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Coffee with a conscience – Leicester Coffee House is about more than profit

12 December 2022

Gail Brown and her partner, Aaron, developed their love of food and coffee into a business and made sure that it embodies the values and ethics they also share. When I arrive to interview Gail, Aaron explains that she’s in the middle of baking a lemon drizzle cake, so I am happy to wait with a cup of the finest Guatemalan coffee until she emerges looking like a classic small business owner for whom there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. In between checking on the lemon drizzle, we discuss how Gail got to where she is now.

What’s your journey up to this point been like?
Prior to here, I worked with schools and businesses for a charity called Leicestershire Cares. I was the Education Co-ordinator running projects on employability skills, literacy and numeracy. While I was there a couple of things happened: I realised that I wanted to set up on my own and that whatever I was going to do next should be socially minded.

I started doing more work on employability and I wanted this café to be an organisation where we are training young people with more difficult needs to get into the workplace. I was working with Keyham Lodge School who’ve got kids with social, emotional mental health issues, and I found that what made me tick more when I was in that role was the harder-to-reach young people. They have a lot to bring to the workplace but they’re just not able to demonstrate that in a normal academic situation.

In the meantime, Aaron developed an interest in roasting coffee and set up a green bean roasting operation using a popcorn maker initially. After blowing up a couple of those, we got a small 250g roaster at home and realised that people actually wanted our freshly roasted coffee beans. We turned that into a business from home in November 2016 just using a very basic spreadsheet of contacts, which became a kind of subscription service and many of those customers are still with us today. At the same time, we started looking for the right place to set up a coffee shop.

What kind of business training did you have when you started this?
Between the two of us we had most of the skills that we needed. Aaron has finance skills and is very good with figures whereas my specialism is communication, marketing and social media. I love setting things up from scratch and developing new projects. But there were certainly things we didn’t know. I spent quite a lot of time early on, networking and trying to find funding through the LLEP Business Gateway. And I got advice there too on how to fill those gaps in my knowledge. Aruna, our Business Adviser, was very useful in sending me leads and letting me bounce ideas off her.

Tell us more about this unique building
We decided to buy these premises and did a lot of the refurbishment ourselves over all three floors which took eight months. With the current economic situation, it’s been a real blessing not having to worry about the rent. We got some grant funding from Green Belle to help install energy efficient measures and financed the rest through savings. We opened the doors here in October 2018.

We have rented out the five rooms upstairs to a number of therapists (creative therapy, drama therapy and psychotherapy) and I’d like to support them with developing as some of them are new business enterprises. This ties in nicely as the original idea of a ‘socially minded’ coffee shop came from when I was doing a counselling course many years ago and I originally wanted to set up a coffee shop with the ability to see a counsellor on site too.

So, tell us a little more about your business ethos
It’s always been a very socially minded business and we want to keep it that way. Pretty much as soon as we started, we had young people from Keyham Lodge School doing placements in the coffee shop, behind the bar, supporting the roastery and delivering beans. This really helped to build confidence and social skills. They were also using our upstairs rooms for some of their offsite provision. One of their students created beautiful coffee sack bags which we sold in the shop, others were involved in taking pictures and social media and some of their construction students made our planters out of materials we bought, which they were delighted to see outside the café and are still in use today. I’ve just given them a brief to make some stools, trays to serve pour-over coffees and wooden plant holders for the tables so watch this space!

In March 2020 we closed our doors for a few days during COVID and then, when we re-opened, we were the only coffee shop open in Leicester and people were really pleased to visit us for a chat. But those two years have just been about survival really, trying to work out how to keep going. We took customers’ safety very seriously and had a couple of very cold winters trading with the doors wide open for takeaways to save customers coming into an enclosed space to buy their drinks. We borrowed a bike park from the City Council, created a flower filled welcome outside and took card payments through the window. We also increased our social media presence, developed our website and launched a cycle delivery service for our beans – just really small innovations.

Another part of what we’re about is where we get our coffee from. We buy green beans, and we roast them all here. Our supplier works with lots of very small farms, so we know exactly where it comes from and many of ours are from farms that are set up on co-operative and ethical principles and, often, they are organic too. The Guatemalan coffee that we have on today is from Red de Mujeres which means ‘women’s network’. It’s a women’s co-operative set up to support the women whose partners died in the war. There’s another social enterprise, co-operative farm in Uganda which we love as well and have fundraised for them. We also want our business to have a positive social impact in the countries of origin.

