How to Build a Restaurant Empire Out of a Coffee Roastery

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How to Build a Restaurant Empire Out of a Coffee Roastery

Tia Maria teamed up with MUNCHIES for Coffee and Conversation, a series of conversations over coffee with the owners of some of London's top coffee-serving establishments.
November 25, 2015, 3:12pm

With the launch of the Tia Maria + Coffee Project and a selection of new, innovative serves that unite coffee culture with cocktail hour, Tia Maria is leading the way in coffee cocktails.

To celebrate this, Tia Maria teamed up with MUNCHIES for Coffee and Conversation, a series of conversations over coffee with the owners of some of London's top coffee-serving establishments. We talk about all things Java: the industry, the cocktails, the science, and the steaming mugs of Joe at the heart of it all.

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Bankside isn't the first place you think of when you're planning a night out south of the river. It's not quite London Bridge, a little below Southbank, and a good walk north of Elephant and Castle's unique pleasures. So, when I arrive Caravan Bankside, the sheer size of the restaurant does surprise me a little.

But then this is an area of the capital on the cusp of becoming a "dining destination." Caravan had got in early on Southside, getting the sort of space a new restaurant could only dream of acquiring in East London's crowded scene.

I was there to talk to Laura Harper-Hinton and Miles Kirby the founders of Caravan, a restaurant/roastery dreamt up in New Zealand, born in Exmouth Market, and established in a 5,000-square-foot space in Kings Cross. The Bankside spot opened at the end of October, and despite its spacious interior, it felt pretty busy on my Thursday afternoon visit.

I've never thought to associate specialty coffee roasteries with budding restaurant empires, so I start off with an obvious question.

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All photos by Tom Griffiths.

Hello Miles and Laura. Can you tell me about how Caravan got started? Harper-Hinton: We started the business seven years ago in Exmouth Market, just as the recession was at its height. We're from New Zealand and we moved to the UK 16 years ago. At first we wanted to start something, but had to work out where good areas were, make contacts, and make a little bit of money. We needed to build up some cash before we could open something.

Kirby: We put everything on the line, it was down to the last couple of pounds. It was quite scary, but thankfully it went ok.

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How did it expand from the first location into three? Harper-Hinton: The roastery started off life in the basement of the Exmouth Market site, which was also our first restaurant. We quickly outgrew it. When we opened the Kings Cross restaurant it had 5,000-square-foot so we put the roastery at the back of that space. Now we've outgrown that space, so we're just about to launch a new roastery in an 8,500-sqaure-foot Victorian warehouse in North Road, just up from our Kings Cross site.

So I don't get too confused, let's talk about this Bankside location. When did it open and how did you find the space? Kirby: 31st of October. Two weeks ago. We found the space via a friend.

Harper-Hinton:

We always look for something that's got a bit of heritage to it. The building used to be a stationary and tin manufacturing company.

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Where do you source your coffee from? Does it vary from country to country? Season to season? Kirby: All of those things vary. We're building relationships with people in different countries at the moment—going direct to source and buying from the farmers, particularly Colombia, but also Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania.

Harper-Hinton: The focus is on quality, sustainability, and fair relationships with the growers.

What are you looking for when you select your coffee? Harper-Hinton: The best quality we can find, while bearing in mind all of the elements I just mentioned. We're not just after something that's really good quality, we're also building a sustainable relationship with the farmer. We source 75 to 80 percent of our coffee directly from the farmers. We've been to the farms, we've spoken to them about the challenges they face, we're making sure that we guarantee them a price that is well above the commodity market, so that they know they can look after their family.

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Is it possible to source high quality coffee from a farm that doesn't satisfy ethical standards? Can a "bad" farm still produce a good product? Harper-Hinton: Generally speaking, the whole process with specialty coffee goes hand-in-hand with ethical production. But yes, there probably are farms that aren't so mindful of that.

Can you explain the difference between single origin and espresso blend? Kirby: Single origin is from one farm. You can have a single origin espresso, but more often than not you create a blend, because when you extract things from an espresso machine, the pressure accentuates different flavours in the coffee. For example, you might have something that's super acidic, so you need to balance it with something that's a little sweeter.

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Meaning: it's not like a quality or hierarchy thing, it's just about finding the best flavour? Kirby: Yeah, it's about harmony.

So you don't get people who are like, "I won't drink it unless it's single origin"? Harper-Hinton: Well, there is a lot of that going on in the specialty coffee world, and increasingly people do serve single origin espresso. We do, and we love it.

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Kirby: But the flipside of that is we're doing a blend for filter coffee now as well.

Harper-Hinton: We call it Special Brew

Like the beer? Harper-Hinton: Exactly. It can be blend of four to five coffees, but we're using it as a filter extraction method as opposed to an espresso, which is where you usually see blends.

