Silverskin roasters is wedged in a nondescript unit in a busy industrial estate in Glasnevin. Behind the shuttered door you are hit first by the sweet aroma of coffee, then you’re hit by the scale of the space, “we’re waiting on a quad seal vertical packing machine, it’s currently being shipped over from China,” says Brian Kenny, founder of Silverskin. Brian loves to geek out when it comes to coffee. The warehouse is scattered with gadgets, a white board that displays a diagram that looks like a scientific formula, “that’s not to say I understand it all,” he laughs. But he obviously does know his coffee as he has been working in the business for about two decades.
His first job in a coffee roastery aged 16
His first coffee job was with Bewleys, an Irish tea and coffee company that was founded in 1870. “I started the day before Valentines when I was sixteen because I wanted to buy a gift for someone!” That spontaneous decision led to him working at Bewleys for over a decade. “I was really fortunate that while I was there they built a huge roaster. It was a new concept machine by Probat. One day there was a lot of tall German engineers in their blue dungarees! I started to hang out with them and ask them loads of questions because immediately I loved the look of the machine.” He took everything in as they tested it and it was from that point his deep interest in coffee roasting started.
After spending so many years with Bewleys he felt that it was time to move on. “One of the biggest regrets I have is that when I finished school, I started work. I never went to college.” He enrolled in a business and marketing course and completed it even though he found it a tough adjustment.
His next coffee job after college was with Java Republic, a maternity cover position. “I’ve come to realise that if you’ve worked somewhere for so long there will be a definite period of uncertainty.” It took his wife to re-focus him, she said to him, “the only thing you ever talk about passionately is coffee. It’s the only thing you ever light up about. You’re talking about doing all this other stuff, so if you’re going to give something a bash just go and do it.” The other stuff being his desire to roast and serve his own coffee. “The biggest thing I wanted to do was hand my cup of coffee to someone. I think everybody who’s starting out in coffee has that same desire. I just wanted to serve coffee to people,” he smiles.
Launching his coffee-shop
His lucky break came when the recession hit. He bought himself a small roaster and started roasting his own coffee and rented the iconic kiosk in Ballsbridge. “A lot of it is timing, luck, circumstances, and external forces that at the time you don’t realise. The kiosk was the most expensive building in the country for its size but when the recession hit I could afford to rent it.” One other success factor that Brian didn’t cite is his spontaneous trait, most people would of walked away from the kiosk due to the amount of work it required but Brian didn’t think of that when he took it, he just was drawn to the building. “It was completely destroyed when I got to it. It had been derelict for years.”
The kiosk was hard work. It was too small to have a toilet so he had to close the café every time he needed to use the toilet at the hotel across the road, “which invariably led to customers asking where was I when they wanted a coffee.” But the small space meant that the overheads were small and it quickly began to become a sound business financially, but he’s keen to emphasize the hard graft he put into the kiosk over the four years he worked out there. “I’m not exaggerating but when I got married, I left work on Friday at 5PM, got married Saturday, and was back at work Monday morning. To be honest with you I was almost petrified to close the place for a day. I was afraid, in case nobody would ever come back. With hindsight, I probably should have relaxed a bit.”
A PR coup
He contributes a lot of the increased customer base to a promotional idea that he had during that time. “I did something very clever, I’ve gotta take the credit for it! I bought Kopi Luwak coffee, which is really frowned upon because of the treatment of the animals, but not so at the time. For publicity, I bought it and I sold it. I was on national radio and national newspapers as a result. I feel like I put the kiosk back on the map. The most expensive little shed in the world selling the most expensive coffee! It was a stroke of genius but it was guess work.” From that tactic emerged more loyal customers, “I know some people believe that social media can grow your business but for me it was the ability to have a face to face chat with my customers.” Brian is brimming with enthusiasm for coffee and is excited to guide and teach people more about it. The kiosk was a perfect platform for him to do that.
“The kiosk paid for this,” he says as he points to the larger roaster in the middle of the roastery. This is where I wanted to end up.” Starbucks forced his hand somewhat by taking them out of the kiosk but he was ready to move on to roasting coffee for wholesale customers. Brian’s always been obsessed with the roasting process of coffee. He’s delighted to be back to where he started in his coffee journey but this time it’s his coffee that he is roasting. He named his company Silverskin because, “anybody who roasts coffee or is in the industry knows what Silverskin is. It’s the protective layer that’s on a green bean. And when you roast it, it goes to the bottom of a chimney in what is called a chaff bin, or a silverskin bin.” In a ode to his love of education he adds, “I wanted the name of the company to mean something. I like when you learn something from a name.”
Starbucks nudged him to return to roasting
Silverskin Roasters came into being in March of this year, “so we’re at the bottom of the ladder again,” says Brian. But he’s undaunted, he knows to play to his strength which is training, “I love dealing with people. We bring people in and talk to them for maybe two hours about espresso. We make coffee really user friendly. There is a lot of science around coffee.” Even though he loves the scientific aspect of coffee he is keenly aware that it can be a barrier to many so he wants to make it more approachable. Brian now sees his role as making things simple for the barista. “We want them to leave our training having made their job be easier, not more difficult,” he smiles.