Perched just on the cusp of the sand dunes at Benone Strand, Limavady is a small, wood panelled building boasting the word ‘coffee’ in bold red lettering. This building is home to coffee bar 'Sea Shed Coffee and Surf'. The baristas at Sea Shed have been serving speciality coffee and signature beverages to locals and visitors of Benone since opening its doors in 2016. Not only that, but the same unassuming building, that blends perfectly into the backdrop of the area’s picturesque dunes and cliffs, houses the base camp of Long Line Surf School. Both are the love projects of owner Dan Lavery and his wife, Rebekah, who have chosen to move away from more touristy spots like Portrush and Portstewart and re-establish their business roots back on the stretch of coastal road where Dan spent most of his childhood. Dan started his flagship business 'Long Line' at the age of twenty-one, wishing to adapt his business to his lifestyle, rather than joining the rat-race for success and sacrificing his passion for the sea. Since then, Dan has been continually developing and re-developing this original concept, and has recently signed a deal with Hasting Hotels Ballygally Castle, to run group bonding activities. Lighthouse visited Dan one morning in 'Sea Shed' to talk about life at Northern Ireland’s North Coast, his attitude to business, and what it is about coffee and surfing that blends so well together.
After completing his GCSEs, Dan wanted to get started on establishing himself in the surfing industry immediately. When teachers told him that he wasn’t allowed to do that, he reluctantly took on Geography, Business Studies, and Travel and Tourism as A Levels. Whilst it bothered him at the time, in hindsight, he thinks that continuing in education worked out in his favour. ‘One of the pieces of coursework we were doing was to create a business plan for the surf industry’, Dan told us, some of which were fundamental to the formation of 'Long Line'. He still has some of this coursework at his business today - ‘in my office there’s just a full shelf of journals that I’ve had since I was seventeen, all filled with ideas and business plans - some are good, some aren’t’. Having left school, Dan began to dream about opening his own surf school, and the skills he had learnt at A-Level helped him to mould and shape these ideas into a business. Ultimately, however, Dan believes it was his desire to make something that spurred him on, not his qualifications. ‘The reason we grew so much was because I love creating.’, he says, ‘once you create you gotta keep running with it’. At twenty-one, after being previously told he couldn’t, Dan opened 'Long Line Surf School', allowing him to put both his business knowledge and everyday passion into practice on a daily basis. Now reaching his thirties, he has fourteen staff employed under the name of 'The Long Line Group' in various different roles. At a time, his employees were double that, but this posed problems of its own.
Whilst talking about his wife’s business - a cafe just up the road from Sea Shed that the couple recently closed down - Dan voiced the challenges of managing a larger, younger team - ‘When you put a fifteen year old into a bigger cafe suddenly it becomes a job, and when it’s just a job they don’t work as hard as they should.’ This was far from what Dan wished to achieve with 'Long Line', and he began to become disillusioned. He told us that about a year ago, in 2017, the active, coastal lifestyle he so loved was slowly being suffocated by his attempts to run an effective business. ‘Just this last year we would’ve had the bigger cafe up and running, we would’ve been planning for Portstewart surf school and Benone surf school, we would’ve had paddle boarding, and a number of corporate groups at the same time, and we had staff in here [Sea Shed]. From April onwards I was never here - not once. I was pretty much in here to open the doors, let the boys do what they want, and close again, and there wasn’t so much control over it’, Dan told us. ‘I was pretty much delegating the whole thing. We were trying to get married at the same time and everything was just such a rush - it ended up so stressful. Mentally wise, I was done. By the time September came, anything would emotionally set me off. I just couldn’t hack the pace that everything was moving at. Everyone was like, ‘sure look at what you’ve done, you’ve made yourself a killing this Summer’, but it didn’t matter, if something wound me up, it wound me up constantly.’
This resulted in Dan rethinking the business, and he and his wife Rebekah decided to relocate and focus entirely on the area of Benone. By distancing himself from the bustle of the more saturated markets of the North Coast, Dan was able to refresh himself and his staff, and begin cultivating a business that values people and lifestyle over profit and competition. ‘We did a #CreateYourOwnBenone, so you’d come down, grab a coffee and go for a surf’, he says, ‘come down, bring a bbq, go for a walk, and go for a body board. It’s all that thing, if you didn’t want to do it the way we wanted you could come and create your own thing.’ For him, this just couldn’t be achieved elsewhere on the coast. Having learnt the challenges that arise with a large team, Dan took a totally different approach to his employees in Sea Shed. ‘Everyone that works here are surf instructors or surfers, and they’re passionate about surfing and coffee. Two things; coffee and surfing, that’s all we need, we don’t need anything else. When you’re passionate about something, you can put passion into your staff…It’s trying to bring all these individuals together and keep it more of a social hub, so you can have a really good lifestyle, and make a livelihood out of it.’ As a result of the move, Dan is now able to train up his employees with the potential to embark on their own business projects in the future. At the moment, he’s working alongside one employee, Eunan, head surf instructor at Long Line and a barista at Sea Shed, on the beginnings of an exciting creative project of his own.
