A few notes about coffee and supermarkets

If you’ve been following what we’ve been up to (and it’s cool if you haven’t btw), you’ll probably know that we’ve just launched nationwide in Waitrose. It’s actually been a goal of ours for quite some time, and I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why we’ve been chasing this particular dream since we started.

I sometimes feel like a bit of a douche talking about our “national listing in Waitrose” cause it makes us sound like we’re some kind of commercially ruthless sell-outs. The truth is, it is a big deal to us, but it wasn’t handed to us on a plate. It’s something we’ve been working towards for a long time, and behind every decision has been one singular objective: to raise the standard of consumer coffee.

People get involved in the coffee business for many reasons. Most artisan coffee roasters come to be because coffee is infectious. I mean, not literally, of course, but when the “bug” takes hold, it’s hard to let go. Coffee is one of those things that keeps you wanting to learn more, probably because it keeps surprising, evolving, and because it tastes so very good. A lot of the best roasters in the country today stared simply because they had a passion for the product. It’s also why we started Roastworks Coffee Co., but right from the outset I knew I wanted to run a business that went beyond passion, profit, and great products. I wanted to run a business with a purpose – a business that somehow made people’s lives better and solved a problem for them.

It’s always struck me as fascinating, and slightly strange, that it’s possible to buy great wine, great cheese, and more recently even, great beer in higher tier supermarkets. There seems to be a never ending flow of challenger brands bringing exciting new ideas and standards to almost every category, whether it’s ready to drink products, breakfast cereals, snack bars, or even peanut butter. But when you walk down the coffee aisle there is a distinct lack of choice. Instant coffee still dominates the fixture and within beans and ground, over-roasted own label offerings make up most of it. I thought we were undergoing a so-called “coffee revolution”, weren’t we?

With the exception of three brands (which we’ll discuss in a minute), speciality coffee is barely represented in supermarkets. Now, when you consider that supermarkets sell approximately £650m of coffee per year it’s clear that if you want to raise the standard of consumer coffee you need these guys on board. The more we thought about it, the more we realised the potential genius of selling speciality coffee to supermarkets. To start with, their rate of sale is very high. This means that the product doesn’t sit on the shelves for very long allowing the consumer to enjoy fresher coffee. Secondly, one big account would allow us to invest in better manufacturing equipment (such as analysers, grinders and packaging machines), to ensure the product is better quality when it leaves our factory. Finally, it would give us a national platform to really shout about the virtues of speciality coffee, and more importantly give us a chance to genuinely raise the standard of consumer coffee.

Our way in was to offer a product they couldn’t say no to, and it just happened to be our Nespresso™ compatible capsules. We were developing our range just as most buyers were looking to expand their range, and so it was a pretty easy sell-in. We knew we had to get match-fit, so we took out a small bank loan, bought some new equipment, put together a marketing plan, and said “f*ck yes!”.

So, these three brands. We need to talk about them because in a sea of multi-national brands and own label dross they have swam against the current and championed speciality coffee. They are Union Hand Roasted, Grumpy Mule and Modern Standard.

It’s hard to think of two individuals who have influenced speciality coffee in the UK more than Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia of Union Hand Roasted. Since their conception in 2001 Union have been championing ethical sourcing and are one of the only companies in the U.K. who can actually claim they do direct trade. Yeah, their roasts were a bit dark in the early days, but they’re banging out some incredible coffees now. These guys have always understood the potential of the retail sector and have continued to push the envelope.

Whatever we think of Grumpy Mule in their latest incarnation under the Bewley’s family of brands, their heritage is very much rooted in speciality coffee. Originally started as the retail arm of Bolling Coffee, Grumpy Mule was the brainchild of Damian Blackburn. Damian is a great guy – really passionate about coffee, and having exited the company shortly after the Bewley’s acquisition, he now runs a really cool artisan roastery near Huddersfield called Dark Woods Coffee.

Modern Standard have hit the scene relatively recently with their impressive national listing in Sainsbury’s. These guys are all super passionate coffee people who want to combine speciality coffee and commercial roasting. Their mission isn’t too dissimilar to ours and they’re definitely ones to watch.

I’m proud to call these brilliant companies my competitors. They push us to be better, and without them we would never have had an opportunity with Waitrose. What’s amazing is that this shows things are slowly changing, and while supermarkets might have been a little show out of the blocks, they are responding to the demand for speciality coffee. I hope this is just the tip of a beautiful, brown, caffeinated iceberg.