Business with a buzz

INTERVIEW WITH PADRAIC CONROY, MD, Coma Wine & Coffee

Whether it’s a quality coffee to kick-start our day or a smooth glass of wine at the end of it, Padraic Conroy has it covered.

As MD and wine/coffee importer for Coma Wine & Coffee, Padraic is using his decades of business acumen to offer wholesalers and the public a dizzily eclectic range of wines and coffees at very competitive prices.

From his 15,000 sq ft premises in Galway’s Briarhill Business Park, Padraic does business with a caffeine-loaded buzz that exemplifies his approach to life.

“I ran Coma for 25 years from my family’s Adare Guest House in Father Griffin Road as a purely wholesale business. My mother Kay was from Adare, but as a former board member of Ireland West Tourism, worked tirelessly to promote Galway.

The name Coma is a blend of Padraic’s surname and that of Sergio Magnetti, owner of Magnetti Trattoria in Quay Street, who was an original business partner.

“Now, we trade with each other – he stocks my Italian wines and I use the Magnetti pasta products in my restaurant.”

Padraic and Sergio met while working in Údarás na Gaeltachta in the 1980s. With a strong desire for self-employment, Padraic believed that his financial skills could be combined successfully with Sergio’s expertise in wine.

“Since the day I left accountancy I have made it my business to learn everything there is to know about wine, and I’m still learning today”.

“When I first saw this building I knew it would be perfect for a warehouse, shop and café/restaurant. At the moment weekdays are busier than weekends, but with DID Electrical moving into the business park at the end of September, I expect a lot more traffic, which will be good for all businesses here.”

Grows his own herbs for the café

Most unusually for an MD, Padraic takes a huge interest in his premises, outside and in, and as a keen gardener, plants his own trees, shrubs and even herbs on-site.

“I planted a variety of herbs that the café uses every day in the cooking, from lavender to bay leaves. My daughter Ciara, who has just qualified as a Montessori teacher, is working here at the moment. The café staff ensures that everything is fresh and healthy, with no junk food on the menu.”

The beauty of Coma’s wines is that they are entirely selected by Padraic and are imported direct from the world’s vineyards, affording customers substantial savings.

“I have a personal working relationship with every one of my vineyard owners, having visited all of them. At one time I covered five continents in six months to source my wines.

“What’s also worth noting is that our business is keeping other people in business around the world. For instance, one of the South African companies we deal with, Little River, is a small, family farm, producing 16,000 cases of wine per year, which is a tiny share of the market. Coma buys half of that production, helping them to invest in their own business.

“They used our last cheque to purchase their first fork-lift truck. Up until then they had to hand-load the cases of wine onto trucks. Also, we deal direct with wine producers, paying ethical rates of pay.”

Coma’s wines typically are sourced from Chile, Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Sparkling wines include French Champagnes, Italian Proseccos and Spanish Cavas.

“Chilean wines are still Ireland’s most popular. As a wine producing country Chile learned very quickly from other countries and uses high-end equipment and manufacturing processes to produce a consistently high quality product.

“Spain has also turned its wine business around in recent years; so much so that the house wine in Ashford Castle Hotel is one of our Spanish. The Spanish region of Ribera del Duero is producing fabulous wines, which certainly impressed members of the Connacht rugby team, when we were out there this year.”

New Zealand is another country that greatly impresses Padraic, and he uniquely imports from an Irish connection.

‘All our wines tell a story’

“Joseph Ryan Wines, with the Celtic logo on the label, have an interesting history. Joe Ryan junior, a descendant of the original Joseph Ryan from Tipperary, wanted to distribute to Ireland, but knew no importer. He asked Warren Gatland for advice, he recommended me and we’ve been doing business ever since.”

Currently two-thirds of Coma’s business is in wine and one-third in coffee.

“Coffee attracts no taxation, VAT or duty, unlike wine, which is heavily taxed in Ireland. Because I import direct I can offer top quality wines at below market prices, such as our ‘4 for €20’ selections.”

Padraic believes strongly in up-skilling his 12 staff to ensure they can represent all facets of the business.

“I have taken several of my staff to the vineyards of Italy, Spain and France, so that they can speak with authority to customers on our wines. One of my staff, Pat Lally is a former sommelier and headwaiter with Ashford Castle Hotel. He’s very knowledgeable and helps me select quality wines.”

Attending trade shows is standard business practice, but Padraic recently staged his own.

