The Turning Point I Feared

The Turning Point I Feared

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.