The speciality coffee movement is booming, particularly in the capital, with Robert Robinson and Fabio Ferreira, co-founders of Notes, leading the way. Emma Lake discovers how the brand is thriving
London's coffee scene has boomed in recent years. Menus carefully detailing flavour profiles are now common and countless column inches reverentially welcomed Alain Ducasse's £15 "perfect" brew last month.
At the vanguard of the speciality coffee movement have been Robert Robinson and Fabio Ferreira, the co-founders of Notes, who have created a nine-venue chain of coffee shops, an east London roastery and a wholesale business.
The pair met in London's Victoria in 2008, when Robinson was serving coffee from a cart. Ferreira, whose father grew up on a coffee farm in Brazil, offered up some pointers and it wasn't long before they paired up.
Ferreira, who is responsible for sourcing all the group's coffee, drove up the quality of the product. He explains that speciality coffee must have a single point of origin and score 80 points or more on a 100-point scale.
The palate of a speciality coffee buyer is as sophisticated as a sommelier's, and Ferreira says that he is looking for beans that fit the profile of having "a good body, caramel sweetness, chocolatey and nutty", although the group's range includes other profiles, such as "fruity", "juicy" and "floral".
n contrast, he says that most commercial coffees will be a blend of beans, with the country of origin the only traceability given. It is also likely to be much older than speciality coffee, which has an average maximum shelf life of a year after harvest. It was not just in terms of the product that the partnership quickly proved successful.
A cart redesign allowed the baristas to face those queueing for their caffeine fix, allowing them to speak to those waiting, keeping them engaged and immediately doubling turnover.
In 2010 Notes opened its first bricks and mortar coffee shop in St Martin's Lane, near Trafalgar Square. The founders said the high-cost location presented a challenge at a time when there were about five speciality coffee shops in the city and consumers were still relatively ill-informed.
The group has since expanded across the capital - with the help of two Crowdcube fundraising campaigns - landing in Bank, Bond Street, King's Cross, Moorgate, the Gherkin, Victoria and at two locations in Canary Wharf. Smaller units, such as the one in Canary Wharf station, have shown customers that speciality coffee need not take more time, while the all-day offering continues to be developed across larger shops.
reira says: "In the beginning we had no alcohol. We had customers, but far fewer in the evening, and people were saying that it would be good if we sold wine. That led to us exploring offering alcohol and to look at doing it in other locations."
Robinson adds: "When we moved into the City we were not sure day to night would work without the organic footfall we'd had in Theatreland, but it did work - people liked it. It was quite new that a speciality coffee house would do an evening offering and it took a while to refine.
"If you can have an evening offering, it's the right thing to do - it just takes a while to change people's way of thinking to: oh, let's go there for a glass of wine."
Notes also offers a range of cocktails - including its signature espresso martinis - alongside beers, small plates, snacks and a selection of carefully sourced charcuterie boards. Music has also always been an important part of the group's offering and regular jazz performances are held in the outside area of the King's Cross branch.
A new all-day breakfast menu has recently been launched (see panel below) after it was found that a standard sandwich and salad offering was getting lost in an over-saturated market. Robinson explains: "Before, we were not a destination food venue, but now we're seeing strong results. It's fresher. And, after seeing growth in turnover in St Martin's Lane, we've put it in all the shops and we are investing more. The next step is takeaway brunch."
As the developments made with their initial cart business suggest, the Notes team are not just coffee geeks. Hospitality lies at the heart of the business and, when it comes to staffing, they say they can "teach team members about coffee as long as they can smile". Further sites are planned, but the rate of growth looks likely to be cautious and with an eye on sustainable rent agreements.
Two years after their first bricks and mortar site began serving customers, the pair achieved their ambition of opening a roastery, signalling the launch of a wholesale operation that now accounts for 55% of its coffee.
It's an area of the business on which the team are focusing, with the help of non-executive director James Horler, who joined the team more than a year ago. Horler, also chief executive of Ego Restaurants, explains that Notes is looking to expand its wholesale business, looking to supply both coffee and the training to provide the perfect cup to large, premium, multi-site operators, caterers, or offices wanting to improve their offering.
Another area of growth is the recently launched Notes Nespresso-compatible pods. Ferreira says: "We can tell you the variety, when it was harvested, exactly where it came from - you don't find this information on others."
He adds: "People think speciality coffee is something difficult to provide to their customers and we want to show that it's not. We do the hard job of sourcing ethical, high-quality coffee and we provide all the training to produce the best cup. When you compare prices, the difference is so little. People believe speciality is hard to provide, but it is not."
Espresso martini menu
•Notes espresso martini (Fair vodka, Fair coffee liqueur and espresso)
•Cidery espresso martini (Calvados, Fair coffee liqueur and espresso)
•Frenchie espresso martini (cognac, Fair cacao liqueur and espresso)
•Smoky espresso martini (mezcal, Fair cacao liqueur and espresso)
•Spicy espresso martini (rum, Fair cacao liqueur and espresso)
•Vanilla espresso martini (Grey Goose, vanilla, Fair coffee liqueur and espresso)
From the food menu
•All-day breakfast: smashed avocado and beetroot hummus on wholemeal sourdough
•Super breakfast: avocado on sourdough toast, two poached eggs and cured salmon
•Fresh fruit, yogurt and granola bowl
•Charcuterie boards: charcuterie, duck and tapenade; truffle-infused cheese and charcuterie; prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella
•Plates: hummus; baba ganoush; burrata; classic tomato bruschettaGet The Caterer every week on your smartphone, tablet, or even in good old-fashioned hard copy (or all three!).
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