Over the years, I’ve come across a fair amount of interesting coffee businesses. Many of them combine coffee with another product category such as clothing, cycling or plants but there are also a few coffee roasters out there who have set themselves the goal to be social enterprises, in the true sense of the word.
In a time when seemingly everyone is becoming a B corp, it’s still often hard to make out what exactly these newly certified businesses are doing to reduce their impact on the environment and in some cases, it’s not clear that their intentions are 100% pure either.
That is why I love businesses that are really involved in their local communities and are helping people where they can have the most impact. Coffee roasters often make a big fuss about paying above market prices to help farmers earn a decent living, which I totally support, yet it is also true that much more can be done to help people in need right on their doorstep.
Most of the social enterprise coffee roasters that I’ve come across over the years have been in the UK and I am excited to team up with another one of them in July. Old Spike was co-founded by Richard Robinson and Cemal Ezal who wanted to build a specialty coffee business with the aim of helping homeless people get back on their feet.
The other day, I had a chance to catch up with Richard, as well as head roaster Marcus Wood and Head of Wholesale Jack Granby and during this conversation, I was able to get a much better understanding of Old Spike’s business ethos, how it aims for excellence in specialty coffee and what how it is driving change from the bottom up.
THE COFFEEVINE (TC): “Welcome everyone. Richard, if I may start with you, can you give me a bit of background on Old Spike?”
Richard Robinson (RR): “Old Spike is one of the first social enterprise specialty coffee roasters in the UK if not the first. My business partner Cemal and I started it as a small café slash micro roastery in Peckham in 2015. Funnily enough, neither of us comes from the coffee industry. My background is advertising and just before starting this coffee venture, I worked at Samsung.
Cemal and I have known each other since we were twelve and we always wanted to start a business together, something that we could one day look back on with pride. Cemal has started a course on social enterprise and had a broad concept around coffee and homelessness. He now runs a big organisation called Change, Please.
“The Indonesian coffee that we’re sharing with you, the Trenggiling, is a stellar representation of what quality coffee can be.”
The initial idea was to have coffee carts staffed by homeless people and the concept later evolved into Old Spike where the focus really was on roasting coffee and then offering these beans through wholesale and any cafés that we would open ourselves.
What’s really important to us is that people weren’t only buying our coffees because we had a nice story but because the coffees we work with are great. We want to be one of the best roasters in the UK. We don’t plaster the social enterprise aspect all over our website or comms. We’re more subtle about it because we noticed that sometimes customers have this assumption that if you buy something from a charity or social enterprise, the quality isn’t good. We want to prove to people that you can have a thriving business and still do something good.”
TC: “Can you maybe attach some precise numbers to this? How many people have passed through your programs since you opened?”
RR: “Usually, we have something called a ‘taster day’ where we invite potential trainees to come on site and get a sense of what it’s like being a barista, life in the café etc. We try to make this a fun and engaging experience. We then run a three to four-day more practical hands-on training with a bit of theory. Then, after they pass through the three – four week course, they start work in one of our four Old Spike cafés or at one of our wholesale customers. We try and recruit those as workplaces where we can place our trainees.
Last year was a bit of a strange year, of course, but in total we trained about 27 people who were experiencing homelessness and are now employed either by us or some of our wholesale partners.”
TC: “What exactly qualifies someone for your program?”
RR: “Homelessness is quite a broad term. We have rough sleepers as well as people who are at risk of experiencing homelessness and just need that extra bit of support to find an opportunity. We can provide that. Naturally, as we grow in scale, so should our resources and that will mean that we’ll be able to help more people.
We have a whole network of inbound referral partners who are not just people trying to recruit others for our program but also act as kind of case worker style support. We have to be quite selective because we have a lot of people who are interested in our program and we need to be sure that they are the right fit. We have a lot of different roles including working in our roastery or doing deliveries. It really depends on that individual’s personality type.”
TC: “Marcus, what can you tell me about this extraordinary coffee from Indonesia that you’re roasting for us in July? Does it also have an impact?”
Marcus Wood (MW): “I have been working here at Old Spike for nearly 12 months now and it’s a really interesting project to be a part of. High-end specialty coffee has never been more accessible and the quality of specialty coffee has been exceptional in the past 12 – 24 months. The Indonesian coffee that we’re sharing with you, the Trenggiling, is a stellar representation of what quality coffee can be. Especially with a processing method [wet hulled] that you’d normally associate with a more spicy and smokey cup profile. But this coffee is anything but. It’s sweet and juicy and really nice.
This coffee is the result of a partnership between our importer and Sucafina and Trenggiling is the name for the endangered pangolin. The goal for this project was to set up a new model for increasing efficiency in the supply chain. Indonesia is a huge country made up of hundreds of islands and in the past it was always tricky to gauge when coffee would be ripe for harvesting and how long it will take to dry.
That’s why this processing method – Gilling Basah or wet hulled – is so interesting. It was essentially established to process the cherries without the need to dry the parchment and this can speed up the process and payment to farmers.
