Workshop Coffee: if it could work in London it could work anywhere

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Workshop Coffee

Purposefully anchored along London's iconic Central Line, with sites in Clerkenwell, Fitzrovia, Holborn and Marylebone,Workshop Coffee has become a mainstay of the capital's coffee drinking scene since they boldly opened their doors in April 2011. Believing that the best coffee possible requires participation in all the key stages of production, their integrated approach is revolutionising the way Londoners enjoy and appreciate their coffee. #VillageLondon sat down with Workshop Coffee's founder, James Dickson, to discuss the important role London and her nuanced boroughs have played in the make up of their expanding business...

Tell us a little bit about how Workshop Coffee came about?
Workshop came about in 2011 and was linked to the Third Wave Coffee Movement which is focused around this idea of treating coffee as an artisan food stuff, in a similar way you would wine. Fundamentally it is a fruit that grows on trees and therefore it is a product of mother earth. The whole idea was to create a vertically integrated coffee company committed to all three parts of the process; the sourcing of speciality coffee, the roasting and the retail extraction side. The whole business idea, or philosophy, was to try and do that in one space so that we could elevate the customers' experience by having the roasting and the extraction in one place. The idea was to source incredibly high-grade, speciality coffee defined as 'green' which has certain subjective qualities to it. That came about in 2010 when I quit surveying because I didn’t enjoy it and I saw the opportunity to go straight into coffee. I’m a big lover of wine and you can draw plenty of parallels between the two. Coffee went through a second wave in the 1990s in the UK, emerging as an espresso based product facilitated by Costa, Starbucks and Nero. The Third Wave is treating coffee as a fruit at its essence and applying light to medium roasting mechanisms to give individual nuances to every coffee. We extract it in a very detailed way and hopefully what we get is a great product.

You chose to enter arguably one of the most competitive sectors in London, what gap in the market had you identified?
A lot of people thought the coffee industry was very saturated in London but I strongly believed that Workshop was the creation of a new market which didn’t really exist. I would say it wasn’t so much a gap in the market as a new market which was emerging at a relatively quick rate. This idea of sourcing a high quality bean, roasting it in-house with light to medium profiling and then extracting it with high quality machinery and high quality baristas; the result is what we call independent or speciality coffee.

Was it always going to be London?
I think so. I am a Londoner and it’s one of the most progressive cities in the world. If it could work in London it would lay the foundations to work in other places. We’ve got four stores now with our fifth opening at the start of August. We’re creating three different facets to the Workshop brand; Workshop Roastery, which will be Bethnal Green, a Workshop Café which will be Clerkenwell and the Workshop Coffee bars, all of which are part of the wider Workshop Coffee brand. The Roastery will be the distribution centre for all wholesale customers in the UK and in Europe.

Which came first?
The Roastery in Clerkenwell came first which makes it the hub of the brand but we’ve out grown that space from a production perspective. Our next aim is to develop this into more of a lifestyle brand by coming up with a really great café model.

What drew you to Clerkenwell?
Clerkenwell is great because at the time it had the highest concentration of designers working on the planet. Designers are creative beings who demand human interaction; they crave new ideas and the ability to gel that with a coffee Mecca was really attractive to me.

How is business?
Good. The quickest growing part of what we do is the wholesale division. That’s all the people who want Workshop Coffee in their own cafés, restaurants or coffee bars. That’s a really quick growing division and our e-commerce is growing pretty quickly.

What is the grand plan?
The grand plan is to continue the expansion of retail and wholesale with that two-pronged approach. Retail being more London stores, the wholesale side of the business is far more global. We would also like to do a better job of our e-commerce and to really communicate the DNA of the Workshop brand online. So the customer understands better what it is that they’re buying from Workshop Coffee so they can enjoy home-brewing better. When we talk about neighbourhoods there is a part of Workshop that has become a lifestyle brand which people use every day as their coffee of choice.

London is a big place, how do you plan to conquer it?
It is a big place and the Central Line has been a focal point of our strategy; its like the spine of London and it has allowed us and our baristas to cover more of the capital. It gives them the chance to work at all the different Workshop stores, and enables them to become more immersed and interactive with our brand. This means our team are more engaged with our customers and vice versa. The Central Line was really important to me because it allows us to travel and cover London that little bit more efficiently.

Each of your stores seems to have been individually tailored to the London area they reside in. Was this a conscious decision?
That was very intentional. We are currently sat in our Fitzrovia branch and we really enjoyed the design brief on it. We did an awful lot of research on the history of the area, and the bohemian nature of Fitzrovia perpetually came up. It was the intelligencers' meeting place for coffee during the 1700s and 1800s. Enlightened minds who had travelled across the then vast British Empire and who would then descend on Fitzrovia; there was this very evocative melting pot of history and interaction. We have tried to communicate that through the design. It is quite a simple, interactive space but we have underpinned that with the odd touches of palpable opulence which communicates the heart of the British Empire; the brass, the gold, the granites and the look and feel of the chandeliers. It captures the area it is in but also tries to capture the demographic of the people who worked there during the day.

Clerkenwell captures the creative designer, Holborn captures the tech side because Amazon is the main office tenant there, Fitzrovia captures the more creative finance worker; think Steve Jobs meets Charles Dickens. Marylebone captures the slightly more suited and booted city worker who want a twenty minute break before they get back to it. Each store is very different and we very much set out with that aspiration.

Are you hoping to bring a sense of the Workshop ethos to each area of London?
We want to do that but we don’t actively push it down people’s throats. We are quite a humble brand, so we want customers to engage with the baristas. We believe the way to do that is to get the DNA of our staff right, by making sure they are looking after the customer, making the coffee properly, and communicating what they are doing with the coffee. There are things we do to create that hospitable Workshop experience. So you get the water, you get the engagement and you pay for the product after you’ve drunk it. In most coffee bars you pay for the product before you’ve actually enjoyed it but we want to create a more hospitable experience.

What is it about Londoners and coffee?
There are two sides to coffee. First is that it does contain a poison called caffeine that is a neural toxin so it exists in the plant to deter insects from eating it and it’s a natural deterrent. But part of this idea that people think they need coffee stems from its ability to wake you, that the caffeine stimulates the system and increases the heart rate to make you feel awake. That for us is an unfortunate by-product of coffee. Workshop is about sourcing and roasting and extracting the most delicious coffee we can find. So a lot of people drink it because they think they need it to wake them up, but then they start to enjoy it which we hope makes people go from coffee drinkers to coffee lovers. Hopefully you then become a coffee geek. I’ve always been a coffee lover and now I think I would probably call myself a coffee geek.

How do you feel gentrification has impacted London?
There has been enormous development and obviously at the moment there’s the emergence of Crossrail which will allow people to get across London faster. The cosmopolitan, fast-pace of London life means people want a good product and they will pay for a good product. It’s a very progressive city and the worst thing you can do is underestimate the intelligence of the customer.

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Photo Credit: Leo Bieber

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