You know how parents always think their kid is better than other kids? We’re kind of like that with our story.
We know that the origin story of what is essentially a hot beverage supplier might not be Lord of the Rings grade captivating, but if you’re down to for the journey, let's go!
The story begins with Jasper (me) and Harley back in 2019. We were 10 years into Tory austerity and everybody thought it couldn’t get much worse, still things were good. Time has a way of a sweetening the picture, my memory of that period was long sunny days filled with smiles and buttercup kisses.
Harley was living in Nottingham and working as director of a coffee roasters. He was getting on pretty well there, until someone from the shadows pulled the rug from under his feet the moment insolvency services... I’m gonna have to stop there for legal reasons. Imagine it as you wish, but picture Harley with a nice black suede jacket on getting pissed on from a height and you’re not far off the truth.
I was living in Sheffield and working for the same company under Harley. Sheffield is great, I had a cheap flat, a purple Nissan Micra called Audrey, and the feeling that my approach to life was leading nowhere.
Harley and I used to have a drink or smoke once or twice a week and get to dreaming. I would dream of being rich, Harley would dream of becoming a hero for social justice, somehow we talked ourselves into believing that we could have both if only someone would give us a coffee roaster.
I could elaborate more on this aimless sunshine period, but let’s skip to part where the stars aligned (Feb 2020).
Mr Penk's magical machine
Just as everything hit the fan with the aforementioned business, someone handed us a shiny silver coffee roaster on a shiny silver platter.
Well, they didn’t give it to us, they just said we could use it whenever we wanted for a reasonable price. That someone was Steve Penk. I didn’t know it at the time but it turns out he’s kind of a big deal in our industry, and the facility he was offering was just about the best thing we could’ve ever laid our hands on; a Loring S15.
This was it. We jumped off the cliff head first and blindfolded, brothers, entrepreneurs, proper fucking adults.
I went straight to my granny’s house and asked for some cash, she gave me £4K and wished me good luck, I spent that on a pair of Technics and a bunch of Waitrose food, being a director was great!
Harley had somebody send him £4K in banded 20's and I realised this was serious, so I got a loan and a credit card sharpish. We quickly came to understand that £10K wasn’t enough for anything, and we didn’t even have a premises (Harley insisted that my flat wasn’t fit for packing coffee). We needed help, we needed a home, we needed a business partner.
The Third Musketeer
I popped into Whaletown Coffee giddy to approach Jordan with a plan. He was the perfect candidate to join our band, he was just as bored of the industry as we were, had a shop with a back room, access to a small amount of cash, and a playful creative side that we’d need as we didn’t even have a name yet.
So it began, Jasper, Harley, and Jordan spitballing ideas and putting tape on tubs out the back of Whaletown.
My memory of how the concept came together is a little hazy, but there are a few moments that I remember clear as day:
- I remember we went to the pub, all excited like we were about to change the world. We wrote our first manifesto on a scrap of paper and were dead proud of it. We wanted to buy incredible green coffee, sell it to everyone cheap, never make profit from selling equipment, never use supply contracts, and pay the best prices around to our producers.
- We had discussion about minimalism, and came to the realisation that it wasn’t gonna work for us... there's a degree of coolness and composure that’s necessary to make minimalism inspire confidence, none of us were that cool, composed, or sensible (Thomas wasn't on-board yet). We decided that whatever we were gonna do it had to be ornate and loud.
- Me and Jordan got really into the idea of a heritage/retro aesthetic, nobody was really doing that in UK speciality (not well anyway we thought). As we chatted, the conversation turned to the marketing of alcohol and cigarette brands back in the day. We reminisced about the ornate ashtrays in pubs and the bright, embossed tins that cigarette companies used to hook customers. Could these same techniques work for coffee? With its addictive properties and persuasive messaging, we believed that this approach could work well for us. And, if all that failed, we could always just throw a load of gold on the logo to grab your attention.
- This was true creative genius in action, no idea was a bad idea, we threw all our inspiration up as high as we could and it gracefully fell into place and provided us with a name. Cuppers Choice. It’s bloody gold and I don’t care to hear anything on the contrary.
To the drawingboard
That was it then. We had an idea and a few quid, we needed an artist and some coffee. Finding the artist was easy once we knew the style we were going for. I have a mate in Norwich who’s next level good at traditional sign writing and has a good knowledge of the coffee industry. We called him up and he was gassed to work on the project, think it cost us about a grand for everything (logos, postcards, labels). His name is Kieran Harper (@kharpersigns) and you’d be hard pressed to get a quarter of what we got out him for that price nowadays, rightfully so he’s killing it.
The choice is ours
Coffee was next, we requested samples from Kamba, Café Imports, Raw Material, and Caravela, then got to cupping. We knew we wanted an approachable Brazil, a stunning East African, and a couple of other tasty bits to play with. I remember the packages arriving, it was crazy exciting... for the first time ever we had the opportunity to buy coffee based on our own tastes and values, we were unchained, radical, giddy. Selecting was easy... we picked all the mental zingy ones and a couple of half way safe bangers for house options.
Companies need clients
Next up we needed clients, we had Whaletown, that was an easy win as Jordan was part of the company. Where to find the rest was the challenge. We didn’t want to be aggressive with the sales, and kinda hoped things would grow organically... but then Covid happened. Me and Harley found ourselves with no jobs, no cafes, no money left, and a few tonnes of contracted coffee, it was pretty peak. At this point it was like, all bets are off, lets send samples to everybody who’s home address we can find and make promises we hope one day we can fulfil.
Oh 2020, the red bag days when our offer list was 6 coffees strong.
I’ve missed out a bit here when I thought the world was properly ending and ran home to Norwich, but I guess that’s irrelevant.
