HomeMerchant StoriesThe Barn Owl: The Local Choice for Soul-Soothing Coffee, Wholesome Food and All-Round Good Vibes

The Barn Owl: The Local Choice for Soul-Soothing Coffee, Wholesome Food and All-Round Good Vibes

The Barn Owl Coffee is making its mark all over KZN with three beautiful locations. The brain behind the business, Ryan Solomon, takes us through how his vision for The Barn Owl Coffee manifested into what’s before him today.

The Barn Owl: The Local Choice for Soul-Soothing Coffee, Wholesome Food and All-Round Good Vibes

For Ryan Solomon, one of our Real Mzansi Makers*, it’s all about living a life of purpose, being rooted in nature and having a passion for people.

What started as a mobile coffee shop is now three locations scattered across KwaZulu-Natal. It’s easy to see why people far and wide are flocking to The Barn Owl. Yummy food, breath-taking views and a serene ambience to soothe your soul – The Barn Owl has it all.

We’ve chatted with Ryan before at his first location in Florida Road and recently met with him at his third premises at the Mitchell Park Tennis Club. Here’s what he had to say about building a business, living a creative life and coming as you are.

What is it about coffee that gets you really excited?

It’s the same thing I’ve maintained from the beginning. It’s just about the social catalyst that it is. I’ve grown to love the drink itself, more at home than at the cafes. I obsess about it. But it’s the social side of it. People use coffee as a reason to meet and that’s really my attraction to it.

How would you define Durban coffee culture and how it’s developed since you’ve been in the industry?

I remember my first ever coffee business. It started in 2015 and it was just a thing on the side while I had a corporate job. We were doing latte art at events, and no one had seen latte art before. So, as early as 2015 to now, there has been such a big change.

I think Durban has a lot going for it. I think we’re greater than we give ourselves credit for. Maybe it’s a little tougher here. We don’t have the market or a base of consumers, so we’ve got to work a little bit harder. But I think we’ve got a good thing going and I think the progression is positive. We’re moving in the right direction.

What was it that made you pursue entrepreneurship?

It was all my dad. My dad had this saying: Less haste, more speed. And I was always rushing around. I climbed the corporate ladder pretty quickly and I had a really good job in Pretoria. But I had no purpose.

I sat in traffic one December and I thought, “this is wasting my life”.

And I didn’t really know why I was doing it. A series of things happened but I knew that I needed to make a change. Working for myself felt like the only option to have freedom – to do what I wanted to do. It’s not about money. I want purpose.

It’s incredible that you’ve now expanded into three locations. What has that journey been like?

It’s been way more complicated than I expected. I think more than anything, when you do mobile events, you have a lot more control, like it’s just 1-on-1. But as you scale, you have to rely a lot more on the team, you have to lean on them quite a bit. A lot more things are out of your control and that’s a difficult thing for a person like me to relinquish. I’ve got a drive for quality and it’s really difficult to maintain when you’re not there. So, that’s obviously the biggest challenge.

And also financially, it’s expensive. It’s expensive to open shops and we’re all self-funded. We’ve had to take lots of risks. We’ve gone from reasonably small and financially stable to 3 bigger shops. Lots of moving parts, lots of things that can go wrong. And still a brand to protect. But, all in all, the transition has been natural. It was time, it was time to go to the next shop. It hasn’t ever felt forced or rushed. So, I think we’re on the right path.

You won the Best Café Design 2021. What is it that makes a coffee shop a great coffee shop (besides the coffee)?

I think about this a lot actually. I think it’s one of the hardest things to get right. It’s the atmosphere, the environment. It’s something that’s not tangible, it’s not something that you can necessarily manipulate. It has to be intentional. And I go a lot with gut, like what it feels like rather than what the rules are. It’s all about what feels right. It makes the process a little bit more difficult, but it feels right.

I’ve researched it and there’s a term called biophilic design, which I think I relate to. It’s got to do with creating natural spaces. It feels very natural. You’re sitting under the trees. There’s a breeze, there’s shadows. There’s that kind of thing. That’s biophilic and that’s how I created coffee shops. It’s spaces I want to be in.

What’s a coffee shop deal breaker?

Late nights. Late nights are not worth it. I don’t want to deal with trouble at night. I’m happy to go home. My day ends at 4pm. What I do after that is up to me. And that, I really value.

What inspired your mostly vegetarian-based menu?

We're trying to be as inclusive as possible and our community here is diverse. We don't want to eliminate anybody. So, we try to be as inclusive as possible. As paradoxical as that sounds, going veg in the beginning has allowed us to have a diverse range of clients. We will evolve to meats, but not right now.

Where do you source most of your vegetables and coffee from?

We have so many really good suppliers and producers in the Midlands. Over time, we’ve found the people who we really value and enjoy working with and just coincidentally, a lot of them happen to be in the Midlands. Their morals align with ours, like producing quality products. It’s not about how much money they make. I don’t necessarily drive margins and try to get the cheapest product.

We choose the product based on the quality and the people that we have to work with. Our cream cheese, actually all our dairy, comes from the Midlands. We’re very careful about that. We’ve built good relationships with people in the Midlands. And their quality is outstanding so we’ll continue to support them.

How do you measure success and what does it mean to you?

In a very strange way, the reason I have coffee shops is so that I can be paid to be creative. To apply creative things, to build new spaces, to meet new people, to interact with interesting people, you learn a lot. That’s the point of it I guess, that’s the purpose: to be creative.

I mean, I didn’t grow up with that opportunity. Growing up, it wasn’t about being creative. You needed to be good at maths and science. You needed to get a job, buy a house and have kids. When I was 29, I had a change and I thought it’s time to be creative. There’s no masterplan or curated strategy. Just take it day by day, week by week. Enjoy the process.

How do you think your business makes life better for the people of Mzansi?

That’s just something that's really important: to be as inclusive as possible. It's not trying to exclude any demographic or any wealth category. And to do that, we need to be super down to earth. We're not trying to be bougie or fancy.

My own internal motto is come as you are. We do not judge, come as you are. And as a result, we find a really broad spectrum of people that come to us. Very wealthy, average people, people without so much money, all races, all ages. I think it's quite a difficult thing to do, to cater to anybody.

But I think the ease of the shops and the comfort that you feel makes it feel very inclusive and I suppose then it's a mix of communities. I've never been involved in as many communities in my life since I started a coffee business. I'm very grateful for the experience and I think that to have created a business that is as inclusive as it is, it feels really good.

A Real Mzansi Maker Through and Through

The Barn Owl success story is one that resonates with all business owners far and wide. Isn’t this what all entrepreneurs crave? The opportunity to live a life of purpose, one that allows you to do what you love every day and inspires others to do the same.

If you’re on the lookout for a cool hangout in KZN, be sure to add the Barn Owl to your list. Food for your belly and food for your soul – what more can one ask for?

Don’t forget to check them out on socials for your daily dose of sunshine and good vibes:

Instagram: @thebarnowlcoffee

Facebook: The Barn Owl Coffee

*A Real Mzansi Maker: A small business owner who makes Mzansi, Mzansi.