“Growth doesn’t have to mean lower quality… It should mean the opposite.”
How’s 2023 going? What have been the wins and challenges so far?
Is it fair to say that the pandemic and flexible working has culled inner city café culture somewhat? It seems like some of the big roastery café businesses have either closed or wound down their café spots in favour of wholesaling, retailing, and or developing private label products etc. But it’s notable that Grind has managed to thrive and exhibit significant growth over the past few years. What was the strategy?
2023 has been wild so far. It feels like the world is still equilibrating itself after Covid. Our cafes are all really city-focused, but I would say that it’s not a worse environment to trade in now per se, it’s just so much less regular and predictable. Undeniably offices are more empty now than pre-Covid but the city is still buzzing; tourism is up and the streets are full, but just with fewer commuters, and at weirder times.
When the first lockdown hit, we had already invested quite significantly in our retail operation; we’d installed a tinning line and had already started to advertise, as well as being on our 3rd iteration of compostable pods. This put us in a great place to respond to that huge growth in retail demand and really kick-started that side of our business.
I think what’s allowed us to thrive is just sticking to our brand identity through it all. We do so much cool stuff in terms of our sourcing, our roasting, our espresso bars, and our sustainability efforts, but really, we’re a lifestyle brand and I think that’s what draws most people to us. Hopefully they stay for the impact, the flavour and all the other cool stuff! But we’re not forcing photos of farmers at people, we just have them under the counter if they want ‘em.
Oh, and this year we launched in Waitrose – that’s a huge win for me! Seeing coffees we roasted from farmers I’m actually friends with on shelves in, like, small towns in middle England is so cool!
How do you balance scaling growth with preserving quality? Is there necessarily a compromise?
Growth doesn’t have to mean lower quality things. It really shouldn’t, in fact it should mean the opposite. I just think it’s easy to see how it can give greedy people the ability to take more.
The main thing we get to do with growth is buy directly from more and more people and origins, which means the power to arrange prices collaboratively and actually really work together with farmers (and importers) for the longer term. I could never do that when we were buying 3 bags at a time. We’re just at the beginning of this journey, and it’s so exciting; quality’s going up, farmers are happy, and it makes me want us to grow more!
On compromise, I think coffee is and always has been about compromise. I can’t sell geisha in the house blend for 1000 reasons. But as you grow, for sure you have problems you didn’t have before. Let’s talk about freshness and supermarkets as that’s a good case study. I’d love every single Grind customer to have a bag of filter coffee in their hands roasted the day before. But I have to send coffee to Waitrose’s fulfilment centre, from where it’s sent out to individual sites before being stocked on shelves and hopefully sold within the next week.
If I drew my line at even 5 days off roast, I couldn’t sell coffee in Waitrose and my Nan in Hastings couldn’t have Grind coffee, putting power and sales in the hands of people who care less about freshness than me. But if I send Waitrose this coffee as soon as it’s roasted, challenge them to order as little and often as possible, then I can make an impact in that world I wouldn’t have even been touching. Then it tastes nice, and we sell more and we have more of a powerful voice in that world and we can lean on them to order even more frequently and it gets even fresher and zing! We’re making the coffee in Hastings better.
Of course, we taste test our products all the time and do loads to preserve freshness, such as packing straight after grinding, nitrogen flushing our bags etc. But really, it’s just great to be having an impact in supermarkets, and it makes me very happy to be there.
It seems like Grind has done a lot for the notion of specialty blends, where historically there might have been a resistance to blending over roasting single origins. So why blend? Is blending necessary for growing volume and diversifying customer base? In that sense are they a bit of a gateway to specialty coffee for the average coffee consumer?
I love blending, I always have. But it all started from flavour, not practicality or logistics. I think it’s a way of increasing the depth of flavour in an espresso because I don’t have to get all the flavours I want from one coffee. I can find the chocolatiest of chocolatey Brazils and blend it with a completely and only malic Colombian, both of which I might consider lacking as single origin offerings. But together, if I get it right, I can create this really balanced chocolate apple dream of a coffee!
No doubt when you start talking about prices and consistency etc blending makes loads of sense too, but honestly, I think from a flavour point of view it’s justified. You’ve just gotta make sure the coffees are friends; I always make a rough cupping bowl blend to try this out. Sometimes two great coffees just hate each other for no reason.
