From barista training to roasting: ‘Coffee is getting more specialised all the time’

From barista training to roasting: ‘Coffee is getting more specialised all the time’
John Mackey and his son Frank of Mahers Coffee, Oliver Plunkett Street.Picture: David Keane.

Nestled in the middle of Oliver Plunkett Street, Mahers Coffee is a family run business owned by husband and wife, John and Mary Mackey.

One of the oldest coffee companies in Cork, Mahers is a powerhouse brand in Munster and beyond.

Running the business for the last 28 years, it was almost serendipity which led to John and Mary acquiring Mahers Coffee.

“It originally started with a man by the name of Dick Maher,” John explains.

Mahers was in the delicatessen business, with a premises originally on Marlboro Street and then lower Marlboro Street below Liam Ruiséal’s.

“He was very much ahead of his time,” John says. “He stocked goods that most people in Cork would have never seen before, things like red cabbage and peppers and coffee. He made up rolls and other takeaway foods which in the late 1950s was quite an innovative concept in Cork.”

Reminiscing about Maher’s premises located just below the former Liam Ruiséal’s bookshop, John said, “He had a small shop there but it was beautiful.

“He used to have honeycomb stacked in squares up as far as the ceiling with straw in between them.”

John and Mary had established a business relationship with Maher as they were formerly in the meat business and supplied the delicatessen.

“We had a butchers shop on Princes Street and we were doing it up into a delicatessen and Dick was getting out of the game completely so he suggested buying the coffee business off him and integrating it into the deli,” John explains. “This would have been in the late 80s, where our shop was called Mackeys.”

Later, John and Mary decided to focus solely on the coffee side of their business and trialled a smaller premises before they moved into their permanent home on Oliver Plunkett Street. 

“We had a small place in the Winthrop Arcade for four to five years to see if the coffee business would work on its own, and it did, so we decided to open the shop on Oliver Plunkett Street.”

John Mackey of Mahers Coffee, Oliver Plunkett Street.
John Mackey of Mahers Coffee, Oliver Plunkett Street.

Their shop on Oliver Plunkett Street has become a haven for coffee lovers who are adamant to find their own perfect blend of coffee.

Lauding their exceptional staff, John says: “They are all extremely helpful and obliging. They know their stuff. If boxes of chocolates at Christmas are a measure of how much the customers love them, then it’s really saying something! The staff have been inundated!”

Apart from having a loyal customers, the wholesale business side of Mahers Coffee is booming.

“I would say about 90% of the business would be wholesale,” John says. “While it’s predominantly Munster we supply, we do cover the whole country by courier service.

“This was Mary’s idea really and it started back around 1993. Man Friday in Kinsale was probably the first business we started supplying but now it’s far and wide.”

To name a few, Mahers Coffee is now served in places such as Nash 19, Scally’s SuperValu in Clonakilty, Fota and Castlemartyr, but this success was built up slowly over time.

“Initially wholesale was challenging because we had to compete with the likes of Bewleys and Robert Roberts who were very dominant,” John says. “Of course, this worked in our favour a bit too as everyone had these brands and people were looking for something a bit different.”

Mahers has also moved with the times, now retailing online and offering services such as barista training in their roastery at Ballycurreen, coordinated by their eldest son, Frank, who recently entered the business.

Indeed it takes constant innovation to stay relevant in such a competitive industry, as John highlights.

“Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, only second to oil,” he says. “It’s getting more and more specialised all the time.

“About eight to ten years ago we started roasting our own coffee and myself and Mary now go on biannual trips to Honduras and Ethiopia, the birthplaces of coffee. They are fantastic educational trips. What’s really great is you meet the people who work on the farms and really understand the growing process.”

Now synonymous with coffee in Cork, how important do Mahers believe it is for people to support local businesses? “Of course, it is important, but I believe you should only support local if it’s good enough,” John says. “You’ve got to be better than the rest of them, otherwise you won’t survive.”

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