The Dock café looks very similar to any other city coffee shop: the smell of coffee in the air, warm bowls of soup and bread on tables, and the general hub of conversation of people from all walks of life.
But one major difference is apparent. Instead of the cheerful ring of a cash register, or the dull beeping of credit cards, an auspicious blue box with a slot in the top is located near the front door. This is Belfast’s first Honesty Café, where the coffee costs what customers choose to pay.
As we walk through the wide doors, sheltering ourselves from the Irish gusts that cut through our bodies, Chaplain to the Titanic Quarter and our guide for the day, Rev. Chris Bennett, stops to cheerfully converse with a group of students gathered around laptops.
At first, the surroundings could almost be mistaken for someone’s living room. The various mismatched couches, dining chairs, and surfaces are all donated by members of the community, along with the clashing plates, bowls, and cutlery. The result is a style described by Bennett as ‘Victorian-Edwardian-Industrial-Pop-Up-Chic’. But that’s only the beginning of the café’s charm.
Huddled around tables are families catching up, students engrossed in work, workers from the nearby offices taking a break, and tourists taking a reprieve from the cold Northern Ireland weather outside.
Stationed behind the counter, by stacks of coffee cups and large terrines of homemade soup, are volunteers. Some who live in the apartments, some students from the college, some who live in the city who just like the vibe.
“A lot of us who don’t live here, we still probably find this as the place in the city where we most feel like home, because as you saw … there are parts of the city where it’s almost designed to make you not feel at home” Bennett explains, referring to the Troubles which overtook Northern Ireland for the better part of the late 20th century, and turned Belfast into a city of terror.
For Bennett, the Titanic Quarter waterfront redevelopment where the Café resides is not just a new part of the city, but a chance to close the divisions that have plagued Belfast for most of its history.
“We have a chance to build something new here. I was commissioned here to build community life … this will be shared, mixed, non-denominational, non-sectarian,” Bennet said.
The café operates on a ‘Meanwhile Lease’, a rent-free agreement gifted to them by the developer of the apartments that rise above the café, in an effort to stimulate life in the Titanic Quarter. However, the café had much humbler beginnings.
“One of the first things we did was we used to run little coffee sessions, we just had little deck chairs in the open air, it always makes me laugh, you didn’t see us shivering in our deck chairs in the early days, ” Bennett chuckles, “just so people could start to find out who was living next door and start to feel like they were part of the community … but it’s just kind of become the hub of the whole thing”.
While at some stage the café may have to start paying a little bit of rent, for now it provides a space where people can feel at home, meet their neighbours and friends, knit a scarf with a dedicated knitting group, join a writing collective, and enjoy a sense of belonging.
From honest beginnings to honesty café, The Dock not only facilitates community life, but also supports it.
“The soup is made by the guys in the deli next door, the tea is from a Belfast company called Suki Tea, the coffee is from a place called Billy’s coffee, and all the bread is baked by a local bakery,” Bennett explains.
“The idea of The Dock Café and everything we do is to try and make people feel like they belong to the place.”