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Why All-Star Conor Glass Decided To Bring Melbourne Café Culture To Maghera

Why All-Star Conor Glass Decided To Bring Melbourne Café Culture To Maghera
By Donny Mahoney Updated
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By anyone’s standards, Conor Glass had an insanely hectic fortnight to close out the last month.

On the 23rd of October, Glass won a Derry senior title with Glen, his second in two years since returning home to Maghera from Melbourne. He was on stage at Dublin’s Convention Centre five days later to collect a PwC All-Star for a titanic season in the trenches for Rory Gallagher’s Ulster champions.

But before any of that, Glass became a business owner. On October 16, Glass and his girlfriend Niamh O’Donnell brewed the first coffee at Cafe 3121 in Maghera, the café they now co-own. Glass got a taste for life as a professional athlete while playing for Hawthorn, but he also developed a grá for proper coffee amid Melbourne’s thriving café culture.

And after securing financing and signing a lease back in June, Glass has opened what is essentially Maghera’s first hipster coffee joint last month, just before the Derry club season peaked. It’s a bold career move for one of the most intriguing people playing intercounty GAA these days. While many GAA players prefer the path of perpetual study in order to focus fully on playing, Glass has dived headfirst into the demanding world of business ownership at the height of his powers.

His passion and ability for sport has earned him accolades and an actual living with Hawthorn. His desire to run his own business seems to burn as bright.

“I always had an interest in being my own boss and entrepreneurship. I didn't see myself going into a typical job. I obviously had the AFL professional lifestyle and that was my career for five or six years, but even before that, when I was trying to choose different subjects in school, it didn't have to be the norm.

I always find myself doing something a bit different, a bit obscure and challenging myself off the field because I felt if I challenge myself off the field it can only help myself on the field.

29 May 2022; Conor Glass of Derry lifts the Anglo Celt Cup after the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Derry and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park in Clones, Monaghan. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Glass recounted a trip to Melbourne at 16 when he first sampled Melbourne coffee culture, and the profound impact it had on him. The cafe’s name is a tribute to the postcode of Richmond, home to Melbourne's best coffee houses. Amid the high pressure environment of being an AFL player, a business idea was born. Glass says a recent conversation with his good friend and former teammate Meathman Conor Nash made him realise just how long the idea for 3121 has been incubating.

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'When I was still in the host family, I had a book called Coffee Startup and I had written out a business plan with where I wanted the cafe to go and all the things that's associated with a café startup. All the main points: footfall, parking, having a theme to the business.

I was actually talking to Conor about it last week and he was like, ‘if you can find that business plan and those pieces of paper that you wrote four years ago, that would be absolutely gold because it would reflect how much progress you’ve made.’

So I knew I wanted to run a coffee shop and I knew I wanted it to have an energy. Any successful business has to have a background and something it stands for.

But dreaming the dream and living it are different beasts, as Glass admits. The Glen man is front and centre at 3121, taking orders and making flat whites and skinny lattés, on top of doing the books and many of the less glamorous aspects of business ownership.

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It's been eye-opening.

“I had never worked a day in hospitality in my life,” he says. “All I've known since I left school was playing professional sport. I came back here and studied but that didn't give me an insight into what a typical 9-to-5 day looks like going into hospitality.

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“I have a lot of acknowledgement for people who have worked in hospitality their whole lives now because I'm going absolutely off my feet.”

Glass is not alone in running the café. His partner Niamh O'Donnell has a nutrition background and brings her own experiences of running a business. But Glass is involved in every aspect of running the café. He taught himself the barista craft over youtube and was hugely involved in the industrial design of 3121.

“In terms of Melbourne cafes, it's your industrial style cafes, whereas here, it’s more wooden. Wooden floors and wooden counters. But just me and Niamh fell in love with concrete counters. So Pinterest was where we did all of our research.”

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Maghera is not the hipster metropolis that Melbourne is, and it's been interesting trying to juggle an ideal menu with the appetites of his clientele.

“I wanted to stay away from your traditional fries, your Irish fry. But we had to get into the market and we had to get onto the menu just because there's so many people asking for it. It hurts when people order it. But it's the best seller.

But it's good because it gives the community somewhere to come. You get different people from different walks of life coming into a café and bonding or sitting over a nice cup of coffee. It’s a cool experience to have and if it's if it's done right, it's definitely enjoyable.

In opening a cafe in Maghera, Glass joins an increasingly dense network of Irish specialty coffee aficionados. He sources his coffee from a roasters a half hour away in Coleraine called Fidela. He says he’s taken sound advice from a range of people in starting 3121, including Orla Smyth, who runs the thriving Kaffe O in Belfast.

Ireland’s coffee cravings are real, on both sides of the border and Glass admits he might be a bit late to the the proper boom in cafés. It’s not just urban hipster strongholds where you can get properly caffeinated these days. The pandemic spawned scores of roadside horsebox coffee spots, and the cafés are filling a social void that pubs once filled.

Indeed, Glass is not the only GAA barista out there. Conor McKenna opened RYCO coffee house in Moy back in May. Tiernan McCann opened a coffee shop in Omagh called Alchemist.

28 October 2022; Conor Glass of Derry, left, and Cillian McDaid of Galway with their PwC All-Star awards during the PwC All-Stars Awards 2022 show at the Convention Centre in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Glass won’t link up with Derry in training for 2023 until Glen’s run in Ulster ends. But he doesn’t seem daunted by the demands of juggling business with intercounty football. which is a credit to Derry's current management team.

“With Derry and the management team we have now, they put emphasis on having balance outside of playing for Derry. Being a café owner, it's reasonable hours. We also play most weekends and train most weekends so the weekends [at work] might suffer a tiny bit. But I feel like once the time comes, you have to try to balance both. I know Rory Gallagher and Derry will help me any way they can.”

Glass returned to Ireland with huge learnings from his formative years with Hawthorn, and Glen and Derry are all the better for it. And while Melbourne may feel a world away on these soggy November days, Glass's café is bringing warmth and a bit of buzz to his own community, the Richmond way.

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