With almost 23,000 coffee shops throughout the UK, it’s vital for cafés to offer something unique, whether that’s in equipment or the selection of coffee beans. Will Hawkes reports
It’s a typical weekday morning on Queen Victoria Street in the City of London. The road is being dug up and noisily drilled into, men in expensive suits walk purposefully here and there, a double-decker bus creeps forward inch by painful inch. However, not everything is normal. A new coffee shop, Rosslyn Coffee, has just opened at No 78 and – as posters in the windows loudly pronounce – all coffees are priced at £1 for the first week.
That’s the sort of deal City workers appreciate and at 11am there’s a queue. The sort of bargain they’re getting is obvious from the machinery and ingredients on display: there’s a £20,000 espresso machine from Synesso in Seattle, bags of coffee beans from Round Hill Roastery in Somerset and Colonna in Bath, and individually hand-thrown ceramic mugs by Melisa Dora in Honor Oak Park in south London. There’s food, too: focaccia from Bread Ahead, and vegan salads from Big V London, both in Borough market.
It all speaks of unusual attention to detail. “Well, we’re not reinventing the wheel,” says co-founder James Hennebry. “It’s all pretty basic stuff, but it’s the basics that make the difference.” And that applies to the human element, too: “Our coffee has already proven really popular, but that’s not the most important thing to us – customer service is.”
At a time when the UK has almost 23,000 coffee shops (according to the Allegra World Coffee Portal’s Project Café 2017 report), this is the sort of focus that sets you apart. In terms of ingredients, equipment, staff training and, increasingly, environmental impact, British coffee is moving into a new era. Not so long ago it was enough just to have good coffee; now everything must be up to scratch.
A happy environment
Rosslyn Coffee has been open for only a few days, so not everything is quite as Hennebry, 35, and his business partner Mat Russell, 28, want it. The outside needs a lick of paint, and they’re planning a few plants to soften the environment. What’s exciting Hennebry most, though, is some remarkable reusable cups that are on their way to the café from Australia. They’re called HuskeeCups, they’re made out of coffee husk, and Rosslyn will be their pilot shop in the UK.
“The environmental aspect has to be addressed – it’s very important,” Hennebry says. “We think HuskeeCup will be environmentally sound without hindering the workflow. Everybody is conscious of being more environmentally friendly, but it can’t put a roadblock in the middle of your business.”
The paper cups already in use at Rosslyn are compostable, and Hennebry says that they’ve seen a number of customers bringing in KeepCups, a barista-standard reusable cup that fits under espresso machine group heads. “That’s a fantastic company, too,” he adds.
A recent report from parliament’s environmental audit committee called for the introduction of a 25p ‘latte levy’ on disposable coffee cups and for all coffee cups to be recycled by 2023. The problem of disposable cups is not about to go away any time soon, as seven million of them are used every week. Although they are ostensibly recyclable, very few are recycled, for a host of reasons – chief among them a lack of adequate recycling facilities.
“The government’s plans have given consumers, retailers, manufacturers and everyone involved in the supply chain an opportunity to take even more positive action,” says food packaging specialist Huhtamaki’s Clare Moulson. “A very effective solution would be for more recycling opportunities to be available on the high street, which is where Huhtamaki has been focusing its attention.”
To that end, Huhtamaki has recently partnered with Gosport Borough Council in Hampshire to pilot a collection and recycling service for used coffee cups. The service is the first of its kind in the UK and will provide dedicated recycling bins at strategic sites across Gosport, including the ferry port, town hall and leisure centre. There are plans to extend collection points to high-street locations, local offices and transport providers.
The right ingredients
Rosslyn Coffee has a very interesting neighbour: Caffè Nero, one of the UK’s biggest high-street coffee shop chains. “It’s almost like a microcosm of the wider scene – the small guys versus the big guys,” says Hennebry.
