I had high hopes for London. You might claim they come from a place of misguided optimism, and I’d probably struggle to argue with you. The city and much of the UK seems to be at an inflexion point of coffee industry culture.
I rarely talk about Square Mile Coffee Roasters on here but, in this case, I can’t help but bring up our approach and our philosophy. When we started out there weren’t a lot of roasters in London that really cared about coffee. There was Monmouth, there was Union. Outside of the city, there were people like HasBean and James Gourmet Coffee (this is not an exhaustive list). Speciality was tiny. Like any new company we needed to grow but, from the outset, we felt that taking a wholesale account from Monmouth, or from Union, wasn’t really growing the market. It wouldn’t result in more speciality coffee being bought from producers, or more consumers drinking better coffee. It was a swap, not an addition. Our policy was not to actively try to take accounts away from speciality coffee roasters (though I cannot pretend that there weren’t instances where customers chose to change supplier).
As a result, we grew and we felt the market grew as well. I’ve written before about the challenge cafes face in terms of choosing to either make or steal customers. Unsurprisingly the same question now applies to the coffee roasting companies of the UK.
Competition is a good thing. For cafes, this should result in greater choice, improved quality, improved service. For roasters, it should result in increased innovation and reduced complacency. Competition is a healthy and important part of business. However, the UK seems to have reached an interesting point where companies increasingly feel that the pressure to grow is the most important pressure to succumb to. For many of us this means we have a difficult set of choices.
We can use every tool in our arsenal to grow. We can discount our product, we can offer longer lines of credit, we can offer bribes in the form of a free espresso machine for a cafe to accept substandard produce at a very high price. We can choose to see our direct competitors’ customer base as the easiest source of growth. I don’t think this offers sustainable, secure growth. Instead, I think it increases the fragility in the industry.
The other form of growth is slower, it is harder, but it is more secure and more valuable in the long term. Many businesses face a choice that can be (somewhat glibly) described as: do I grow my business first, or do I grow my industry so that my business has space to grow? Phrased this way it is a deeply unfair question. Businesses require investment, of time and of resources, and they necessitate a return. You can’t pay the rent or buy food with the goodwill of an industry.
Ironically I believe that this frantic phase of competition that we’re seeing now could lead to increased consolidation in the future, or decreased choice and decreased diversity.
If you see me, or Square Mile Coffee Roasters, as a competitor then I’m sure you will read this through a lens that makes me seem like a greedy man trying to protect what I have gained. Perhaps you’ll think that I’m trying to discourage competition, to make my own life easier, to protect my slice of the pie. I’m not sure there’s anything I can write that might dissuade you. I can only reiterate that I believe competition is essential (especially if you’re someone who is competitive by nature), and I still recall the feeling of frustration that came with being described as ubiquitous at a time (February 2010) where we had about 30 wholesale accounts in a city of 12 million people.
I’ve often written about the state of the industry, and how I see the future. I believe that there is an opportunity for the industry to renew its collaborative spirit, to see the commodity coffee dressed up as something special as the real competition, and for us to grow sustainably. What I’m seeing right now is our failure to take the harder, but more rewarding road. I shall be very happy to be proved wrong.
We’ve rolled out a few new features on Coffee Jobs Board this month. I want to talk about where we are going with it, because I hope it will be something valuable and useful.
There’s been a lot of talk about pay, transparency and gender in coffee. I’m interested in providing useful benchmarking for people who work in coffee, that gives them a salary expectation that is based solely on their experience.
We’ve just started encouraging applicants to sign up for an account. You’re asked to share your experience, as a function of both time and competency, for a number of key skills in coffee. You’re also asked what your current wage is, which will perhaps make some people uncomfortable but I believe could be incredibly useful. The goal is two-fold here. Employers have repeatedly asked to be able to search through potential candidates – and so we wanted them to be able to search by skill or experience, i.e. show anyone with 1 year of experience in a management position or someone who is able to pour latte art etc…
What I’m more excited about is being able to take the information and provide expectations to both employer and employee for what a position is worth. What are two years of experience making coffee at a high level, in a city like London worth? What should you be paid? What should an employer be offering to make a role attractive? Once we have enough users we can answer those questions for different geographies, and the benchmarking tool will go live. It will be available to anyone, but we hope people will sign up and contribute to the data to make it more accurate in more parts of the world. What I particularly like about this is that it is gender agnostic.
I should add that signing up doesn’t mean that you’re looking for a job, you can decide whether or not employers can contact you. You can create an account on the here.
- Detailed employee profile with Barista and Management skills and certificates received.
