As the dust settles after the initial excitement of the news of Tesco’s involvement in a new high street coffee house venture, and now that the first of the Harris and Hoole business has opened in Amersham, the coffee trade is asking whether Tesco has indeed become involved in a genuine artisan coffee venture? As the new café introduced the people of Amersham to the Taylor Street Baristas version of the flat white, several coffee trade commentators clearly turned to thinking that the involvement of the nation’s dominant food retailer might not be a bad thing for the coffee trade after all.
In the financial columns of early August, we saw the familiar situation of many pundits repeating each others’ stories without really knowing what was going on… but within the coffee trade, it has now been suggested that the new Harris and Hoole chain might possibly leapfrog the benchmark set for the high street by the big three chain players, and might actually do the trade a service by taking a ‘more than the high street’ standard out to the provinces.
The news which had ‘stunned’ the trade in general, was that Tesco would be working with the noted artisan coffee house business Taylor Street Baristas in a project which might acquire the former Clintons Card stores and turn them into up market coffee houses on provincial high streets, using coffee sourced direct from growers.
The partners created a company called Harris and Hoole for the joint venture, with the first site in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, to be followed by a second in Uxbridge. The new organisation is in talks with Clintons’ administrators, looking to buy 15 more sites.
The thing which aroused the interest of the coffee trade was not just the emergence of a noted London ‘artisan’ coffee shop player into the everyday provincial high street, but the presence of the high street’s most dominant player. Tesco has around one-third of the food and household goods retail market, about the same as Sainsbury and Asda put together, and although the stats say one pound in every eight spent in British retailers goes to Tesco, one analyst has said the figure is actually larger. During one recent hot summer, it was estimated that the figure rose to one pound in seven.
Because of this dominance, and because of the regular criticisms that the supermarkets receive for the pressure they allegedly put on suppliers, the involvement of Tesco in artisan coffee has been met with some scepticism. “Supermarkets are essentially professional buyers,” one roaster commented. “If they really can keep to the ethics of Taylor Street Baristas, then that certainly will be a step forward for coffee!”
However, that scepticism has to a degree been eased by the news that the sourcing would be done by Union Hand-Roasted, who are not just Taylor Street’s existing coffee suppliers, but who are roasters with a considerable track record in working direct with farmers.
“We’ll be using Union in this venture, too,” said Nick Tolley. “Their commitment to direct sourcing and their capability in it is among the best in the industry.”
At Union Hand-Roasted, Jeremy Torz has said that he has joined the venture as a ‘proud independent’, although his company has no stake in it.
“What has got people hot under the collar is the involvement of Tesco. Really, this is no different from other business in which we have the coffee geeks on one side, and venture backers on the other… they are two different breeds, but they do come together occasionally.
“In this case, they may be doing so knowing that ‘better’ coffee is now on the radar of most consumers, and they may create a bridge between the artisan world and the chain world.
“Supermarket owners certainly rely on experts for the detail. It was made very clear to us that Nick and Andrew are calling the shots on this, and I think it’s a very mature attitude by Tesco to say that they don’t know the coffee market like the Tolleys do.”
The first Harris and Hoole opened on 20th August after a ‘soft launch’ during the preceding weekend. The featured coffees were indeed ‘direct-sourced’ items from Union Hand-Roasted – from the Bob-o-link co-operative of Brazil, and the La Montaninta farm of Guatemala.
“The flat white is an 18-20g dose (depending on the recipe on the day) from Finca la Montanita, Guatemala, at £2.30,” Andrew Tolley told us. “The Barista’s Choice on the menu was a three-quarter flat white, lots of people tried them on the Saturday soft launch, and the feedback was very good. First milky drink of choice has been the cappuccino, then equal for latte and flat white.
“As filter coffees, the Brazil for milk and the Guatemala were both well received. The Guatemala is the same farm as the espresso coffee, and the Bob-o-link is a fantastic coffee. I met the growers, the Croce family, a couple of months ago and the work they are doing on experimental processing and in managing the environmental impact of coffee farming is truly exceptional. It is no wonder that coffees from this farm are used by Union, Wendelboe and many other quality-focused roasters.”
Taylor Street Baristas has eight coffee houses in London. It is owned by Nick, Laura and Andrew Tolley, and was among the first of the new breed of Australian-owned coffee businesses, launching in 2005. Tesco has a non-controlling stake, and says that the Tolley family will decide all business strategy in positioning Harris and Hoole as ‘a chain of independents, with the consistency and convenience of chains, but with an independent local community feel where the product has integrity’.
The name Harris and Hoole comes from two coffee-loving characters written about by Samuel Pepys. The image takes what the advertising gurus call a ‘de-branded’ approach – that means coffee cups are plain, and paper bags are stamped with just a small logo.