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Better business: Notes café chain, London

12 April 2013
Better business: Notes café chain, London

Robert Robinson and Edward Halfon's London coffee shops transform into wine bars at night, with a relaxed setting. Aaron Morby reports

Need to know
Robert Robinson (pictured opposite) and Edward Halfon are the co-owners of a London chain of coffee shops called Notes. It is a fledgling brand with just three sites, two located in prime west end real estate around Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square, the other in the up-and-coming King's Cross area, just next to musician Mark Ronson's studio.

Robinson and Halfon, both approaching their 30s, are building a reputation for serving quality coffee in a relaxed atmosphere of classical and jazz music in shops that transform into wine bars by night.

Set up just two and a half years ago, with help from two other investors, the duo are now cooking up plans to roast their own branded coffee and create a fleet of coffee carts around the capital.

Notes coffee shops take their name from the first branch in St Martin's Lane, which was a music shop before sliding CD sales forced the business to close. The shop's owners met Robinson, who was then selling coffee from a cart in Victoria after graduating from Oxford University. They soon hit upon the idea of moving into coffee and opened the first shop.

Halfon, who comes from an investment bank background, joined the business a little later, bringing his expertise in business development and marketing.

Target audience Notes' central London locations means it can count on a mix of passing and regular customers all day long, from office workers to theatregoers and tourists.

Catering for such a rich variety of people and tastes has helped shape the brand. Pastries, granola, and toast with home-made jam are offered for breakfast, as well as scrambled and poached eggs at Notes Covent Garden. Come lunch time, the chefs create a range of salads, sandwiches, soups and tarts.

Notes branches are licensed, which sees the mood change for the evening. Quality wines from racks lining the walls are served at a flat corkage charge of £8, making for a competitively priced West End wine list.

Head chef Ragul Madan produces cheese and meat boards in a similar way to an Italian vineria, as well as a selection of seasonal plates. The combination tends to draw in a younger evening crowd of mainly female customers catching up with friends in an easy-going wine and coffee bar atmosphere.

Trade mix The mix of coffee, food and wine has proved a winning formula for Notes, with takings split 40% on coffee, 30% on wine and 30% food. Evening trade accounts for around 40% of business and takings per head are more than double those of daytime trade.

Notes delivers a regular line-up of events and masterclasses from the best way to make coffee at home, charged at £35 a head, to wine tasting and special small dining events at the Covent Garden branch. This boasts a private room suitable for drinks parties for up to 30 people, or for private dining and business meetings for up to 15.
Robinson says: "Coffee remains very much at the heart of the business, with Notes' customers consuming around one tonne a month."

He says that Brazilian Fabio Ferreira, who is also a stakeholder in the business, brings a passion about coffee to Notes. Ferreira is a champion barista and met Robinson when they decided to set up the first cart in Victoria. Nowadays he runs the coffee-making classes and uses his expertise to select the coffee.

Favourite supplier The espresso at Notes is roasted by Square Mile Coffee Roasters. Robinson says that owner James Hoffmann has built up a strong reputation in specialist coffee.

Square Mile sources from fresh harvests from across the world, delivering beans that have just been roasted to ensure the freshest, fullest flavour in the cup. It also offers a full range of equipment for brewing as well as a good selection of coffee from Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Future growth With an eye on future growth, both Robinson and Halfon intend to move into roasting their own brand coffee. Halfon says: "We really see this as an important extension of the brand philosophy and business."

Halfon says: "We had the room available at King's Cross so we thought the time had come to produce our own brand, which will help to keep down costs and hopefully bring in extra profit from sales to our customers and other coffee shops."

The first own-branded coffee will drip into coffee cups at Notes in June, a few months ahead of another important milestone for the business.

Robinson says: "In October we will be opening our first shop outside London, in Leeds, which we have high hopes for."

The setup will be different again. This time Notes will operate its coffee and wine bar mix in the main covered walkway within the new Trinity shopping centre in the city.

"The idea came from shopping centre owners Land Securities. They have an office near our St Martin's Lane shop and suggested we took space in the development," Robinson explains.

Halfon adds: "Our main plan is to open one or two new shops a year in London where we see big opportunities to grow.

"We're conscious Leeds will be something new and slightly out of the flow for us. But we are confident we have a good location and a great opportunity so who knows what will grow from this."

Spotlight on coffee barrows Notes runs a small fleet of coffee barrows, which helps to spread the Notes brand to areas of London they would have found difficult to reach at the early stage of the business's growth.

Robinson and Halfon have discovered a clever niche operating out of churchyards. This means they don't have to deal with local councils over street pitches, and there's a good backdrop usually with plenty of room for customers to queue.

"There are plenty of well located churches around the city. We find there is quite a lot of footfall around churches and we get a pitch for a relatively small monthly rent," says Halfon.

Notes coffee barrows can be found at St Giles, Fleet Street, Canon Street and Aldgate in the City. Its only non-ecclesiastical pitch is Borough Market, a prime location for food lovers in the capital.

Notes barrows are bought from a manufacturer 
in Wales called Cartology and are equipped with 
Le Marzocco coffee machines. The aim is to expand the network of carts to nine by the autumn.

Revelations

What's your favourite restaurant?
Bocca di Lupo

If you weren't in your present line of work, what would you be doing?
Selling coffee from a cart

Who do you most admire in the industry?
Richard Caring

Describe your business in five words Quality coffee, food and wine

What's your favourite coffee?
Flat white

What's your favourite coffee house?
Kaffeine

Facts and stats

  • Owners Robert Robinson & Edward Halfon
  • Average spend per customer £5
  • Head chef Ragul Madan
  • Number of shops 3
  • Staff 50
  • Year opened 2010

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