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By Bira

Coffee to go: retailer profile

The UK coffee market continues to grow and so artisan roaster Stewarts of Trent Bridge intends to get its share of what’s brewing

THE TEAM AT Stewarts of Trent Bridge have a simple mission for the business: they aim to get good coffee out to as many people as possible, including coffee shops, bars and Bira members.

For Nathan Barton, his wife Monika and their fellow director Mark Whittaker, Stewarts is more than just a job. They are coffee evangelists and they really enjoy coming to work every day.

The UK coffee market continues to grow and so artisan roaster Stewarts of Trent Bridge intends to get its share of what's brewing

Monika and Nathan Barton with Mark Whittaker around Stewarts’ classic coffee roaster. Below: Their Blend coffee shop inside and outside.

The base for the multi-faceted enterprise is Sneinton Market, a short walk from central Nottingham. A former fruit and veg wholesale complex built in 1938, the area was derelict and somewhere to avoid for many years, but since 2013 the local council has revived it as a new creative quarter, which suited Stewarts just fine. The company moved in at the beginning of 2017, installing a gas supply and a chimney for their roasting machine.

The coffee roasting operation is in a large unit adjacent to Blend, the company’s rather cool coffee shop, where, unsurprisingly enough, the only coffee beans they use are their own. A relatively small business, Stewarts, like many other independents, does several things simultaneously. As well as the wholesale business selling coffee, the trio sells coffee direct to consumers via their website, they run the coffee shop and also sell, service and maintain professional coffee machines produced by Conti, a small specialist maker based in the south of France. The machines cost between £3,500 and £10,000 depending on the specification.

These various strands of activity are, of course, complementary and synergetic, all feeding into and benefiting from the nation’s increased interest in drinking – and preparing – good coffee.

“As we see it, the coffee market is like the wine market was a while ago,” says Mark. “People want to trade up, to pay more for a better product. We are trying to supply better products. We want our coffee going to nice places, where it is served properly.”

As Bira Magazine pointed out in special features in the October 2018 and October 2017 issues, consumers’ obsession with coffee offers plenty of opportunities for sellers of machines, tableware and other accessories, plus, of course, the coffee itself. Stewarts recently became a supplier to the Bira Direct buying group, so other members can now buy the products at advantageous rates.

Stewarts of Trent Bridge

Nathan has a clear view of where the business sits in what is a crowded and competitive market: “There are a lot of coffee roasters about. Some consumers look primarily for the convenience of a local supplier. Others want very, very specialist flavours and very high quality and are willing to pay what that costs. Stewarts wants to find a place between these two extremes, offering very good coffee without being too exclusive. Depending on the roast, prices range from £16 to £22 for a kilo of coffee.

“We are riding on the back of the modern coffee movement. Our trade customers and the end-consumers are demanding to know where their coffee is from. Venues shout about their coffee and their suppliers. We want to take a no-nonsense approach, spreading our reputation by word of mouth. We want our wholesale customers to trust in us and to know that they will get consistent, quality coffee, and the service to go with it”

The trio used to work together in the restaurant trade around the East Midlands. In 2012, when Stewart Falconer, a Nottingham-based pioneer of coffee roasting who had set up the business as long ago as the 1980s, wanted to retire, Nathan and Monika purchased it and invited their former colleague Mark to head up sales.

Monika handles the financial and administration responsibilities, while Nathan is the coffee selector, oversees the shop, and deals with new projects. He also describes himself, tongue-in-cheek, as the firm’s “visionary”, which provokes some amusement from his co-directors.

Nathan admits that some investment was lacking in the first years of their ownership, but things have been moving forward at pace since 2015. The move from their original base in Trent Bridge to Sneinton allowed them to open Blend and hit the accelerator on coffee production. In 2016-17 sales of coffee grew by 20%, in 2017-18 by 32%, and this year they are hoping for 35%.

Although they have been selling directly to consumers online since 2017, some 85%-90% of their sales is B2B and this is where the emphasis will continue. Trade sales are also made via the site. Although Stewarts’ customers are concentrated in the East Midlands, the company is developing a national network of stockists and users, helped by the website.

In Blend on-trend drink options like beetroot latte and turmeric latte are on the menu, but the bulk of the Stewarts business is done with around seven staple roasts, with a couple of new coffees appearing each season. These guest-roasts attract new online customers, and also allow wholesale customers to offer different, interesting varieties in their cafes.

Beans, rather than ground coffee, comprise most of the sales. The bulk of the purchases of green beans (coffee in its raw unroasted state) are made through just two importers, with contracts being signed for a year. The German-built machine that Stewart Falconer purchased 30-plus years ago is used for roasting, which is handled by head-roaster Lee McIrvine. Each roast of 9kg (c 20lb) of coffee beans takes 10-12 minutes and there is a 20% weight loss during the process. Roasting three or four days a week, weekly production is about 250-300kg (550-660lb).

Early on, Nathan took the decision not to be too price-sensitive: “Of course a trade customer can buy through a cash and carry and get a lower price, but that is not our customer. They won’t be getting our quality and service, and we are sure that people want to pay a bit extra for something a lot better.”

Given the demographics of their target customer, Sneinton Market is an appropriate location for Blend, which attracts people aged 25-45, including students, young creatives on laptops and groups of mothers with children in pushchairs. Their neighbours in the Art Deco-flavoured buildings include micro-breweries, web designers, a greetings card company, a gin producer, and a macaroon business.

Despite its proximity to the city centre, general footfall at the start of trading was unpredictable, so the Stewarts-Blend team is active in promoting the market with some witty activities, such as an open-air cinema with a big screen for last year’s World Cup matches. Last October they organised a Latte Art Throwdown, a competition for 16 local baristas to display their coffee-making talents. It was an imaginative way to engage with their own community. They also hire out Blend, which has a licence to sell alcohol, for private parties.
In another clever angle, head barista Aaron Pritty hosts 2-hour training sessions for professionals and amateur coffee-lovers. Gift tokens are available for sessions.

The business joined Bira after Monika met membership executive Joanne Arthur at an HSBC event in Nottingham. She was impressed with the immediate saving of 30% she made on her banking fees and the wide range of back-up services, such as the employment law helpline, Bira provides.

Growing the business is the name of the game and one way to increase demand for Stewarts’ coffee would be to open more branches of Blend. “We could become our own biggest customer,” says Nathan. “When moving to our new site within Nottingham, we thought long and hard about whether to drop the name Stewarts of Trent Bridge, but we felt that there was too much heritage behind the name. However, we picked Blend as a name for the coffee shop because it is more fluid and doesn’t tie us to our city of origin – it would work in Leicester or Manchester.”

For now, the most recent investment has been at the Stewarts unit where £15,000 has been spent on installing a mezzanine level to give more storage and office space above the roasting area. The team are convinced that the potential in the coffee-related sector is considerable and they want their share.

Says Nathan: “You only have to go into a store like John Lewis to see the huge selection of coffee appliances, machines and related gadgets. And let’s not forget coffee is an addictive substance too! All we want is our small piece of that big pie.”

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