“We held a hugely successful wholesale trade show for our wine and coffee in the Clayton Hotel. Wine is serious business, and unlike social wine tastings, tasters use the spittoon, which is the correct way to taste wine. Coffee should also be tasted in this way, cold from a spoon.”

Wine tasting is essential business research, so last year, when the Argentinean navy boat Libertas docked in Galway, Padraic took his entire staff on-board for a private tasting of Argentinean wines, and went on to secure the agency for these.

“We launched the three Argentinean wines in Foxford, Co Mayo, to celebrate the connection with Admiral Michael Brown, a Foxford man who is famous in Argentina for having founded the Argentinean navy.”

Although a Galway man, Padraic heads to Mayo to indulge his passion for fishing, baiting with his own milk-fed garden worms.

Passion for rugby, fishing and gardening

“I’ve a house near Mount Falcon from where I fish for salmon on the Moy. I also have a boat on the Corrib, which has been used by three generations of Conroys. My father, former Garda Pat Conroy, who died last year, fished. Now my own son Colin fishes with me, and I’m proud to say is also playing rugby with the Connacht Academy – another passion of mine.

“I’ve been actively involved at many levels with Galwegians over the years. I raised funds and took many of the youngsters on overseas tours, and we now have 600 young guys coming through the academy now, which is encouraging.”

The coffee side to Padraic’s business also carries its own interesting story. Although Coma distributes a range of brands, it is the sole Irish agent for Lucaffé. Padraic emphasises that this is a high quality product using mostly the superior Arabica beans, which are grown at high altitudes, and contain low levels of caffeine.

“Luca Venturelli started up the business at 16 years of age from the back of his father’s house – in the same way that I started Coma Wines from my parents’ guesthouse. Luca exports all Lucaffé coffee to 43 countries from his factory near Brescia. From a small start, his turnover last year was a hefty €10 million.

“Luca is a larger-than-life character who drove to Ireland to find an agent for his coffee. Knowing no-one, he stuck a pin in the coffee importers section of the Golden Pages, and it landed on my business. He couldn’t reach me by phone, so he got into his car and drove to Galway to seek me out personally. Within five minutes of meeting him I knew we could do business, and we set up the Irish agency. What is edifying is that Luca also trades ethically with coffee farmers, paying above the required rates, which fits in with our own approach to wine producers.”

Lucaffé is distributed nationally to shops, forecourts, cafés and restaurants to feed Ireland’s insatiable appetite for our increasingly favourite ‘pick-me-up’. High visibility point-of-sale units offering Lucaffé coffee and Barry’s tea catch the eye and are proving a winner. Padraic also distributes Lucaffé to his wine-exporting partners based in Argentina, South Africa and Sydney.

Free coffee for Pierce Brosnan’s wedding

Impressively, Coma supplied for free, and at very short notice, all the coffee needed to service Pierce Brosnan’s 24-hour wedding party at Ashford Castle Hotel.

“Coffee-to-go is huge and we have many retail outlets changing over to Lucaffé, as customers demand a higher quality product. A number of retail outlets in Galway alone have assured us that their sales of take-away coffee have rocketed since changing to Lucaffé.”

Lucaffé comes in six different blends, and uniquely, offers coffee pods as well as beans and ground coffee. The pod concept, devised by Luca Venturelli, is revolutionising coffee drinking. Single doses of ground, roasted coffee are pre-wrapped in bio-degradable packaging for complete freshness, and are ready to be popped directly into specialist coffee machines.

Being the sole agent in Ireland for La Scala coffee-making machines, means that Coma can supply the entire package of equipment and products into any hotel or restaurant. Coma can also service all equipment from its dedicated workshop, and provides training on-site by its product development manager Eoin O’Ceallaigh, who is a barista (coffee sommelier ) trainer.

Coma’s coffee machines range from domestic to professional, starting from the very affordable €99 Petra coffee/tea-maker, all the way up to the sophisticated La Scala Carmen, costing several thousand euro. The Lucaffé collection of coffees is complemented by its own range of merchandise that includes hand-designed crockery and accessories. All Coma products, including wine, coffee, tea, hampers, gifts and wedding products can be ordered direct from its website (www.coma.ie ).

With so many varied interests competing for his time, Padraic has little left for more passive pursuits, but does enjoy reading biographies.

“I’ve just finished Barack Obama’s and am about to start Oliver Cromwell’s. I’m not sure whether either have, or had a taste for wine or coffee, but I’ll certainly be enjoying both”, he laughs.

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