A “Coffee with Colm” Blog – The Man on the Train (or how one seemingly random meeting changed my fortunes forever)

We had a Bewley’s Cafe Franchise in Limerick. It failed.

At the time I met The Man on the Train, I already knew my business was in trouble, suffering from the early signs of what became our Perfect Storm. Those early signs included falling sales due to new customer eating habits at the turn of the century, a massive 20% drop in sales during the Foot and Mouth Disease, followed by zero recovery after 9/11 because the Midwest didn’t receive the usual influx of American visitors. We had re-branded our cafe from Bewley’s to save money and had exported our new brand, Cruises Coffee Co. to Dublin.

Despite outward appearances and an inner belief that all would be well, I was worried and open to new ideas.

The year was 2003. Our 2002 upwards only rent review had gone to arbitration but I was hopeful we could find a way to trade our way out of our difficulties. When the arbiter awarded the landlord a rent of €313,000 per annum (on top of rates of another €48,000) – for a coffee shop in the heart of Limerick, Ireland’s third city during the madness of what I call in my book, the Feckin’ Celtic Tiger – he effectively signed our death warrant.

It was shortly before that rent arbitration that I met…

The Man on the Train

(an edited snippet from my book Feeding Johnny – How to Build a Business, despite the Roadblocks)

“What does this mean?” he asked.

“What?” says I.

“This. Here on your business card. It says, ‘How can I help?’ What does that mean?”

“Oh that? That’ll mean something different to everybody I meet. It’s my offer to the universe. You might need a ladder some day, or an electrician, or anything and perhaps you’ll call me. If I can help, I will; if I can’t I might know of someone who can. Simple.”

“Okay.” He smiled as he pocketed my business card. I never heard from him again.

I hate driving! For me it’s such a waste of time with one notable exception – you can choose to use that time wisely by studying using cd’s instead of listening to the radio (which a lot of the time can be negative because negative sells). And it was precisely because I hate driving that I was on the train from Limerick to Dublin that fateful morning.

I was en route to meet my brother Donal and our friend Richard Styles at Cruises Coffee Kiosks on the boardwalk so taking the train from Limerick to Heuston Station and then a bus down the quays was the simplest as well as my preferred travel option. On the train I could think, drink coffee, work on my laptop, read, drink coffee, snooze, drink coffee, think…you getting the picture?

As fate would have it I sat beside this man, both of us facing forward, he by the window, me in the aisle seat. I can’t remember whether I had pre-booked the seat or whether I simply sat down, however we exchanged pleasantries and got on with our respective train journey stuff. At some point in the journey however we got chatting and it became appropriate to swap business cards, as is protocol when two people engaged in the economy meet.

He was an O’Brien too – good start – Gary O’Brien working with Paul Partnership, a not-for-profit organization working to bridge the divide between society in general and areas of disadvantage in Limerick, me a budding capitalist.

I was back from holidays. Our new brand was beginning to grow legs. The rent arbitration (the final element in The Perfect Storm* that eventually put us out of business) was still some time away. It looked like we just might make it and so it was precisely because I was feeling rather blessed with prospective opportunity that the offer to the Universe was on my card.

But it was also this very offer to the Universe coupled with that very fateful meeting that created the thread, that led to the lifeline, which led me to the school lunch business and has led to me eventually – write the book to tell the story.

Colm and Gary O’Brien parted ways at Heuston Station. Three months later his boss rang me.

 “You met a man on the train,” he began. “He has left Paul Partnership but left me your card. I see you are in the food business. Are you interested in tendering for a Healthy School Lunch pilot project in a school in Moyross?”

“Am I WHAT? Er…YEAH!” I thought. The Limerick cafe business was dying! But I was cool and responded instead “Yes. We could probably look at something like that.” – code for “I’m a Businessman, GET ME OUTA HERE!”

Read the epilogue below or watch the short (4:37) video to see how it all turned out…


I had the meeting with Gary’s boss. He suggested we tender for the contract. We did. We won. We supplied 27 lunches day one. Fourteen years later we are heading back to school this September (2017) with orders in excess of 27,000 lunches per day -a one thousand-fold increase. Our first week’s sales were €160 (one hundred and sixty euro for the week!), our most recent week’s sales exceeded €200k. Our turnover to end June was €7.3m for the year. We employ 120 people. The losses we suffered as result of losing our cafe have all been cleared. We are blessed.

Turns out, despite Gary’s boss asking around town, we were the only ones to tender!

All of that came from meeting Gary O’Brien on the train that fateful day.

Was it meant to be? I believe so.

As my mother always says, “What’s for you won’t pass you by.”

But we can’t sit around waiting, making it difficult for the Universe to help us, we’ve got to get up off our asses and get out there.

Is it conceivable that Gary O’Brien might have knocked on my door some evening and said, “Eh, sorry to interrupt Corrie, but I have an idea for you.” ? No way! Impossible. I had to be out there doing my thing.

The moral of the story:

  1. We must be out there doing our thing
  2. We must be of service first

Despite my dreadful business woes at that time, I did not try to sell Gary anything. I didn’t ask him had his organisation a need for coffee or sandwiches, I simply offered to help with no strings attached. What happened as a result has had an immense impact on me, my family, the 120 people that work with us and their families, the people working in our supplier companies and their families, not to mention the 200 plus schools, the thousands of faculty and the tens of thousands of children we feed as well as their families. Wow! Even writing it, I am in awe.

Feeling very grateful here. Humbled and grateful.

And what of Gary O’Brien? Gary was the angel sent to intersect with me on my journey (see The Adjustment Bureau). He spent a very short time with Paul Partnership during which one of his last acts was to pass my business card up the line. He then left and is serving the people of Limerick and Ireland through the tens of thousands of students his college educates in his role as Associate Vice President at Mary Immaculate College. Thankfully Gary and I met again many years later and have stayed in touch and our paths cross happily and frequently these days.

My friend, there is a Man on the Train moment waiting for you (more than one – and more for me 🙂 ) if you apply these two criteria as your default way of being:

  1. Be out there
  2. Be of service first

There is a Gary O’Brien on a mission to intersect with you (and he or she doesn’t even know it). Or perhaps you, my friend, may be a Gary O’Brien, a Man on the Train or a Girl on the Train for some other soul, trying to finds its way home.

Don’t miss your appointment.

Thanks for thinking with me.


* MORE: If you enjoyed that and would like to read/watch my blog/vlog which discusses tells the story of The Perfect Storm that put us out of business- click here

FREE BOOK: If would like a complimentary audio copy of my business book “Feeding Johnny – How to Build a Business Despite the Roadblocks”, narrated by yours truly so you get all the nuances, feel free to grab one here

STAY CONNECTED: If this is your thing, consider joining in the conversation here

As I say at the end of Feeding Johnny, I’ll sign off as always; thanks for thinking with me.

I wish you well.

Yours truly,


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6 Responses to “A “Coffee with Colm” Blog – The Man on the Train (or how one seemingly random meeting changed my fortunes forever)”
    • Colm

      Thanks Shane. Happy to share. Glad you got something from it. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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