- Salary information request in the employees’ form profile for benchmarking purposes.
- Registered users can make one-click applications to job offers that have this feature enabled.
- Search jobs by location and distance ranges (desktop only at the moment).
- Receive email notifications of the type of job offers of your choice (Barista, All-rounder, FOH staff, Floor staff, Food prep, Kitchen staff, Roaster, Assistance Manager, Manager, Other).
- Enable profile to include it in the CV library to receive job offers directly from hiring employers.
- Job bundles now available for users that post jobs frequently.
- Enable one-click applications for job offers that do not require covering letter.
- Browse job applications faster by reviewing first the profiles that best matches the required skills.
- Browse employee CV library based on skill set to find the perfect candidate for the job (this will obviously improve as more people sign up). This will be free until the end of March, then there will be a fee to browse.
One of the headaches for a cafe is suddenly being short staffed. The next feature we’re rolling out will be emergency shifts. As an employee, you can mark yourself as available for contact for emergency shifts. As an employer, you can search a database of people who are willing to be contacted for last minute work.
Any thoughts, ideas or comments are welcome – drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’ve started a business, or have thought about starting a business, then you’ve probably created a very specific spreadsheet. It’s the one that tells you how much profit you’re going to make. It is, I suspect, lying to you.
If you’ve started already then chances are you’ve worked out that your spreadsheet lied, and it was probably a dispiriting moment, a frustrating or one that felt like a blow to the stomach.
I hated writing a business plan. I hated it all the more knowing that the people who read them mostly don’t care, they just want to see that you’ve done the work. It is very easy, in the nascent stages of a business idea, to create this spreadsheet. You’ll start by working out roughly what revenue you’ll make. You’ll factor in costs, and find yourself with a reasonable gross margin, you’ll add some staff, rent, rates and the rest. Likely there’ll be a nice little sum of net profit to show for your future hard work. If there isn’t much profit at the bottom of the sheet you’ll do something we’ve all done: slowly massage the numbers to work out how you could maybe make a healthy profit. It goes from being a prediction (which is how you’ll continue to think about it) to being a near-impossible challenge (you won’t think about it this way).
One can write a sensible looking spreadsheet for just about any business model. Revenue will seem realistic, costs fair and the outcome very positive. This is the spreadsheet that lies to you.
The most successful operators don’t trust this spreadsheet. They bring it to meetings before they open their business, to have people try and work out where the spreadsheet is lying to them. They want to find out where the realistic goals actually lie. They don’t trust it, even a little. These people are few and far between because, to many people, a realistic prediction is very difficult to work towards at the early stages.
I’ve said often that there has never been a better time than right now for speciality coffee. It has never been better – as a raw product, a roasted product or a drink. I’ll also say this: there has never been a more challenging time to open a speciality coffee shop or roastery. There has never been more competition than there is right now for the customers that you want, those people your spreadsheet assumes will immediately, and happily, stop buying coffee where they usually do and switch straight over to you.
I still have spreadsheets that lie to me. I can’t help it, I’m an optimist. Over the years they’ve morphed into budgets and have been refined and tested regularly against the real world. I believe the world of accounting, especially cloud-based accounting, has changed enough that every business should be benchmarking their deceitful spreadsheets against quarterly management accounts. The model must be updated, and the numbers you want to massage to fix the profit problem actually tested in the real world. That’s how the little lies of the numbers may come true.
I quite enjoy writing these end of year posts. They’re more fun than the predictions posts I used to make in the past, sort of…
Words written on the blog: 15,575 (2016) Vs 18,376 (2015)
I wasn’t surprised that I wrote less this year. I actually posted more often, but there were a bunch of shorter posts (which I will come to later). Looking back I’m actually really proud of some of the pieces I wrote this year, and they’re amongst the most read things I’ve written. Here’s my own top ten, in no particular order:
Lightness and Darkness in Roasting
The Problem is Delicious is Easy
Automation and Espresso
Are We Sure About Pastries?
When Speciality Stops Being Special
A Challenging Idea About Speciality Coffee
The Cafe Reviews I Wish People Would Write
Coffee is a Dead End Job
Is Coffee Getting Cheaper
Coffee and Opportunity Cost
2016: A Year of Finishing Projects?
Last year I wrote that I wanted to finish a bunch of things. I’m not sure if that is true, but it was definitely a year where I did a better job of closing out certain things:
Cascara Chocolate: I look forward to seeing what people do with this in 2017. There’s a video, and also a blog post, about how to make it and I hope more people experiment with it. I know a few people are working on something, myself included, but this was a challenging and frustrating project for me and one I was happy to finish!
