All Fired Up: David McKernan and Java Republic

The story of man is as much the story of fire as it is anything else.

Legend has it that we stole it from the gods to keep us warm and to help us cook our food and make our tools. After a short time with David McKernan, I am reminded that the stories also tell how it fired the imagination and how great things followed when those first sparks fanned into flame.

David’s own theft of fire has seen him create Java Republic, the first independent to take on the main players in Ireland’s coffee market in over a hundred and fifty years. Seven years ago, he left Bewley’s and Cafe La Scala, to set up on his own, a step that proved to be a jump from one roasting hot place to another.

“I was always giving advice to people who were setting up businesses and then I just got to the stage and I said, right, I’m going to do this on my own.

I thought I’d have enough money to set the business up, that I’d be able to get the investors in and build the business and everything else. And it ended up taking me one full year before I produced one case of coffee. And I started off in September 1999 with nine people and no customers, which in hindsight was probably the wrong way to do it but it worked.”

By his own admission, David is someone who has always done things a little differently. On top of that, his years at Bewleys and his travel to Italy and the US and to the coffee-producing countries had inspired some strong feelings about coffee.

“First of all, you can drink it which is a great sensation. I’s just a great kick. It’s an amazing stimulant drink when you get used to it. It has a hugely social effect. It breaks down barriers that are naturally there in business. When somebody offers you a coffee, it’s a ritual, they bring out the coffee and the milk and the sugar and you relax.

And it’s an amazing process. It grows on a plant and you bring it back and make it into this wonderful drink. But people are still not treating coffee like fresh milk or bread. That’s the next level. In Ireland, that’s years away but it’s very much the norm in cities like San Francisco and Seattle.”

From the beginning, Java Republic has fiercely asserted its own independence. Whilst it proved well able to adopt the more measured tones of the marketplace when required, David was also prepared to attack competitors who he believed were selling both the customer and producer short. “Everything we set out to do we did, not so much true to the plan but to the values of the business: buy the highest quality, do everything you can to buy it ethically, hand roast it, spend the time on packaging, tell people what you are doing, the grade of coffee, the time, the date of roasting, everything the coffee business was against or just wouldn’t show, we did it.

We know about 80 or 90% of the people we’re buying our coffee from – the Costa Ricans, the Columbians, the Sumatrans. And we can buy coffee fairly. I don’t think people realise what it’s like over there. There’s no hospitals, no roads, no social health. It touches you when you go out there.

It’s very easy to hide back in Ireland and worry about margins and overheads and keeping the bank off your back. I think it’s very difficult to buy fairly if you’re a big commercial outfit who doesn’t give a damn about the other side of the world.”

Despite his fierce commitment to the values of Java Republic, David doesn’t rely on them alone to speak for the business. From the beginning, he has invested heavily in design and marketing in order to establish some space in the marketplace that he could own.

“People wanted something different. They loved the packaging, they loved the taste. All we did was build a brand. How we did it sometimes I don’t know. But I do know the base was set right and we didn’t compromise.

You can market to death but the bottom line is that you’ve got to be true to what you’re talking about. It comes from the top. If you don’t believe in it, it will never fizzle down to the people around you. You’ve got to believe you’re making great coffee and if you’ve got a bunch of like-minded people then it just makes it a little easier to grow your business.

Like all those who steal fire from the gods, David and Java Republic now face the challenge of growing bigger whilst trying to remain true to their independent spirit. David is acutely aware that he’s walking a very fine line.

“It’s taken five years to build the best team the company has ever seen and that’s probably one of the reasons we grew by 30% last year and this year looks like the same.

But we don’t do clocks, we don’t do hanging signs. I don’t like hearing that we’re everywhere because our brand is very strong. I was told recently that we have 20% market share in Dublin. And that doesn’t feel right for us. It’s getting close to second place. I don’t want to be first place and I certainly don’t want to be second place. I want to be Java Republic.”

From where I’m sitting, David and his team have put so much space between Java Republic and the others that there’s no mistaking the place he’s in. He’s simply created a world of his own.