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Small-scale roasters return to the British coffee scene.

Small-scale roasters return to the British coffee scene

As coffee consolidates its gains in the British beverage market, the majors are making most of the running, but even the smaller roasters and packers are benefitting from the trend. Richard Clark, who lives in the county of Norfolk, found one prospering enterprise not far from his own doorstep.

Along, time ago, when trains were still hauled by handsome great steam locomotives, British Railways used to roast their own blends to serve in the Pullman cars, the company hotels and in 10,000 station buffets. But when the locos were retired to theme parks or wreckers' yards, to be replaced by diesels and electrics, the old gas roasters were also allowed to go cold.

But, like many of the old locos, some of the elderly roaster units still had a lot of life left in them; a fact which Martin Sanctuary was grateful to discover when he came to set up his own coffee business some eight years ago, in the historic old port of King's Lynn in the County of Norfolk. It should be understood that although Lynn has many attractions, and the harbor is as busy as it was when King John of Magna Carta fame granted it the Royal Charter in 1204, it isn't the likeliest place you'd choose to set up a new coffee enterprise.

Norfolk is still a very rural county, conservative and set in its ways. Prosperity has only recently started to catch up with it so, unlike many other parts of Britain, its tastes have not been modified by foreign holidays or cosmopolitan city shopping. Tea is still the standard hot beverage, and coffee tended to be seen as something expensive and exotic.

But when he finally decided, after 14 years of it, that he was tired of life in London, Martin Sanctuary ignored the demographic evidence and went back to his Norfolk roots.

"In 1967 King's Lynn still didn't have much in the way of commerce and industry, so when I saw a job advertised by Kenco I applied for it," he explains. "I wanted something exciting, not a desk-bound career, and Kenco had a vacancy for a trainee buyer, so I set off for the big city." He remained with Kenco for three years, and then moved across to J Lyons as a buyer for 11 years. At Lyons, bean quality was matched to stringent quality control in the roastery, and this gave him invaluable experience of factory procedures and technology.

"But I wanted to get back into the country, and there were no immediate prospects of promotion at Lyons. So my two priorities were, to get out of London and to create my own coffee enterprise. I reckoned you might as well work in a place you enjoy."

Back in the 60s and early 70s, this would not have been the most daring of ambitions. Until 1975 knocked the stuffing out of the business, most towns in Britain had their own local suppliers, often with a small cylinder roaster in the shop window. But the sector was devastated by the price crisis, and the solubles consolidated their hold on 98 percent of the British coffee market.

The medium-size roasters who survived the deadly 70's saw the taste for traditional roast coffees begin to revive in the 80's, and they flourished to such an extent that R&G consumption has crept up to 10 percent of the total. It's a trend that companies like Nairobi Coffee & Tea and Costa Coffees have helped along with intelligence and imagination, exploiting every gap that the majors leave in the market.

Of course the really small grocery store roasters have not revived, but suppliers on the next notch up the scale--like Martin Sanctuary's Tropic Coffees--are increasingly winning their own slice of the action too. In eight years, Tropic has moved from zero to an annual turnover of around $1.7 million; not a fortune, but certainly a comfortable living.

Comfortable, maybe, but this was no easy option. In practise, it means that every customer is your best customer, and if there's an emergency order from any of them then the plant will be kept working all night or over an entire weekend to meet the demand. And it's been like that from the very beginning.

Having assembled the necessary start-up capital, Sanctuary took out a lease on two 1000-sq. ft. units on an industrial estate on the outskirts of the town, and then set about finding the plant to fill it. Funds wouldn't stretch to all-new plant, and this is where British Rail come into the picture: in a remote basement deep underneath the Gothic splendor of St. Pancras Station in London was a 200kg, gas-fired, direct-flame Witmee roaster, covered in dust and cobwebs but apparently still intact.

The company who'd built the unit had vanished without trace so there was no User's Handbook to consult. With no direct engineering experience, Sanctuary sought to help of a mechanically-minded friend and, over an exhausting weekend, the machine was dismantled, ready for transfer to Lynn. It then took another week to get it working.

It has been working ever since. It takes a lot of care and attention, and it lacks sophistication, but provided the man in charge keeps a constant check on the state of the beans it produces a very acceptable product.

Sensibly refusing to be discouraged by Norfolk's reputation, Sanctuary began to build the business by scouting the neighboring counties. Starting with a few contacts he'd made in London, he found new clients for both instant and roast coffees among the smaller outfits that the major suppliers didn't handle. These included wholesalers, caterers, hotels, delis and other comparatively minor outlets, but the total demand has grown to the point where Tropic has added a second automatic foil-pack machine and bought a further 3000 sq. ft. unit for offices and warehousing.

"But I've never contemplated the direct retail market," says Sanctuary, and with feeling. "We give our customers the range of qualities they require and our relatively short delivery chain means we can also offer them a prompt as well as a flexible service. And because our customers are expanding their sales these days, we're expanding with them."

Sanctuary is also grateful for his Lyons experience. "Frankly, if I'd started out on my own when I was younger and lacked that knowledge of coffee I'd have made a lot of mistakes and probably had to struggle for the rest of my life."

But has he been able to persuade the good folk of Norfolk that coffee has its own special virtues? "Well, in a way we have an evangelical role, but I must admit that 95 percent of our production goes outside the county. Still, there has been a certain amount of evolution in the past decade, and the public do seem to be going for the better qualities, too. A lot of establishments are really thinking about the standards of the coffee they serve--probably for the first time--and their customers are, in turn, taking longer over the coffee cups."

But is this a general, national trend?

"Well, some of the smaller companies like ours do seem to be increasing their share of the business at a disproportionate rate compared to the overall size of the market. And it's not all from new coffee drinkers, so some must be coming from the big boys, and over the past few years the market has been fragmenting away from the giants.

"So, let Lyons and Nestle and General Foods deal with the big supermarket chains. There's still another level of business, with smaller individual volumes that still add up to a substantial demand, and the majors can never serve that sector as well as the smaller, more flexible outfits can."

As philosophies go, that might not be a bad example for others in the burgeoning specialty business in other markets. This 200kg, gas-fired, direct-flame roaster is still going strong.
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Author:Clark, Richard
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Dec 1, 1989
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