So you want to open a… café

Founder of Association Coffee, Sam Mason explains how his new venture is not just about a caffeine hit, but about spreading the word of excellent coffee.

In September 2010, after almost two years of homework, I left regularly paid employment to start a coffee business. I had spent 15 years working in professional services, but always wanted to build a business from scratch. I was drawn to olive oil in Turkey (my wife is Turkish), wine making in Australia (I am Australian) and coffee in London. The common thread was making exceptionally high quality produce from ‘fruits of the earth’. I settled on coffee. Being a Londoner for 10 years it was the most accessible and I was excited about the potential for better coffee in this big city.

A fresh start in coffee

Coffee was a new industry for me, but I knew many people with the skills to help. The mantra, ‘you need to know what you are – and are not – good at’ is absolutely true. So while I understand business strategy and finance, my sister is a talented architect who could build a great space for a café. I also knew the leading coffee roaster in my home town of Melbourne, arguably the world’s most sophisticated coffee city. Between us, we had all the key skills to create something special. In a sense, I was building a business around people.

Coffee is an extremely competitive market and, in the UK, dominated by three large chain stores. But I felt strongly that there was an opening for an ‘independent’ offering that was differentiated on quality. So product quality became the cornerstone of the business and I set about building quality into everything we did.

The focus on quality

The quality focus helped attract some of London’s top baristas. You can spend a lot of money buying the best equipment and the best produce, but in coffee it all counts for nothing if you don’t have exceptional baristas. And in London there was only a small community of people who really knew how to make coffee well. I was lucky because I didn’t get one, but two baristas from two of the cafés I regarded as London’s best. The common focus on quality made it easy for the three of us to work together and I was able to take a back seat, giving full autonomy to the baristas, who, in this aspect of the business, became my teacher.

Important to everything we do is a philosophy about quality which I learned from a family friend, a pioneer in the Australian wine industry. He taught me that all the potential for a wine is inherent in the grape and that a wine maker’s role is one of stewardship over quality. We cannot improve on the potential that nature has created, but we can easily destroy it. Our role then is to do everything right to coax out the quality that exists in potential form.

In the case of coffee this means an unbroken chain of skill and care from the farmer, through the roaster to the coffee maker. A single break in the chain means the quality is lost. This philosophy engenders a certain humbleness, respect for the bean, and an imperative to partner with suppliers who embrace a similar philosophy of quality.

Launching Association Coffee

On our opening day I felt proud and sure we had built something special. But I also knew that there was a large challenge ahead. Just because you build it does not mean they will come. Yes, we had some early converts to our coffee and there are many times when customers tell us it’s the best coffee they have ever had. But many other Londoners are not yet aware that coffee can be any different to what you find in the chain stores, their expectations having been formed over a long time of drinking commodity coffee.

Our challenge is to raise consumer awareness of the possibility for something better. It’s easy to understand that some wines are better than others, as are some cuts of meat and there are good restaurants and some that are not so good. The same extends to coffee. This is an exciting challenge because if we are successful it means we, along with the handful of other quality-focused independent caf—s, can have a real impact on the broader coffee industry.

We’ve been open for six months now and things are going well. The last couple of months have seen strong growth which has put pressure on staffing, operational procedures and customer service — this is the other aspect of quality, which is equally important. We’d like to continue growing and open another two stores, but that’s it. In coffee, as with many food businesses, it’s almost impossible to attain exceptional quality on a large scale. So it’s important for us to stay small, and independent. That’s the way we like it.

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