Not that we like to see people leave Belfast, but the 10 years Tim Fetherston spent in Melbourne are paying dividends for Belfast foodies right now.
Tim is the head chef at General Merchants – one of East Belfast’s most popular places to eat, drink and socialise, a vibe he’s been able to successfully recreate from his days Down Under with the help of some key business partners.
Tim owns the business alongside Curt Wigham and Sam Alexander from 5A cafe at Stranmillis and they’ve recently welcomed another business partner on board, in the rather considerable shape of Ulster Rugby’s Robbie Diack.
General Merchants Cafe opened in June 2015 in the upper reaches of the thriving Ballyhackamore district and while the owners are happy for it to be called a cafe, it’s so much more than that.
It’s a bustling community, it’s a place where you can get food unlike you’ve ever tasted before cooked to order, it’s place where you can get a quality cup of coffee, it’s conceptual, it’s vibrant, it’s relaxing, and it’s got a model of BB-8 on display for those in need of a Star Wars fix.
Tim explained how General Merchants came about and plans for expansion to a new location in Belfast.
He said: “One of the times I was home in Northern Ireland from Australia I visited Curt and Sam in 5A. I was blown away by what they’d created.
“We got talking, some drink was taken, and they asked me if I’d move back home and try to create the Australian vibe of cafe in Belfast. It did get me thinking about moving home and opening up a business. Emails were exchanged, some more drink was taken and in the end I came home and started the business with Curt and Sam. ”
He added: “I lived out in Melbourne for nearly 10 years and that’s where my partner is from. It was a big decision to come home and start up a business. I really miss the weather. I had flip flops on for eight months of the year. My partner misses her family too.
“There was a big city buzz in Melbourne. We could go into the city and get food from anywhere in the world. Belfast isn’t there yet, but it’s moving in the right direction.”
Tim continued: “Belfast is a changed place from how I left it. I left home when I was 18 in 1999 to go to uni in Edinburgh.
“I’ve had the privilege to work in some great cafes over the year and sampled some amazing food from around the world. All these experiences have gone into General Merchants. This is where having partners in the business is so important. I couldn’t have done this on my own.”
And so to the food. General Merchants boasts a menu like no other with the emphasis firmly on breakfast between 8am and 5pm.
The Melbourne Breakfast is superb, including toasted sourdough, vegemite, smashed avocado, parsley, capers, seeds, pickled red onion and lemon, served with poached eggs and bacon.
“Poached eggs and smashed avocado are the sort of things you’ll see on an Aussie menu,” said Tim.
“All our food is cooked to order, so it might take slightly longer but you know it hasn’t been sitting about so you’re getting it as fresh as possible.”
General Merchants use local products as much as possible. They include handcrafted cakes and gluten-free bakes from Check Out My Buns, artisan bread from Zac’s Bakehouse, milk and eggs from Draynes Farm, handmade cakes and tarts from Man Made and cold pressed juices from Skinny Malinky’s to name just a few.
“We’ve some imports like Prana Chai from Melbourne,” added Tim. “I worked with guys who set up the business and we were the first people to import it into Northern Ireland.”
Another star performer on the menu is the Little Ox Salad – a mesmerising mix of quinoa, roasted sweet potato, semi dried tomatoes, mint, spinach and grilled chicken, topped with mixed seeds and a saffron yoghurt.
To satisfy those with a sweet tooth, well, more than satisfy, we’d recommend the Waffle 15s, General Merchants’ take on the traditional Northern Irish 15 bun. It’s a toasted Belgian waffle, digestive crumble, condensed milk caramel, cherry jus, toasted marshmallows and toasted coconut.
There’s also an evening menu from 6-9pm when you can BYOB and enjoy it with such dishes as Pork & Fennel Ragu, Whisky & Maple Cured Salmon and The Swish Burger.
However the menu is far from static with different daily specials, new dishes to celebrate events like Burns Night or Easter, and fresh approaches with the changing of the season.
Tim said: “We get excited about different seasons, because it mean different foods come into play. Things like mushrooms and asparagus excite us!
“It’s not about being cool or hipster. It’s about offering people something different. At the start we’d people who came in for a fry up. We don’t do fries because there’s so many other places you can go for that. They’d leave without trying something else on the menu and that was disappointing because we are really passionate about our food and would have loved to open their tastebuds to something new.”
General Merchants is a truly cosmopolitan cafe and that’s reflected in their staff who hail from all around the globe. Everyone is empowered to offer menu suggestions, offer interior design ideas as well as contribute to the music that’s played in the cafe. Their playlist is right up there with the best in Belfast.
It’s not as dear as the elaborate dishes we’ve described might make it seem. The Melbourne Breakfast is £7.50 (+£2 for bacon), The Little Ox Salad is £8, Waffle 15s are £7.50 (we advise sharing here) and a regular Americano will set you back £2.20.
The cafe seats 50 with 27 extra seats outside when the sun has got his hat on. It’s proven popular with Ulster Rugby players who call in after training and it’s also frequented by politicians making their way to and from Stormont. Such is its popularity with Ulster players that Robbie Diack, the South African born back row forward who has been at the club since 2008 has come on board as co-owner of the the business.
General Merchants will be expanding the business next month with a new cafe on the Ormeau Road which looks set to follow Ballyhackmore into being a new haven for food and drink lovers in Belfast.
It’ll be located on the corner of Ormeau Road and Deramore Avenue and will have an emphasis on Eastern Mediterranean cuisine.
Tim said: “In Melbourne they have the large Greek and Lebanese population. That’s where I first got my eyes opened to proper cuisine from these countries.”
Tim described the Ormeau Road as having the potential to become a grungy area like Bethnal Green in London with its pop ups shops, its artisan drinks courtesy of Vineyard and Brewbot and its cafe culture.
“It’s exciting to be part of it,” he said. “It’s the Year Of Food & Drink and it’s all about helping each other. We don’t see ourselves in competition with other cafes. We love to hear about new places and love to try them out.”