Meet Rachel Snowden, Founder of Napoleon

Recently, we welcomed Napoleon to our Ormeau Baths family who we're very excited to have fuelling our coffee love and addictions. We caught up with Rachel to find out more about the story behind Napoleon (including the name) and her wise words to business owners, particularly those aspiring to open a business mid-pandemic as she's done with bringing Napoleon to life in all of its glory.

What inspired you to start Napoleon?

I've always had the ambition to set up my own place someday and I guess I fell in love with coffee shops during my teenage years. My first job was working in a cafe and the social side of hospitality has been a passion since then. Having dabbled in other career areas, something has always drawn me back to hospitality - you can be ambitious and have a successful career in this industry.

In 2014, I began to discover speciality coffee, around the time a new wave of independent cafes began opening in Belfast. It’s lovely to see and support a collection of local cafes - each place brings something special to the scene and over the past few years Belfast has really become a special destination for speciality cafes.  Being able to set up and create space for people to enjoy and be part of that wider coffee community has always been something I’ve strived to be part of someday.

What’s the story behind the name?

Our cafe concept was built through a love of travelling and exploring the culture in other cities. When we were finally in a position to make our dream a reality, we sat in an Amsterdam cocktail bar to finalise the name for our cafe. For years we had used Napoleon as the codename. Despite a long list of alternative naming options, we kept returning to Napoleon, which had taken on new meaning as the cafe idea we developed through our travels. Napoleon is our realisation of the cafe culture we love and we hope to share that meaning with our guests.

How do you stay focused and motivated throughout the day?

I think finding a job you love and immersing yourself in that environment helps to keep you focused on doing what you love doing best. Hospitality is a fast-paced environment so you always need to be prepared to stay motivated for the unexpected or the busy rushes throughout the day. We want the cafe to always deliver excellent quality food, coffee and service so being able to see the result of that when customers return or recommend us to a friend keeps us motivated and passionate about what we do. Drinking coffee always helps too!

From a career/business standpoint, who has been your biggest influence?

Coffee is always about community so it’s been a collective of people at particular times of my career, as opposed to one person. Whether it is those running a successful business, to working alongside incredible colleagues and training staff who share the same enthusiasm for the coffee and hospitality industry. They’ve all influenced me to be determined to keep learning and to set myself new goals and inspirations. That experience has been so valuable in learning many lessons.

What’s your go-to coffee order?

Can’t beat a good flat white first thing in the morning.

In times of struggle or stress, what motivates you to keep working?

I think my other half and business partner Matthew. He not only is continuing his full-time job working from home as a Data Scientist but helps with a lot of behind the scene work with the cafe too. Starting a business in a pandemic has been super exciting but also very challenging and his support through has kept me motivated. You’ll spot him in the cafe often early in the morning times and at weekends helping me out - I’ll have him trained as a world-class Barista in no time, ha!

What excites you most about your role?

How dynamic the coffee industry can be. No two days are the same, you always come across new people, concepts and ideas. There are many advantages (and challenges) to small businesses but being able to build relationships with customers and get to know people on a personal level. It’s lovely seeing people enjoy what you've created and taking the time to share the cafe space with friends and family.

What’s the biggest lesson lockdown taught you about business?

Don’t give up. That honestly I can relate to - having had a bit of a whirlwind year there had been setbacks at times which leaves you questioning your options and ambitions. I think all of us have probably experienced that feeling at some point, but it’s important to stay focussed and not to let things stop you from what you want to achieve.

What habits have you adopted to stay positive during lockdown/through the pandemic?

Lockdown has been the strangest of times for us all. I’d spent most of my time on furlough/shielding so it gave me time to appreciate the little things whilst having to stay at home. Often in my role, it’s been so busy that you sometimes forget to really stop, take time out and more importantly, rest. I also saw having that time off as an opportunity to finally learn some new skills that I kept meaning to do “someday”. So from online courses, yoga, new languages, learning a few tunes on guitar, to perfecting some recipes from the many, many cookbooks that I own. It also gave me time to continue to dream and scheme up ideas to hopefully start up something someday. Once restrictions lifted, I found a new love for exploring and spending time outdoors and we now try to incorporate that into our days off from the cafe on a Sunday - it’s a nice reset button to stay refreshed and prepare for the week ahead.

What are your biggest goals for the remainder of 2020?

We want to continue to expand our offering and cater for breakfast and lunch options. We’re starting to trial food through collaboration with our friends at Humble Pie. In the longer term, we hope to bring food production in house to be able to offer something unique to the Linen Quarter. This will also enable us to create job roles and to grow and develop an exciting team at Napoleon.

What’s one resource (book/podcast etc) that has had an impact on your approach to business/your career?

Ah there’s definitely been more than one I could recommend. For anyone interested in starting a cafe I’d really recommend reading any of the books by John Richardson and Hugh Gilmartin. Having travelled to coffee exhibitions over the years I’ve went to many talks John Richardson gave - he’s originally from here but works across the water running a coffee consultancy business and his advice and experience has been very useful. Colin Harmon from 3FE brought out a book “What I Know About Running Coffee Shops”, having many years experience in setting up a speciality coffee business his advice is perfect for anyone wanting to start in the industry.

If you could pick up a new skill in an instant what would it be?

Patisserie baking would be useful and tasty. I’m not bad at baking, but patisserie would take it up a few technical notches!

What advice would you give business owners right now?

The “rule book” has had a massive shakeup over the past few months for the hospitality industry - what works before doesn’t often work now. I think it’s important to see that as an opportunity to reimagine your business and get creative. Try to think outside the box and experiment but keep a focus on maintaining your bottom line. We’re all in this together at the moment so it’s important to show support to each other and try to help out where possible.