BeanScene Magazine

Colin Harmon of 3fe’s next chapter

From the August 2017 issue.
Colin Harmon of 3fe’s next chapter

Colin Harmon of 3fe is a successful barista and businessman with an eye for detail, but what does he really know about running coffee shops? We find out ahead of his Australian tour.

As a kid, Colin Harmon wanted to be a star football player, a chef, and a journalist. Colin is none of those things, but oddly enough through his 10-year coffee career, he’s managed to achieve those ambitions in a coincidental way.

“I got to represent my country in front of hundreds of spectators in the World Barista Championship (WBC), I’ve just put two commercial kitchens into my cafés, and I’ve written my first book. So, in many ways coffee has given me the avenue to achieve all of my early ambitions,” Colin says.

Colin’s first taste of hospitality was flipping burgers at Dublin’s Grafton Street McDonald’s at age 15, followed by cafés and bar work during his university days, studying business and law. When he finished his undergraduate study, Colin worked in financial services until he grew restless and went back to the one job that made him happy – hospitality.

He started serving coffee during the day in a nightclub lobby called The Twisted Pepper in 2009. As business grew, he went from serving 50 cups a day to 150, and gradually opened another three cafés under the now world-renowned 3fe empire (Grand Canal Street and Sussex Terrace remain).

Colin admits running a business – and his case multiple – is challenging. He’s sidestepped a few disasters unknowingly, and he knows his career could easily have gone in a different direction.

“When you open a business, all bets are off. Sure, I understand the economic theory of businesses, cash blow, balancing etc., but a two-year business degree is no use whatsoever. There are so many things you’re not prepared for,” Colin says. “I had to get my head around the idea I could run a profitable business but still run out of money.”

In the early days, Colin found himself struggling financially. The idea to close his business seemed his only solution, until his father Leo gave him a dose of reality.

“He asked me how much I was in debt. I said €200 to €300, which I now realise wasn’t much. He said, ‘I’ll lend you the money.’ I was so used to transferring billions of euros every day in my former finance work, yet I couldn’t see past the debt in my own situation. It was a good lesson,” Colin says. “Things would have been much worse if I’d had an established business with a $20,0000 debt and 80 staff.”

When things are at their worst, Colin has some simple advice he swears by.

“I’m an optimist. I tell myself: ‘it looks impossible, but you’ve reached the point where everyone pulls out and turns back.’ But you can pull though and keep going. Even if you don’t know how you will get through it, you somehow will,” he says.

Colin has come out relatively unscathed from coffee-shop ownership. He has 45 staff to look after, three coffee shops, with a fourth on the way, equipment machine sales, an online shop, and a masters in business to complete – on top of three kids under five (Oscar, four, Dallan, three, and Bóinn, six weeks). “I’m so grateful for what I have. My work is a privilege, not a job. I know I’m very fortunate and I never take it for granted,” he says.

Colin understands that for others, business ownership can be a “stressful, deflating nightmare”. He is constantly approached by people interested in opening their own café. While it’s been a great way for him and many others to make a living, he warns others to go into business with their eyes wide open.

“The reality is a lot different to the perception. Cleaning toilets, plumbing sinks, staffing issues, it’s all part of being a coffee shop owner,” he says. “Many people see business ownership as the next progressive step from being a barista, but it doesn’t have to be. I always ask people why they love going to cafés. If it’s because you love the coffee, the atmosphere and talking to people, keep doing it. Your opinion on why you love a café will change when you transition from customer to business owner. Trust me.”

If you don’t, read Colin’s new book, titled What I Know About Running Coffee Shops. His first novel is a compilation of “months of conversations” with himself about the topics and thoughts that matter to him as a business owner.

“It’s a tool for young baristas and hospitality professionals who don’t have a great understanding of running a café. It’s for those who want to open their own coffee show, and those that already have,” Colin says. “Of course, each country has its own specific requirements, but from all the tours and countries I’ve visited like Australia, Hong Kong and America, the issues and questions about running a café are the same.”

Unlike structuring a WBC routine (Colin competed in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013), Colin approached his first novel in a rather unorthodox yet effective manner.

“On my way home from work I’d be stuck in Dublin traffic for 30 minutes to an hour, so I’d record myself talking about random business topics and email it to myself. Then when I’d get home I’d get the kids to bed, take 20 minutes to type out what I’d said, and sleep on it. The next morning I’d proof it and send it to the editor.”

Those topics formed Colin’s chapters: delivery drivers – the unsung heroes, 50-cent security – a cheap thief deterrent, toilets – a gruesome reality, coffee – briefly, and how to hire staff – why no coffee experience is necessary.


This article features in the August 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine.

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Colin Harmon will tour Australia from 4 to 7 September as part of Toby’s Estate’s Knowledge Talks. Click here to purchase tickets to the event.

Colin’s Knowledge Talks Tour:

Monday 4 September, 6.00pm to 8.00pm
Blacksmith, 460 Beaufort Street, Highgate

Tuesday 5 September, 6.00pm to 8.00pm
Lightspace, 2 Scanlan Street, Fortitude Valley

Wednesday 6 September, 6.00pm to 8.00pm
Toby's Estate, 325 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

Thursday 7 September, 6.00pm to 8.00pm
Toby’s Estate, 4/29-33 Bourke Road, Alexandria

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