(qlmbusinessnews.com via telegraph.co.uk – – Sat, 19th Jan 2019) London, Uk – –
Gabriel Shohet and Eirik Holth can empathise with the blue back-to-workers who returned to their desks last week; five years ago, they too were uninspired by their careers.
But the duo did something about it, quitting their jobs to start a coffee chain.
The co-founders used to be university flatmates before graduating and joining private equity firms. They lost touch, but caught up on the phone one day about wanting to strike out on their own. “We were used to managing companies from the board, so never got stuck in or started anything from scratch,” explains Shohet. “Getting our hands dirty was very appealing.”
Inspiration struck: why not go into business together? “Coffee was our passion; we were always micro-roasting and experimenting with new blends at the flat,” recalls the entrepreneur. “We agreed to pack in our jobs, set a date and did it.”
From the beginning, they wanted their brand to stand out from the crowd. It inspired the name, Black Sheep Coffee (and its tagline, “leave the herd behind”).
They launched with a different brew: a 100pc speciality-grade robusta coffee that, unlike its commonly used arabica counterpart, has more caffeine and protein, and is higher on the PH scale. It makes for a smoother, frothier drink that’s easier to digest on an empty stomach.
Another difference is its work with homeless people, says Shohet. “We care deeply about doing good, but we wanted to do it directlyand not just donate to a big charity like everyone else.”
The Black Sheep owners introduced an initiative that enables customers to donate a discounted brew or completed loyalty card by sticking it or a note to a board in store. Those who can't afford a coffee can simply come in and grab one. “So many warned us against it, predicting drunks and thieves who would turn new business away,” recalls the co-founder. “They were wrong, of course – people have been polite and often help us to open in the morning.
“It's a neat way to fight social exclusion and break down barriers.”
The duo spent most of a start-up loan on kit, inventory and flights to meet suppliers. They carried out product tests and customer research by popping up at London markets and stations. “We had no salary and very little money,” recalls Shohet. “The first two years were really difficult, but we slowly built up [a positive] cash flow and enough landlord credibility that one eventually bought into our idea.”
A proper shop was a big turning point, but Shohet doesn't regret the financial struggle. “We had discipline and became very creative in terms of making things happen,” he says, giving the example of a stall in Urban Outfitters on Oxford Street. “We only sought out that partnership because we needed someone who would fit out our kiosk and wouldn't charge rent.”
The heavy footfall and prominent window branding was priceless, he thinks. “Not having any cash forces you to come up with cool concepts and different ways of getting things done.”
A £23,000 Kickstarter campaign helped the founders to kit out their first café in Charlotte Street, but they've otherwise shunned investment. “We've tried to grow without calling on institutions that may be looking for a quick return,” he says. “Short-term targets force you to compromise and limit your scope – it can kill the soul of a business.”
Black Sheep has been anything but limited, having grown to £10m in annual turnover and 28 shops across London, Manchester and Manila. “We're scaling very fast, which means we have to hire a lot of new people,” says Shohet, who leads 216 employees.
The biggest challenge has been finding and retaining that talent, he adds. Paying above market rate helps with the former (“if you want the best people, you have to be comfortable with the fact that they will be expensive”), while “clear” and “visible” career progression helps with the latter. “We have a strong training programme through which people can work their way up to head of coffee and gain industry-recognised qualifications.”
A smart benefit also enables staff to pursue their passions; the company will pay any employee to teach a free class to colleagues. “We don't want them to have to choose between Black Sheep and yoga or acting, for example,” says Shohet. “It's all about making sure that people have a good time working for us.”
Having a worse time is the high street, with more casualties expected this year. But the entrepreneur isn't worried. “Coffee is still very much about the experience,” he says. “People want to see it being made and drink it straight away; they want to use the Wi-Fi and hang out or host a meeting.”
In terms of what next for the brand, he wants to continue to focus on its two main mission statements: source the best coffee in the world and hire the best baristas in town. “Get those right and we can't really go wrong,” says Shohet, whose beans are currently sourced from India, Peru, Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea.
It will also keep on in its fight against plastic. Front of house, the business stocks paper straws and 100pc compostable cups and lids, explains the co-founder, who isn't a fan of offering discounts to clients who provide their own reusable cups. “We want to tackle the issue head-on, instead of making people pick between convenience and the environment.
“It's not the their responsibility to bring a cup or recycle another; it's ours.”
While there's still work to be done on the supplier side, Black Sheep has otherwise been plastic-free for three and a half years. “It's not that difficult,” says Shohet. “If we can do it, so can the big chains.”
By Matthew Caines