What have been your most valuable mistakes or missteps over the years?
Luckily, I’ve never made a single mistake so nothing to talk about there.
With the zeitgeist being very much one of ‘sustainability’ when it comes to consumer
habits, are you seeing customers become more conscious of what they’re buying, and in that sense is there an increase in demand for information or proof that the coffee they’re buying is ‘sustainable’?
Customers are definitely demanding more from us on sustainability as an industry now, which is great. Demand drives so much of how this system works. We’ve been shouting a lot about sustainability in recent times, and it’s honestly driven a lot of customers away from some of the bigger companies to us. It’s also encouraged me to think and read loads more about it, and I’ve kept discovering new complexities that blow my mind.
For example, if we were to start farming organically for all of our food tomorrow, there is nowhere near enough space on Earth to feed everyone. This doesn’t mean we should just double down on pesticides or remove half the population, but it does mean we shouldn’t just blindly shout organic all the time and think we’ve nailed it.
What I would say is that we should re-frame the debate a little. Never have I been to a coffee farm with Grind and thought “damn, this place could do with a little more sustainability.” But on my cycle through central London to work I probably think that every 10 seconds. Just like how the large fossil fuel lads invented the concept of the carbon footprint to subtly place the responsibility on us as consumers rather than themselves, we need to avoid casually passing these bucks onto farmers.
Speaking of sustainability, with things like emissions reporting and government regulations coming in soon, should roasters be worried about supply? What’s your take on the EUDR deforestation regulation?
These regulations have the potential to rock the world of coffee, and everyone I talk to is a little unsure exactly how they’ll work. For example, it may be possible that if a farmer cuts a tree down to the stump (common practice to encourage regrowth and a healthy tree) they would breach the regulations and incur a huge fine.
Of course, I support efforts to reduce deforestation, but I’m worried that these rules are going to make things disproportionately harder for the smaller, less well-funded producers / companies over the larger ones. Hopefully that’s just my pessimistic take on it though! Let’s be positive and assume that the speciality producers of the world will be fine, supply will be unaffected and there will be more trees.
Coffee prices both local and on the ICE market have been volatile this year. Does there have to be a compromise on inventory or quality or both when prices rise?
How do you manage inventory if you’ve had a coffee around for a while and it’s starting to age? Can you mitigate the impact on green quality through creative roasting?
This is such a tough question to talk about. If a green bean costs double the price it did last year you have to charge your customers more, find other ways to make that money back, or just buy some different green (or just lose money?). I think we’re really lucky at Grind to have a lot of different avenues of revenue (and some investment) that allow us to be flexible and absorb these changes (up to a point), and I’m very aware that not every business has this luxury. Working directly with producers really helps here, as you can talk together and find a solution that works for both sides. Once again, a luxury of being at a bigger scale. As far as having old-tasting coffee; woody espresso is maybe my biggest fear as a green buyer. I think the answer is a combination of:
Project your numbers perfectly and buy coffees seasonally to run out just when the next ones arrive.
Build flexibility into your range so if something sells better / worse than expected then you can react.
Roast really dark so no one can taste the woodiness even if it’s there.
I sit somewhere between 1 and 2, I think.
On the last point, I really don’t think you can hide bad green through anything but really dark roasting, which I believe should ideally never happen. Kind of like if you’re a barista working with bad beans, do your best with the recipe, but really look to your roaster and ask why you’re working with an imperfect starting material.
So, if you find yourself with 100 bags of woody Colombian, drink one cup every day to ingrain the lesson of never over-buying again?
What’s next for Grind and what are you looking forward to?
It’s been really fun doing collaborations this year; Oatly, Pip and Nut, Henry Holland, even Our Place pans. I think we’ll be doing more fun stuff like this. I’m going on my first sourcing trip to India soon, which I cannot wait for; I think it’s a very under-represented origin in speciality and I know there’s some amazing coffee there.
Finally, I’m just excited to keep on truckin’, growing and embracing all the challenges and privileges that growth brings! I hope I can be a good impactful force in this industry, and I’ll try and have some fun at the same time.