What do you do in terms of sustainability?
We try to run on a zero waste basis as much as possible. I try to think of ways not to create the waste in the first place and that guides our decisions on some of the things we buy. Roasting our own beans on site and buying large sacks of green beans means we avoid a lot of plastic packaging. We’ve reused these hessian sacks for lots of things – tote bags, stool covers and washing up sponges, for example.

Our milk comes in reusable glass bottles from a local family run farm in Great Dalby and we were the first coffee shop in Leicester to do this. It’s just the best milk for our coffee too. All of our cups are compostable (we refuse to use plastic), but the cost is high for these, and we are considering charging people for takeaway cups rather than increasing the overall prices of our drinks with coffee and other costs rising. Of course, we encourage the use of reusable cups and even continued this during COVID with ‘contactless coffee’ methods requiring no touching of the cups to ensure the safety of staff and customers.

The coffee grits that we have left over go to Leicester Print Workshop by bike and they use them in their planters. The bean chaff left over after roasting has been used by one of our customers to brew beer. We also reuse our oat milk containers in an innovative way – we make coffee cup carriers out of them. One of our baristas saw a video on TikTok and started making these. I refuse to buy new cardboard drinks carriers because they have such a short life. There’s no food waste because we bake in-house so can control the quantities we produce very closely.

I’d like to take zero waste a bit further and increase the number of customers bringing their own containers to buy coffee beans, which I hope to do with some increased capacity next year.

Sustainability is embedded in this business I think it’s fair to say. I became vegetarian when I was 14 and all through my life an awareness of sustainability and managing my own impact on our planet has been important to me. My previous 12 years at Leicestershire Cares involved getting businesses to embrace Corporate Social Responsibility so this has been another aspect to that. I’m very keen to see our space used for more community-based activities now that COVID has receded.

How have your customers responded to the values that are such a big part of your approach?
We’ve got a lot of loyal regulars that we see every day, sometimes twice a day. There are two things that they really like – one is the fantastic coffee, and the other is the experience we give them. We always ask customers ‘how are you?’ and you just don’t get that in big coffee chains. We’re not a corporate machine, we’re real people and that seems to have become increasingly important to people in the last couple of years. We encourage people to sit down and relax with a coffee for five minutes, rather than dashing back to work with a takeaway. It’s really important for people to take 5 minutes at least, have a chat or sit quietly for a moment in our shop. Poor mental health is another issue that’s grown massively during the pandemic. People are important, everyone is different, and we hope to encourage people back with the warm welcome we give them.

What are the issues around staffing?
Running a place like this takes a lot of time just to keep going so it can be difficult to make time for new ideas. But now we feel that we know what we’re doing so I can step back from serving behind the bar every day. We’re thinking about opening on Saturdays again and taking on some new staff.
In the future we’d like to have a larger team of baristas behind the bar, particularly at peak times. That would allow us to deal with the back-office side of things and think about doing new things. I’m not thinking about another premises, I want to see what else we can do here in terms of events, new activities, products and the community side of things, particularly developing training programmes for young people which is what we set out to do.

There is a real shortage of good baristas in the area, so we’d like to contribute to this skills gap, not necessarily just for ourselves but to help develop transferable skills for use in other hospitality businesses. The most skilled person in our latest recruitment round and our current barista is from the Ukraine and prior to that we’ve employed people from Antigua and Zimbabwe as they were the most skilled candidates. I wonder where the local candidates are.  There are lots of jobs right now, lots of people applying but not the people to fill them with the right skills and experience.

We also have another vacant space in our basement. We’d love to be able to open it into something, perhaps as an extension of our roastery to give us more space on the shop floor, or maybe as a barista training facility to support students or maybe even a bakery, as there is a shortage of good bread in the city centre. There are lots of ideas and opportunities, we just need the time to develop them and find the right people to work with. With your own business, it’s really hard work but you have the flexibility to adapt and grow and it’s exciting to see where we will go next!

Gail was speaking to Peter Allen.

Leicester Coffee House Co.