A Belfast Blog meets: Simon Maccabe
A Belfast Blog caught up with Simon Maccabe, founder and owner of ‘Cafe Smart’ on Belmont Road in East Belfast. Alongside the excellent coffee, and hard-to-beat smoked salmon bagels, our initial interest in Cafe Smart was its collection of fine art, and in particular the work of Simon’s grandmother, renowned artist Gladys Maccabe. Gladys was predominantly a painter of people, with much of her work depicting crowd scenes. She was also a fashion journalist, deeply entwined in the creative lives of her peers, and founder of the Ulster Society of Women Artists. Gladys is now 97, and continued working well into her 90s. Her grandson Simon tells us about her, as well as the contemporary Belfast he now experiences.
How would you describe Belfast, to someone who has never visited?
Belfast is an up and coming city which has everything to offer. Great home grown food & restaurants, history, arts with wonderful scenery and great outdoors to top it all off. A city which has been through a conflict past but is catching up fast as being one of Europe’s most exciting cosmopolitan city breaks.
If there’s one thing someone visiting should see/do/read this year – what would it be?
Visit Newcastle Co. Down. I have travelled a lot in my life, from the garden route in South Africa to the grand canyon in Arizona and still find it hard to match the beauty of Newcastle with its coastlines and the Mourne mountains – all only 40 minutes drive from Belfast. As a keen golfer. I was also very pleased to see the Royal County Down recently voted the world’s best golf course. I played it the other week and even with the temperature at zero degrees and sideways rain it was an exceptional experience. I might be slightly biased as my wife grew up there and her parents are still from Newcastle plus my grandmother Gladys now lives in Newcastle, but if I was visiting Northern Ireland for the first time I would put Newcastle to the top of my itinerary.
Do you have a favourite place (in Belfast)?
My favourite place of late in Belfast has been Stormont Estate for a brisk walk. I grab a take away Americano from Cafe Smart, load the family and dog into the car and clear the head around the lovely grounds, of course finishing up in the play park for my 2½-year-old Charlotte who just loves it.
I had always wanted to open up an eatery/cafe, incorporating art and my grandmother’s connection.
Where do you consider home?
Belfast is my home. I spent the first 20 years of my life in South Belfast before setting up in business and getting married to Victoria and then for the past 10 years East Belfast has been our home and it has been amazing to watch the transformation of certain areas of the East over this time.
What are you working on right now?
We recently had our second daughter Jessica, who is 4 months old, and a great sister for our eldest daughter Charlotte. We also moved house last year, so family life keeps us very busy as we are trying to decorate our house as much as we can ourselves – but DIY is proving harder than I thought when I have 3 girls looking for my attention after a day’s work. We also just launched a new menu at Cafe Smart which kept us busy in planning and we are now working hard on launching our outside catering outlet “Street Smart” which will be a more mobile version of I Smart coming into play this year.
What led you to decide to set up Cafe Smart?
I had always wanted to open up an eatery/cafe, incorporating art and my grandmother’s connection. I had enjoyed business all my life, and I was an estate agent in East Belfast and got to know the area very well and began to love it. However, I was amazed at how there were so many eateries, cafes, restaurants etc. thriving in other parts of the city but not too many in East Belfast. So I felt there was a definite niche for what we had to offer in the area. The recession then began and I was made redundant from the estate agents which, although difficult at the time, I treated this as a real push and a sign to go for it. With the support of my (now) wife Victoria that’s what we did.
Was the location an important factor in choosing the space?
We knew that the location was to be East Belfast and looked at a few properties but nothing compared to 56 Belmont Road. We loved the building with its two-story mezzanine and its top-of-the-hill corner site – it fitted the model of exactly what we wanted to do. From the days we got the keys, we have been so welcomed by fellow traders and local residents and just love the local community. We couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
What are you most proud of about Cafe Smart?
We are most proud of its longevity and its family friendly approach. We are a husband and wife team who work hands on all year round in every aspect of the business and are proud to be employers to our super hard working staff and seeing our regular customers return time and time again.
What is Cafe Smart’s most effective promotional technique?
We advertise in local adverts regularly and are keen users of social media – mainly Faceboo, Instagram etc. – which are tremendous and even better because they are free. But the best promotional technique in our line of work is word of mouth. People will tell others, friends and family fast if they like or dislike a place or if they had a good or bad experience, so as long as we keep working hard at offering a good service, hopefully the word of mouth promotion will be good and Cafe Smart can continue.