“Consistency is a big thing for us,” says Emma. “Every morning our coffees are dialled in, and TDS-ed (checking brew strength) and that goes for espresso and filter.”
Seasonal hot and cold coffee drinks are offered, while tea is also popular. “Ballymena is a tea nation, definitely,” says Emma. “But I have to say, we’ve been very surprised how much they’ve taken on the whole coffee side.”
Retail sales of the 3fe coffee and Good & Proper teas are strong, with stock regularly replenished. And, in line with the community focus, Middletown Coffee Co also sells a range of local artwork and artisan goods.
Marketing is via social media, with regular postings to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and the sites also serving as a good source of feedback.
A currently unused area of the shop footprint offers the potential for a future expansion, putting in a bigger kitchen and a pass.
“It would be a couple of nights a week doing restaurant evenings with set menus,” says Emma. “That will be our next plan, and training rooms for the coffee side.
“We enter a lot of barista competitions and that’s something for our staff as well, to keep them interested and make it more of a career because it’s the type of industry that’s really just a stopping gap for a lot of people.
“We want to be able to provide things for them, so they can go and achieve their dreams and goals.”
Emma says other acclaimed coffee shops such as Established and The Pocket in Belfast, and Lost & Found in Coleraine, were extremely supportive of the Hickinsons’ venture.
“We know how important that is when you do go to do your own thing, having people support you along the way,” she says. “Everything has had its challenges, for the both of us probably more mentally and coping with the highs and lows of working in a business and not having that business knowledge behind you and that fear of failure.
“The more consistent the business gets, the easier it gets because at the very start what you would have been bringing in every day would have been really worrying; are we going to have enough?
“Your livelihood relies on people coming in, and spending their well-earned money, so we’re really thankful for everybody that comes in here and I think most of our customers know that.
“I enjoy the buzz, and I enjoy people and trying to make people happy. If people are having a bad day, they have somewhere to come and chill out.
“At the start, coming here was a very big decision because we’re quite out of the actual centre of Ballymena and away from the main hustle and bustle,” says Emma. “But the more we talked about it, we thought to ourselves, Mill Street was the heart of Ballymena at a time and part of us wanted to bring that back here.”
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