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I get it. Now I was hoping you could describe the roasting process. Harper-Hinton: Essentially, it's putting some beans into a wonderful drum that rolls around and caramelises them.

Kirby: There are a few processes. First there's the drying out process, because you've got to quickly extract some moisture. Once it's completely dry the coffee starts changing colour slightly. The last three to four minutes are when the roasting process happens.

Are there adjustments you can make during the roasting that will ultimately alter the flavour? Harper-Hinton: Absolutely. When we first get a bean into the roastery what we're always trying to do is profile it—the roast profile—to bring out the best characteristics of that bean. Coffee is a fruit, it comes from a cherry. What a lot of people don't realise, when they drink dark Italian roasts for example, is that they're getting a very roasted, overtly coffee-flavour, whereas what we're trying to do is bring out those fruity characteristics.

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Is that why coffee from a lot of the big chains has that weird burnt taste? Harper-Hinton: They roast it very dark. What we're trying to do in the specialty world is pull right back on the roasting time. Instead of getting those charred, almost bitter flavours out of the coffee, we're trying to get the fruit flavour and the acidity.

Is that why you get that nice sour taste? Harper-Hinton: Exactly. An Ethiopian coffee, for example, has the most light characteristics to it—it tastes like bergamot in way, it's got really tea-like characteristics.

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You mentioned the recession at the start, and you've obviously succeeded in spite of it. Why do you think people are happier to pay more for coffee? Harper-Hinton: I think coffee is one thing that people don't give up lightly, even in a recession.

Kirby: Yeah, I think you'd give up a £100 meal but you're not going to give up your coffee.

Harper-Hinton: It's the little treats that people often don't give up. And people are getting more appreciative of what specialty coffee tastes like compared to coffee from a chain—it might be 20p more but it tastes so much better.

Do you incorporate coffee in the food you cook? Kirby: I think our first menu at Exmouth Market had a braised oxtail with an espresso and red wine reduction. We're doing some charcuterie here, curing duck breast with coffee. There's always a dessert that we incorporate coffee in. We do an affogato with an espresso salted caramel sauce. We don't try and throw coffee into all the food that we do just because we're a roastery restaurant business, but if it works we'll do it.

Your menu describes the food as "well-travelled." What does that mean? Harper-Hinton: It doesn't mean food miles.

Kirby: Our food is about a journey of discovery—without wanting to sound like a fucking wanker. Whenever you go on holiday, whenever you eat anywhere else, whenever you go to a foreign supermarket, you draw inspiration from new things that you see. We take those ideas and try to manipulate them into something that we think represents us. We're always looking for new things—whether we're going to the corner shop or the other side of the world.

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Harper-Hinton: "Well-travelled" is Caravan. We're all from New Zealand, we've travelled extensively, we didn't want to tie ourselves to any particular cuisine.

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And even with a menu inspired by cuisines from all over the world, do you still pick your ingredients depending on the season? Kirby: Absolutely. We're always looking to get things as sustainably and locally as we possibly can. What we pick up on our travels are ideas, flavours, techniques, but we're a restaurant in Britain so when things are in season in Britain we use those things.

A lot of your menu is small plates. Why are small plates having such a moment right now? Kirby: It's just a more relaxed approach to dining. There's a desire for less formality when people go out and we carry that approach, not just through the food but the way we serve, the way we greet people.

Harper-Hinton: We want Caravan to be a sharing restaurant and small plates are the best way to execute this.

How would you describe your cocktail menu? Is it classic stuff or more experimental? Harper-Hinton: We like to do a bit of both. When we first started at Exmouth Market, we were really passionate about the classics. We've been experimenting more over the last four or five years. We're steeping things, we're pickling things, we're dehydrating, we're smoking, barrel-ageing. The head bartender and his team have a mandate to be as creative as possible, provided it tastes good.

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What spirits work well with coffee? Kirby: Traditionally a dark espresso is gonna work well with a brown spirit—bourbon, whiskey, rum. But then with an espresso martini, it's vodka.

Harper-Hinton: It depends on the profile of the coffee we're using. We did one recently that had quite tea-like characteristics, so we put some complimentary citrus flavours in there. We do a really great coffee old fashioned that's been popular for a long time. Obviously we do an espresso martini. We've kind of changed it up—we're using cold brewed filtered coffee in it as opposed to espresso. It's a little more interesting.

Lastly, if someone was going on a first date to Caravan would you advise them to get coffee or cocktails? Kirby: Cocktails.

Harper-Hinton: Definitely cocktails

No one ever says coffee. Harper-Hinton: Especially if it's a first date.

I know people who've done it. Harper-Hinton: You need to socially lubricate yourself!

Tell me about it. Anyways, thanks for speaking to me guys.

This article is from Coffee and Conversation, click here to read more.

All photos by Tom Griffiths.