One of the key aspects of the best small coffee shops is the care that they give to sourcing great-quality coffee beans, and Rosslyn is no exception. It uses a special blend from Modern Standard in Tilbury for its milk coffees, Colonna in Bath roasts the beans used in Rosslyn’s black coffees, and Round Hill in Somerset is responsible for the coffee used in its pour-overs. Not every customer notices this attention to detail, but more and more are becoming coffee-savvy, Hennebry says.
“Not everyone knows the difference between a natural [processed coffee bean] and a washed, but they can see what we’re doing – there’s an element of trust,” he says. “The UK coffee public is becoming more and more discerning, and your standard cup just doesn’t wash any more.”
Customers are also increasingly concerned about the sustainability of the coffee they drink, according to Neil Clark, co-founder of Hessian Coffee. “Operators should look for coffee with responsible, ethical credentials as well as great taste,” he says. “Thankfully, these days, this is much easier to achieve, as insisting on ethicality no longer means compromising on taste and quality.”
Hessian Coffee’s Bourbon Select has just won a gold star in the recent Great Taste Awards – the epicurean equivalent of the Booker prize. The blend is Rainforest Alliance-certified and has, Clark says, “an impeccable ethical heritage”. The coffee is 100% single-estate Arabica sourced from Monte Sión in El Salvador. “This estate, run by the Urrutía family since 1906, is dedicated not only to growing great coffee, but also to driving social change by combating poverty in El Salvador, for which it has been recognised by the United Nations.”
The big players are increasingly drawn to the quality end of the market, which helps to drive up standards right across the board. Compass Group UK & Ireland, the UK’s largest food and support services business, has recently introduced two new coffee brands: Peak St and Crackle & Hum. “We’ve based these two distinct, tailored brands on insights and feedback from our customers,” says Compass marketing director Louise Pilkington.
The care that Rosslyn took to source its £20,000 Synesso espresso machine has been matched elsewhere in the coffee shop. For example, the bean grinders are from Fiorenzato, a company based in northern Italy. “It’s reliable, fast and comes at a very good price point,” Hennebry says. “Same with the Synesso: to me that’s the best machine in the world.”
Another option here is the Santos Barista Silent Espresso Coffee Grinder 55WA. “It is the perfect commercial machine for front of house as it is remarkably quiet, yet powerful and fast, with an attractive white finish,” says Mark Veale, Santos brand manager for the importer, Nisbets. “Its high-quality grinding discs can be precisely adjusted so that a consistent grind is achieved every time, ensuring every single customer’s coffee tastes perfect, whatever the choice of bean.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of a coffee shop’s offer, though, is the welcome that you receive when you arrive. “When you walk through that door, you get a smile and are greeted,” says Hennebry. “I think that the speciality coffee business has not always been the most accessible thing. I’ll bring my mum to these shops and she says, ‘Can I have a latte with sugar here if I want?’ People think there are all these faux pas, but we want to make sure that anyone can walk in here and feel instantly comfortable.”
It’s important that staff understand that, although Hennebry points out: “You can teach someone to be a barista, but you can’t teach them to be energetic or friendly.” He’s taken a lot of good advice, he says, from a series of podcasts put together by a coffee shop in Santa Cruz in California, called Cat & Cloud, which focus on the importance of training staff thoroughly.
At Buzzworks – a hospitality group in Scotland that operates 10 sites under four brands – Lido, Elliots, House and Scotts – barista training is paramount. “Staff training is at the core of our company,” says David Bryce Howie, the company’s bar training manager. “Matthew Algie, our coffee partner, helps us with this by allowing us to send baristas to its training academy to learn and master skills from some of the best in the country. Back at Buzzworks they can then pass on their newly developed skills and knowledge, which results in a highly skilled barista team throughout the company.”
Here’s to the future
All being well, we’re likely to hear a lot more from Rosslyn. The founders hope to open two more sites before the end of the year, although the focus is now on making sure people come back next week, when coffee will no longer be £1. “We’ll see how we go on Monday,” Hennebry says. “Once they’ve tasted our coffee, we’re pretty confident they’ll come back.”
Santos Barista (Nisbets)