How often do you visit some senior executive’s office and get a warm greeting, but a lousy cup of coffee? We do know one chief executive in the region who keeps the percolating paraphernalia beside his own desk, insisting on making his visitors’ coffee himself.
Even some vending machines can now drop a reasonable plastic cuppa, though Stuart Lee Archer of the famous Pumphreys - roasters since 1750 - may not agree. He does agree, however, that many executives seem to underestimate the value to a company of giving clients the best coffee.
It can, he says, signal instantly that your business champions quality in every area, including its refreshments. “Coffee making is led by people’s intrinsic motivation,” he says. “If they love good coffee themselves, they will be interested. But you can’t force it on them.
“If the person in charge of the company cares a lot about the taste of its coffee, the quality for everyone - staff and visitors - will generally be higher, and the more competent your hospitality, the better your chances of a success in the business.” And if it’s corporate parsimony to blame, remember this: the cost difference between a satisfying drink and a disappointing one could be nothing compared with the cost of a contract lost through a failure to impress. Public taste is becoming more discriminating and to Stuart and other members of the Archer family - who have owned Pumphreys since 1983 - the arrival in the North East of Starbucks, Costa and the like has been, in Stuart’s words, both a blessing and a bit of a hindrance.
While these brands intensify competition for coffee suppliers, they have also inspired an upsurge in numbers of people now inclined to set up cafes themselves. Says Stuart: “We can, and do, set up small independents to make better coffee than the big players, given the choice of coffee they’ll have and its freshness.
“Big national and international chains have marketing punch and pots of money to guarantee their presence, but small independents, through local suppliers, can get coffee very fresh indeed, react faster and produce real quality drinks.
“As suppliers ourselves, we build close relationships. Instead of delivering one-off bulk orders maybe three times a year, we can deliver twice a week. Independents can get their beans just a day off the roast. We’re roasting all the time.” Despite stiffer competition, Pumphreys, with 18 staff, turned over about £1.2m last year, with business in the core area of Edinburgh to North Yorkshire and Cumbria rising 5% year on year. Its modest retail outlet in The Grainger Market, Newcastle, only yards from a Starbucks, is showing a marked rise.
The upmarket Whittard of Chelsea, which was also nearby, pulled out when the Icelandic bank backing it collapsed, and Fenwick department store, also nearby, dropped Pumphreys as a supplier around the same time - after some 126 years - in favour of a franchise. The outcome of all this has been a greater footfall for Pumphreys’ shop, Stuart says.
“People come to us saying they can no longer get the quality of coffee they want.” Pumphreys’ main operation is in Bridge Street, Blaydon. There, customers from the catering and retail trades mingle with shoppers, chatting in a continental cafe atmosphere as they sample and purchase not only coffee, but tea and various brewing accessories.
All this is in the factory shop adjoining the roasting house and cave-cool store, from which quality beans from many countries are drawn to be flame-roasted in drums more than 100 years old. Customers call personally and online; shopping for hotel and restaurant chains, local authorities, coffee shops, tea rooms and offices nationwide.
It may be espresso, Fairtrade and organic (demand for both is growing), decaffeinated, flavoured or even chocolate-coated beans they seek, plus many more; for there are more than 80 kinds of coffee and tea on offer. This tree and rock-sheltered caffeine haven has traded since 1983, when the main business relocated from Newcastle’s Bigg Market.
That year, Stuart’s grandfather Charles Jeffrey, who died last year, bought the business and relocated from the old market streets of the city centre after more than 230 years there. The decision was courageous. Though Pumphreys had abandoned grocery trading nine years earlier, the Bigg Market was still a popular venue, with archaic benches and stools, and the aroma of brews greeting as you stepped upstairs. Gadabouts regularly moved between there and what, nearby, was once Robinson’s Wine Cellar; sawdust floors and all, where you sat on stools amid aged wine barrels to down Madeiras copiously. A short walk then to a singsong at Balmbra’s Music Hall – a cultural pastiche, fated when uncouth replaced unconventional and the raucous party milieu of today prevailed.
Blaydon, happily, has been good for Pumphreys, though business now is, to a degree, barista-led - much as Stuart would love the coffee to remain predominant.
“Coffee remains important. But you need machines to sell it too. Espresso and filter are what the public expect now,” he says. Pumphreys offers barista training. It’s a distributor also for many Italian manufacturers of traditional espresso machines, and has its own service engineers. On behalf of UK users, it also advises on design and production processes, and is UK distributor for coffee bean dispensers used by delicatessens and groceries. Many cafe start-ups are the outcome of redundancy payments from other jobs, and Stuart finds it odd, perilous even, that some enthusiasts jump in with little experience.