Alongside creating community amongst his staff, Dan cares a lot about working alongside the other vendors of Benone. For him, everything he does in his business now is about cultivating community. ‘We don’t do ice cream.’, he says, ‘We don’t do ice cream because there’s a man ten steps away who’s trying to make his livelihood. We don’t do food, because there’s someone up the way trying to make their livelihood’. Dan views what he does as a collaboration, not a competition. ‘There’s definitely people out there who disagree, and they’ll try and do everything, but all you’re doing is making someone else not make as much money.’ There is a notably different, more peaceful vibe at Benone in comparison to other areas of the North Coast, and Dan recognises that as a businessman, he’s doing something very different than most other businesses in the area. He told us more about what pushed he and his wife on to relocate - ‘If you look on the side of the van, it’s a picture of me, but [we] …don’t even see me as a surfer, we notice that background. It’s the only thing we look at in that photograph because it’s a sick background and it’s all green and it’s mountains and everything else. If that was Portstewart it would be an apartment block, it would be a Big Dipper at Portrush, it’s kind of the scenery that you’re going for, you want that big, long mountain stretch - and that’s really cool.’
Dan says his life has changed drastically since making the difficult decision to close down parts of his business in 2017. He smiles when he tells us about his business/lifestyle balance now. ‘This past week the sun’s been out, I’ve surfed fourteen times in the past seven days, my body’s wrecked, but I’m going home happy. We still work really hard, we still work long days, but we had to sit down and put everything in place and go ‘right, don’t want to do this, don’t want to do this, but we want to keep this.’. He’s realistic when he thinks about his work - ‘If you decide to declutter your life you gotta know that it ain’t going to happen overnight, as such. Well, I don’t think it is. We all have to work, but it’s trying to find that balance of the both [time off and work].’ Now, 'Long Line' is much more in line with what Dan wished for when he was starting out at twenty-one. Alongside his work with 'Long Line' Dan is an active Surfers Against Sewage rep - another of his passions that fell to the wayside when the business expanded. Dan is working hard to increase the business’s beach clean target for the year, and in the years ahead. Also in the past month, Sea Shed has achieved a Cafe Smart award, meaning that the business works responsibly towards the bettering of the environment by promoting sustainability and attempting to be single use plastic free. It is such heavy involvement in these kind of tasks that gives Dan such fulfilment in his job.
We asked him a little more about why he loves the area of Benone. ‘The house that we’re rebuilding now was my grandad’s.’, he told us. ‘At his house he allowed us to cross the railway line and go down to the beach, so we would’ve surfed the Umbra. I have a twin brother, and we used to surf at seven/eight years old and Granda would’ve came, walked us across the road, walked us across the railway line and that would’ve been us. We would’ve gone down the dunes, surfed for four or five hours and come back up. The rule was that once we got back up to the railway line we had to shout ‘grandaaa!’ and he would’ve come across to bring us back. That was the thing you got away with when you were a kid, you don’t seem to get away with it now!’ It seems that this area of the North Coast holds a special place in the hearts of both Dan and Rebecca. ‘We’re a small community’, Dan says, ‘and we get to know them all, it’s a hub [Sea Shed]. When it would be really odd for me to go up to an angler at 11 o’clock at night and be like ‘hello, how are you?’, here you kind of get that first introduction and you get in to say hello.’
Dan says that things look good for the future of Long Line. ‘We’re simplifying things in a way that it can grow again’, he told us, ‘but we just wanted to bring it back a little bit so we could have a better perspective when we do grow. This is us kind of back tracking so that we can move forward again’. The way he approaches what he does now has changed for the better, Dan feels; ‘We’ve definitely learnt from it, we’ve definitely looked at things and been like ‘right, don’t just jump at every opportunity you see, just because you think it’ll make you a quick buck’. We want to move forward in a way that’s going back to the roots of Long Line. Long Line’s mission statement at the very beginning was ‘encourage a lifestyle, not just a sport’, so we’re trying to bring that back into the way we live our lives.’ Moreover, he wants to work hard towards educating the younger generations about sustainability and caring for the environment through his role in Surfers Against Sewage. Since he has more time away from being a boss, he says, ‘we’re kind of pushing forward and getting more of the beach cleans running and trying to get that number back up to ten beach cleans a year and get the school talks back up. You gotta start with the younger generations.’
If you want to find out more about Dan and Long Line, check out his website: https://longlinesurfschool.co.uk.
Even better, visit him at Sea Shed Coffee & Surf on Benone Strand from 10am to 4pm everyday.
(Credit: Mozz films NI)
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