By the time things began to open up again we’d managed to sneak a couple of roast days in, Harley was starting to understand the Loring, and we were desperately low on funds. It’s hard when you’re not from good stock and don’t have a good credit rating, people/banks won’t really give you much money. We needed cash for things like stickers, printers, grinders, lunches and rent. Step in Thomas, our first angel investor.
Thomas is a sensible guy, softly spoken, considered, well put together, has a good credit rating and a mortgage. He was running a music/film/advert type agency thing and it wasn’t going too well because of the mask/stay at home/bang pots and pans on your doorstep thing. At some point he turned up and said he liked the stickers. "Yes! Of course you can give us money" we thought.
We told him we wanted £10K for 10% of Cuppers, he countered with £5k, we said yes, but he only gave us about £2K and started working with us.
To this day I feel a bit like he did us over, but he’s the only one who understands Quickbooks and talks to the accountants, so I kinda just have to take his word on things.
On our way
With our cash injection, Thomas somewhat in control of the books, and Harley shouting “more energy up front” we were off. We rented a unit and sweet talked Algrano into giving us £40K of credit to bring in a container from Rwanda. This was pretty mad actually, we didn’t have to give any personal guarantees or anything, Harley is a silver-tongued devil. It didn’t feel real, Harley was always talking about having been to Rwanda, saying things like “Rwandan coffee is amazing” and “I have a friend in Rwanda who’s an amazing coffee producer”. Then one day we had a whole box of Rwandan exclusives to cup. The coffees were really good, then we had a ship full heading our way.
It was around this time when things started to get weird. Money was an issue again, but this time it was personal. I mean me and Harley didn’t personally have any money. We also received a legal letter demanding about a million quid off us because of some clients we’d allegedly stolen or something. With the coffee on the sea (delayed due to Covid) the wolves at the door, and the country starting to get back on it’s feet, cracks in our merry band began to appear. Stressful times were here, maybe we just couldn’t do it, maybe there was a reason all our old bosses we’re greedy and grumpy.
We weren't gonna be a flash in the pan!
First up we had to deal with the legal issue, that was a doddle. We called around and found a friend with a posh legal team at their disposal. One letterheaded email with all different legal codes and threats meant our worries here went away! Off the back of that we went out and found legal cover (something Harley had apparently been asking Thomas to do since way before the scare). We also thought it might be wise to understand these things better ourselves so we found a business advisor, he was great, his name was Alan, thanks Sheffield City Council.
Then there was the coffee delay. We couldn’t really do much about that. Global transport logistics are just about the least fun thing in the world. All we’ve really learned here is don’t bet on anything and plan as far ahead as you can. The plandemic made things really hard, our coffee got stuck in Mombasa for a bit, then somewhere else for a bit, oh and the Suez Canal too. We’d totally banked on having it early Winter '20 - it didn’t arrive until Spring '21. So, we opened a pop-up shop to keep the wheels greased, that was a laugh.
274 Sharrow Vale Road
This coffee roaster thing is quite difficult, you know the easiest way to get rich quick? Open a coffee shop. That's why you see all these specialty baristas with their Lambo's and mansions.
We'd been keeping an eye on some sites for a while and this one seemed right. We pitched it to Thomas, he said no, we went ahead and told him to pay the 2 month deposit to the landlord for a short-term 4 week let.
It was like a bad Craig David remix... We got the keys on Monday, smashed down a wall on Tuesday, build a plywood workbench on Wednesday, painted and cleaned on Thursday, had the electrician in on Friday and Harley and Thomas left the shop around 4:30am on Saturday - about 5 hours before we opened with a free coffee day. There was no chilled Sunday.
Seriously though, that month was a moment. We opened the shop on the Saturday 28/11/20 with next to no advertisement, marketing or PR other than a Posca'd window and an IG post. We served over 300 coffees in the best part of 5 hours that day, then stayed open through Christmas.
It's mad how many people still mention that little shop to us.
Do you always get to Christmas and think, hey this winter thing ain't too bad? It's all good times, sore heads and roast dinners. Then Jan hits and you remember it's only just started.
The excitement was over. The lease on the shop was up and we were heading into our third national lockdown. Times got really tough.
It was like everything was cool, but under the surface it wasn’t very cool at all. We would have arguments, little ones, but arguments still. I remember we were gonna buy Sandows (the cold brew company) and then sell it to some Middle Eastern business, but still make the drink, or something like that. We we’re also gonna open 140 shops in the UAE because of some prince or similar connection. Then there was the shop, were we gonna keep the shop? We tried but the Turkish Barbers put in a higher bid. It was all pretty exhausting, and at times completely unbelievable. With a family to think about, and a shop of his own to keep afloat, I think it all just started to piss Jordan off.
A team of 4 became a team of 3. The world had begun to open up and the masks came off, this meant people were drinking coffee again. Business went boom and quite quickly our team of 3 was stretched to capacity... enter Callum.
The thing is that Callum was always destined to be a Cupper, he was invited to be a founder back when the whole thing was on a napkin, but he turned it down because it seemed like it was gonna be a chore and put him in debt, he wasn’t wrong there.
Now though, 18 months in and with an agreed wage, Callum was in. We helped find him a house and promised him a title. We called him “Production Manager”. It all felt very professional.
From that point on not that much has changed. We’ve hired Jake who’s really lovely and good at coffee. We moved to a bigger unit, I call it a warehouse which is probably a bit of an overstatement. Loads of dogs appeared, we now all have dogs. I moved from the flat into a nice house in Hillsborough. I’d like to say it’s a happy ending, but it’s more stressful than it’s ever been, I am the director of a proper business, a proper business that’s doing actual good things.
We’re all really proud of where we are, but we’re not there yet. If you’ve read this far into our story then you’re somewhat invested. Keep your eye on us, when we get there you’ll know about it.