“You don’t start a car servicing business if you’ve never serviced a car before, yet people plough into cafes and throw money around. Proper equipment for coffee making costs maybe £5,000. There’s a lot more to this than meets the eye, as they find out.
“But we have good relations with many who do succeed. And they come back repeatedly when they see good quality, good service. If their machines break down, we fix them.” What about instant? Stuart is diplomatic: “Instant has its place. The market’s a bit like the meat trade. You have quality meats and steaks at one end, sausages and burgers at the other. You try all of a cow to really appreciate the nice bits.
“I don’t drink instant, but if some people only want a hot caffeinated drink, that’s upto them. I’m not snobbish; they can do that if they want, but in terms of quality, producers always try to get above a certain threshold. A crop below that will go to instant coffee, and they get nowhere near the price they would otherwise. Some producers, just set up for instant, accept that and do it in vast bulk.” Instant suggests all coffee will last for ever, even through a nuclear holocaust.
“Not so,” says Stuart. “Fresh coffee is fresh coffee. Beans are good for a month stored carefully, but you start to lose gases from ground coffee after two minutes of grinding.
“Buy beans fresh, grind just before using and you’ll have a really good cup of coffee. Light, heat, air and moisture all attack beans, so keep them well away from the kettle. The fridge isn’t a good storage place either.
Though cool, it’s moist and your coffee may taste of whatever else is in your fridge.” Many customers favour the tang and taste of a specific bean but, as with tea, blending can be fun. “In some ways, blending can produce a drink more than the sum of its parts,” Stuart explains. “Something from Kenya could have a nice bit of acidity going well with some good body from Indonesia. Maybe add some nuttiness from Brazil, too. “We sometimes look for an estate or a region somewhere in the world offering a lot of the desired characteristics without blending. We try both ways. We are also bespoke blenders for people who know exactly the flavour they want.
“Crops vary with the nature of the season, so slight variations within batches are inevitable.
We happily advise on blends until customers find the taste that suits.” Customers buying beans should be able to find out when they were roasted.
“If people are hiding that information, it’s probably longer ago than it should be,” Stuart advises.
“I treat coffee like a carton of milk and keep my beans no longer than that.” So in supermarkets, Pumphreys restricts business to a limited amount of retail packs in ASDA. “Other than that, we are competing with most supermarkets on freshness. They can’t match us unless they roast on the premises.” Still only 28, Stuart has been savouring the bean for longer than most. “I’ve been packing since I was a grasshopper,” he explains. “Through summer holidays, from the age of eight, I was packing. Before we had racking, I’d pile the sacks and run up and down, fall asleep on them. It might be considered dangerous now!” Stuart, of Powburn in Northumberland, entered the business full time seven years ago.
Being family, the company is not big on titles. “We’re all vital. No-one’s above anyone,” he explains. A director, he prefers to be known as the face customers see on entering. He’s also website and internet specialist, and trains people in cafe expertise. His father, Stuart Wilson Archer, roasts and deals with day-to-day issues. Sister Paula markets the business and maintains machines. Cousin Sarah is on packing. Uncle Malcolm, of Darras Hall, is crucial as head roaster, cupper (taster) and coffee sourcer. He globetrots farms, sampling.
The world’s major markets are London and New York and Pumphreys forward buys through brokers who take prices above New York’s mark. Purchases are shipped to Hamburg, then Southampton and trucked to the North East. Stuart Lee believes office standards of coffee making would rise if the hotels and restaurants where bosses entertain had sommeliers of coffee, as they do of wine.
“Too many of these establishments regard coffee as an add-on, not something in its own right. They often have a problem of staff turnover, so coffee making falls at the very end to someone who has served the meal.
“In short, there’s not so much effort. Also, the establishments often want to turn over the tables fast. Yet there’s so much scope for someone who can brew coffee properly. It promises as much, percentage-wise, as the food does.
“Some places I go to do everything wrong preparing coffee. For me, it’s akin to a beef farmer knowing how his beef should be served but, on eating out, finds someone is burning it.” The wine sommelier can entertain with talk and taste of a wide variety of wines. A coffee sommelier could do likewise with coffee beans, then blend them for further appraisal. Now that would seal any good business deal, surely.