What Sucafina have created, in effect, is a more efficient navigation system to collect cherries from the various islands at the most optimal times and get them ready for export. It’s a super data-driven approach that includes weather updates and ripening schedules and this has resulted in surprisingly uniformly ripe cherries, which we can now roast in Europe.”
TC: “What struck me about this coffee when we cupped it in Barcelona a few weeks ago was that it looked quite dark but then when we tasted it, it was really bright and juicy. It played a trick on us!”
MC: “Yes, it was quite dark because we noticed that these beans have a slightly higher moisture content that, let’s say, the Colombians we have right now. We tried a few different roast profiles to match the initial IKAWA sample roasts and we just couldn’t get them right. In the end, we decided to push a slightly darker roast and bam! This coffee has a really vibrant acidity and the additional developement just gave this coffee a bit more room to breathe.”
TC: “Looking at your sourcing, can you tell me a little bit about how you try to differentiate yourselves versus other roasters? Because if we just look at the amount of roasters that are popping up everywhere, the playing field has become very competitive. So, how do you make sure that your coffees make you stand out from the crowd?”
MW: “Yes, I think that is a really good point. Further to what Richard was saying earlier, there are roasters popping up left, right and center and the reality is that coffee is a seasonal product and there are only that many places that we can buy coffee from at any given moment. All of us roasters in the UK get similar if not the same offers lists so what we are doing is to try and work directly with producers, especially those who are not currently being imported into the UK.
This can help us to create something a bit different to what other people have access to. The other thing is that the cost of coffee is rising and the sales price of a kilo of coffee to a café isn’t necessarily moving anywhere so we are hurting ourselves by not increasing the price of our coffee. If we wanted to keep the costs down, we’d have to look at past crop lists and then we wouldn’t be able to tap into the specialty coffee market any more.
“It would really make no sense at all to talk about helping the homeless here in the UK and then not practicing responsible sourcing.”
Last year, £6 might have given you a 86 points coffee, now you have to pay £10 for the same while £6 probasbly buys you an 84 points coffee. So what this actually does is it raises the lower end of specialty coffee, making it a bit more exciting while making the top end much more exciting. And this is why, I think, we’re doing so well because we’re really pushing 87 and 88 point coffees and offering our customers an opportunity to try really exciting things.”
TC: “Jack, tell me how does your story resonate with prospective customer? I think we all heard of people who lost their jobs during the first part of Covid and might have even lost their homes. What kind of feedback do you get from people when they hear what you do?”
Jack Granby (JG): “Whenever I talk to people about what we do, they just really love our story. Especially that the cost of living has gone up so much, you have to manage costs. Honestly, if everyone could work with a social enterprise, I think they would.
I think these days, more and more people are realising that you can do more for the local community and many of our partners really want to get involved.”
TC: “In what ways?”
JG: “For example, with our barista training scheme. We’ve been building out the list of referral partners that we have and to see which ones of our customers would like to take on some of our trainees once they’ve graduated from our barista program.
I like to think that if you want to work with great coffee, you might as well work with one that has an impact. As Marcus has been saying, we source exceptional coffees and we really stand behind this quality.”
TC: “What I find quite interesting is that in general, the coffee industry is evolving quite a lot in the sense that a few years ago, we were talking a lot about fair trade, then direct trade and how all the farmers are so poor and we must help them by paying higher prices. Of course, the essence of that is correct and we should be paying producers more for their output but at the same time, there is also a lot of poverty in coffee consuming countries and you guys are basically combining those two missions into one.”
RR: “I think it’s important to realise that you can’t really do one and ignore the other. It would really make no sense at all to talk about helping the homeless here in the UK and then not practicing responsible sourcing. What would be the point in that?
At the end of the day, we’re not charing a premium because we’re a social enterprise. We have to be competitive. We’re not asking for favours. We’re just saying, look, we’re an amazing coffee roaster and this is just something else that we’re doing. That is a really strong differentiating factor for us. I think that is also why you’re now seeing more and more roasters who are realising that it’s no longer enough to just be roasting really nice coffees. What else can you do?
We actually have a great story to tell to both big corporate clients and small independent cafés because we have both the incredibly impactful social enterprise element and the extraordinary coffees and that helps us to win a lot of new business.”
TC: “What I find so interesting in this whole thing is that you’re basically trying to create change from the bottom up whereas before it was largely the big corporates who introduced all these fair trade and Rainforest Alliance labels and certifications to give the consumer a point of reference and make them feel like ‘if you consume this product, you’re doing something good.’ In your case, you’re basically showing the big corporations what they could do better.”
RR: “And they are! We just launched at Whole Foods, for example and they’ve revamped their whole coffee around impact-led brands and we were at the top of their list for that. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if big corporates are doing this for the wrong reasons, as long as they are supporting this cause, everyone’s a winner. I think the challenge for impact-led brands is that they need to deliver the quality and service and that’s where many enterprises went wrong in the past because they were run like charities and not like businesses.”
TC: “Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.”
This coffee is part of our upcoming July 2022 Coffeevine box that also features other delicious coffees from KB Coffee Roasters and Orbita To choose your ideal box and get in on the fun, just pop over to our shop now.