On a quiet Wednesday morning at Grand Canal Dock, Alessandro Lopez is prepping food for the day ahead.
He ferries a tray of raw Italian sausages, olives, and peppers to the outside oven at Pause Cafe.
Down the street, builders chit-chat as they tuck into rolls outside a newsagents. At the other end of the dock, drum-and-bass music plays near the wakeboarding ramps by the water.
“The music wakes me up in the morning,” says Lopez, moving between the coffee machine inside the café and the oven outside.
At the moment, Pause Cafe sells pasta, bruschetta and paninis – but Lopez is also trying to make this space more than just a cafe.
He’s promoting it into a meeting spot for people interested in sharing, or talking about, a single ingredient: kefir.
People leave their Airbnb keys in cafes or restaurants for guests to collect, says Lopez. “It’s the same thing that we can do here.”
But it’s kefir, not keys, that Lopez is looking for people to drop into him. “If they buy coffee great, if they don’t no problem.”
Last year, Lopez was on the phone to his mother. She lives in a small town just outside of Rome.
“She told me that she was doing an experiment that she never expected to do in her life,” he says.
Lopez’s mother was using kefir in her baking instead of yeast. “She was sending me beautiful photos of bread, focaccia, pizza,” he says.
Initially, Lopez was sceptical. He’d never done anything like this before.
She sent him a box of kefir, a white and fluffy bacteria that looks like cottage cheese, to try it himself.
“At the start, I was making some mistakes with it,” he says.
Kefir needs to be stored at around 20c and in a dry place so that the bacteria can be activated, Lopez says.
“But slowly I realised that from a little bit like this,” he says, making a small circle with his thumb and forefinger, “…you can make like 200 to 300 grams of cheese with it.”
He makes ricotta cheese sometimes and other times yoghurt.
It helps with his digestion and well-being, he says. “This is very good bacteria. It’s very powerful for your body.”
The first few days Lopez, though, found that the kefir was unsettling his stomach.
It’s strong stuff, he says. “The first two or three times you feel like you are going to the toilet too much”.
“But after that you feel strong. It’s not a drug but you feel strong. You digest better, you relax better, you sleep better, you wake up better,” he says.
A Meeting Point
Lopez saw a problem within Ireland’s kefir community. It was the way in which people were sharing the bacteria.
People who want to start making their own kefir will often contact somebody to donate a sample of their kefir to them. Then using somebody else’s kefir, they will grow their own.
Pour milk or water over kefir and let it sit in a cupboard for 24 hours. The following day, the milk or water can be drunk or used for cooking while the kefir is strained out and reused for another batch.
But the way in which people exchanged kefir was less than ideal.
“There is so many people who want to connect with each other. But one person might live in Dublin 15 and one might live in Dublin 22,” says Lopez.
Sometimes, people would ask to be sent their kefir starter as a favour by post. The cost of postage was not a problem for Lopez. It was the postage itself.
Putting the kefir in an envelope and sending it through the post can kill the bacteria, says Lopez.
Lopez wants to solve that, by making Pause Cafe a central place where people can meet and exchange kefir, he says.
On social media, Lopez is inviting people to make use of his cafe while sharing his own kefir recipes, like ricotta, kombucha and or a probiotic drink.
“People can just drop their kefir into me. I will hold it for them in the cafè until another person collects it,” he says.
The cafe is also a spot for people to meet and discuss kefir and recipes that it can be used in, he says. “All of this is free and that is very important to me.”
Kefir has been shared for hundreds of years at no cost so Lopez wants to continue this tradition, he says.
For Lopez, kefir is more than just a bacteria. He sees streams of people pass his restaurant each day.
“And just by looking at them I can see when they are having a good day or a bad day,” he says.
Commonly, a person will look happy in the morning and, after a day at work, look miserable in the evening, Lopez says.
“We need to create a connection with human beings. We need to create connection with each other,” he says.
Being part of a community is a good way to deal with depression or low motivation, Lopez says. “It gives you a sense of purpose.”