Longberry: I was really pleased with Issue 2. I thought it was entertaining and challenging. I have no idea how often we’ll release these – it is hard for the three of us to find the time, especially when it is a pure passion project. There’s still a few left if you’re curious, or if you want to resell…
Coffee Variety Timeline Family Tree: I had had this in my head for a couple of years, so was very happy to final produce and ship this. Thanks to everyone who posted a photo and tagged me in it – I love seeing this stuff! They’re available here.
Coffee Jobs Podcast: Technically this isn’t quite finished, there’s one more episode but I need to re-record it because of sound issues. It’ll hopefully be a little January bonus. I don’t really know how I feel about this project. I think I hoped it would appeal to a wider audience than it did. With limited time it is important to spend it where it makes a difference, and if I personally hadn’t gotten a lot from the project, then I don’t know if this returned the time and effort I put into it. If I do a second season in 2017 I think the format will change quite a lot, we shall see… You can listen to episodes here.
The Newsletter: Again, this isn’t a finished project. It is still on-going, if a little quiet over the holidays. This one has been tricky to balance. I like to read a lot, and thought it would be fun to share things I found interesting or relevant. The feedback from people has been very positive, and I love that people send me things to read now! You can sign up here, I’ll email you a few things to read every couple of weeks.
The jimseven Book: This is happening, and sadly wasn’t wrapped up in 2016 but should be done in early 2017. Here’s the deal: I’m printing physical copies once. There’ll be preordering, and some fun stuff. I’ll print a few extra but then it is done. There’ll be a digital version. It’s structured to be an organised best-of-the blog covering up to the end of 2015, having been better edited, updated and formatted. The cover is designed, page layouts pretty much complete. Just printing and shipping. I’ll post more here when there’s news.
The Youtube Channel: As I said in the most recent video, this wasn’t about creating a vlog. It was about learning to make films. I’m still at the very start of that journey, and I’m looking forward to working on different kinds of films about coffee. It’s been personally challenging, in a host of ways, and as such one of the most enjoyable projects of 2016. You can see my videos here. (If you just want one then I’d recommend the one I made in Huila, it is the best thing I’ve done yet I think).
Plans for 2017
The newsletter, podcast, youtube channel and a few other things all kicked off around the same time. It turned out to be pretty demanding to do these things, while also doing the various things I do for a living (a lot of which I don’t ever really talk about here). It has resulted in a little creative burnout for me. Part of my recuperation is going to be time away from social media. I’ve obviously been uncomfortable with my relationship with this stuff in the past, hence my previous digital sabbatical. So twitter, instagram, facebook et al will all go dormant for a while. I don’t like the way they so easily drain my attention, and how easily I can waste time on them.
I may still write a little on here, and I plan to release a few more videos in the next few month (of a different nature to most of my previous stuff, more instructional).
There is a lot planned for 2017 already, with SQM, with espresso machine development, with Coffee Jobs Board and a lot more. However, I’m going to be narrowing my focus in a couple of areas. I want to apply myself fully to work that I think is important and valuable. I look forward to sharing that work in the future. Thanks for reading, sharing, supporting and teaching me things. I hope you have a great 2017.
Ordering the pâté in a restaurant is an interesting thing to me. It tells me a lot about a chef and the empathy within the business. This has nothing to do with ingredients or preparation. It has to do with toast.
All too often I get to the last few bites of the dish, and more often than not there is not enough toast left. The last few mouthfuls are scraps of toast, piled way too high. It is a little bit frustrating but it also tells me whether any actually ate the dish before putting it on the menu. Not tasted it, but ate it. Start to finish. Sat down like a customer and finished the whole thing.
More often than not dishes like this get tasted, and then plated in a way that looks nice. However, the ratio is a total giveaway of whether they’re thinking life chefs or like customers. Another classic example is sending out a sharing plate with five of whichever item on it. Each one alone tastes very good. The plating of five looks generous and attractive. However, for sharing it is one of the worst numbers – how often are there ever five guests at a table? Nothing divides well into it, and so you sprinkle in a tiny bit of awkwardness into the dish, and into the meal.
Restaurants aren’t the only businesses guilty of this. Coffees only cupped by roasters, but never brewed and drunk to the bottom of the cup or pot by the same QC team. Espresso that is enjoyable for a single sip, served as an overwhelming and unnecessary double from a naked portafilter.
The bar on which an espresso machine sits can easily become a divide between us and them. We stop thinking and acting, eating and drinking, ordering and paying like our customers. The single taste is an assessment of a single moment, and we’re all trying to offer a lot more than that.
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