Not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, the brunch culture in Belfast has revolutionized the way we go out for food – and it is showing no signs of slowing down.
Every corner of the city is thriving with independent cafes serving up plates as aesthetically pleasing as they are delicious.
Much more than just getting a bite to eat, heading out for brunch has become as much of a social event as the classic meet-up in a pub in recent years.
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Belfast Live spoke to a number of establishments across the city to learn about brunch culture from those fueling its popularity in Northern Ireland.
One name that has become synonymous with brunching in Belfast since it burst onto the scenes seven years ago is General Merchants.
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With five locations across the city and possibly one more on the way, owner Tim Fetherston brought a new concept of daytime dining home with him when he returned to NI from Australia after 10 years.
Tim said: “Whenever I was living in Australia, I came home for a holiday just before my kid was born and I went to 5A cafe in Stranmillis and when I saw it, I thought maybe Belfast is ready for an Antipodean style of cafe which I was dreaming about when I was in Australia making money for other people.
“I moved back the next year and we set up the first General Merchants in East Belfast and we have always tried to bring that Australian level of service and quality food and coffee. When we first started off, there was nothing like it.”
Tim credits their success to his staff that General Merchants “would be nothing without” and the brand that they have worked tirelessly to create over the last number of years.
“Breakfast, brunch and lunch is where we shine,” he added.
When asked why he thinks Belfast lends itself to this new brunching culture, Tim said the shift in hospitality demands has made heading out for breakfast or lunch more accessible.
He explained: “When it comes to brunch, it’s in fashion and on-trend – it is a bit more avant-garde at the moment. People always say breakfast is the best meal of the day and whenever you are not just getting a fry or not just getting porridge, it’s a really nice way to eat.
“It’s a nice way to go on a date, family-friendly and it’s affordable compared to getting steaks when eating out.
“I think as well we’ve got really good produce here and a lot of our ingredients are local. Our food is all done in a really professional way and I think people mind paying half the money on a really good brunch than they would on dinner.”
Ian and Annette opened Roasty Toasty on Donegall Pass in February of 2020, having no idea what the next two years would have in store for them.
With their deli-style cafe, the pair aim to offer “local favorites but with a slight American flair”.
Annette said: “Opening in 2020 actually gave us a very long soft opening so we could really zero in on what our customers want.
“I am American and actually went to the Culinary Institute of America, but I still had a bit to learn about the Northern Irish market.”
She believes that the skyrocketing success of brunch in Northern Ireland over the last number of years can be credited to customers wanting more from their dining experience.
She said: “I love that brunch has become such a thing because who doesn’t love an opportunity to treat themselves. It takes away the rules of breakfast or lunch and gives everyone the freedom to eat exactly what they want when they want.
“I love the coffee and brunch culture in Belfast. Everyone really loves and respects eating local,” she explained.
“Our offering is slightly unique as we have a lovely space to sit and chill while you enjoy our coffee or brunch options, but everything is also available easily for grab and go.
“This gives our customers the freedom to take it to the park or the office or wherever they’d like really.”
Gary McIldowney, managing director of Follow Leisure, which owns brunching hotspots OUTPUT Espresso, Morning Martha and Canteen says that their “consistent quality without an ego” is what has made their establishments a go-to in the city.
Gary said: “Really good coffee is something that I am incredibly passionate about and I often found myself driving all over the city to some of the best spots Northern Ireland has to offer in search of my daily fix.
“I felt the Lisburn Road, in particular, was lacking in a good speciality coffee offering so OUTPUT was born – a food-led, coffee shop, bringing together a menu of things that were a little different that people could get excited about and want to talk about, in a relaxed social space, with friendly personable service.
“Shortly after OUTPUT, I opened Canteen and Morning Martha, applying the same formula, but realizing each differed demographic, hence the different brands, each of them have similarities in the back-of-house operations and structure but all three brands have their own unique make-up and personalities that make them different.”
Gary, who’s known for his popular venture Slim’s Healthy Kitchen, believes the unique offerings at each of his stores and the effort of his teams, past and present, has aided their success.
“Café culture in Belfast in my opinion is on par with anywhere in the world, there are a number of factors, firstly the operators who believe in the city and want to see it expand and thrive, and secondly the people in the industry.” he continued.
“Hospitality is a transient industry and it’s been hitting hard the past few years but in our case, most of our staff love the buzz that comes with hospitality, and it beats wearing a tie and working on spreadsheet 45 hours a week.
“These are the personalities that make our spots what they are.
“People often talk about places such as London being in front in terms of innovation, in my opinion, the only thing that gives them the head start is a population, for such a small place Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole having some incredibly talented creatives in food, coffee and design.”
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