North Star: How the first coffee-roasting company in Leeds is changing the industry forever

At a glance

Name of business: North Star

Business Type: Wholesale & coffee

Key Learning Points


Business as a tool for change

You don’t need to be a social, non-profit organisation to be able to make a difference. Rather than write your business values just to have a corporate social responsibility, you can build a business that is sustainable in everything it does and still be profitable.

North Star is proof that you can create an incredibly successful business that tackles critical issues in supply-chain responsibility through promoting awareness and simply refusing to sacrifice ethical responsibility for profit.



Don’t carry out all of your market research from your desk

Make your market research a practical exercise. Where possible, find and speak to people in your field. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much people are willing to share with people that are starting out.



Take the time to create a business plan and write your values

The direction that your business can take in the future can feel uncertain as new opportunities present themselves.

Taking the time to understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term, and the goals which are most important to you can make difficult decisions easier.

Spending the time developing your core values can help anchor you to the path that you originally set out to follow without risk of getting lost along the way.



Social media can be more than a marketing tool

More than a tool to promote your company, the impact that social media can have on creating a supportive community for your brand can’t be overstated. When it was time for North Star to expand their operation, they looked to the community they had grown for support.

Through a Kickstarter campaign, North Star were able to raise an incredible £20,000 to buy a larger coffee roaster to keep up with growing demand.

I accidentally arrived 30 minutes early for my interview with Holly at the North Star Coffee Shop in Clarence Dock, Leeds because it was the second interview I’d run and so I was super paranoid about being late. You don’t get a second chance at a first impression right?

I‘m glad I did though, it gave me time to just sit and admire what founders Holly and Krag had created. To my right is a large glass wall – through it you can see a massive coffee roaster opposite a stack of burlap sacks filled with freshly imported coffee ready to roast. Behind me are huge windows which look out across the Clarence Dock boulevard and floods natural light into the large open café space.

The overall effect of the space is overwhelmingly calming and pleasant. I know I’m not the only one that sense it sense the space hums with the sound of happy conversations and laughter from the tables around me.

After a short while, Holly heads over to the table and we begin our chat. What followed was an incredible interview that I’m incredibly excited to share; not only is Holly one of the most knowledgeable, insightful and friendly people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, but what she and her partner Krag have created is nothing short of incredible.

They are people that are using business to tackle the bigger issues that matter to them, and more than any other company I’ve seen it shines through in every single thing that they do. This interview is a must read for anyone that wants to carve out a niche in the market that previously didn’t exist using passion, knowledge and hard-work.


Chapter 1: Getting into the market and finding a gap

So I was wondering if you could start off by describing, to anyone unfamiliar with the brand, what North Star Roast is.
Holly: North Star coffee started off as a wholesale coffee roastery, but I would like to say now that it’s become an all encompassing coffee company that really gets behind the values of quality, ethics in the supply chain and just elevates coffee to be something more than a daily wake-up call.

Those are the kinds of values it stands for and now we’ve opened up a venue, we want people to be able to come in and get let into the world of coffee in general, from bean to cup. That’s what North Star is all about, celebrating the supply chain from seed to cup.

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That brilliant, and so everything we’re drinking here, is that all coming straight from next door?
Yeah, this coffee shop is kind of a unique concept. In terms of the coffee supply chain; we’re involved in every step of it.

Most other coffee shops would tend to buy their coffee from a roaster and brew it in their coffee shop whereas here we have the supply chain tied up. We’re involved in the sourcing of beans, working with farmers and finding new producing partners across the world.

We then bring the coffee back into the roastery and learn how to get the most out of it from trying different roast profiles [and everything else]. Then it’s literally delivered from next door to here.

Absolutely every bean that has come through the grinders here has been sourced, perfected and roasted all by the same company.

That’s amazing – getting that off the ground, I can’t even begin to imagine what that process would look like. I mean were you already involved in, or had knowledge of supply chains before?
Yeah so my background is in green coffee. My first ever job having left uni was as a trainee green coffee buyer.

The way that Krag and I, my partner, got into coffee and starting North Star was through our final year dissertation at University. I studied the effect of fair trade coffee farming on social and economic development for small coffee farmers in Kenya, and whether it had been a positive factor or a negative factor.

Krag looked at the slave trade – he did a history degree – and we both chose dissertation topics around something that would allow us to travel to get our research.

So we both spent about 3 months in East Africa between second and third year and 6 weeks of that was spent working with rural smallholders – tiny, tiny smallholders with farmers who had like a half-hectare of trees in their back garden.

We were just interviewing them and collecting qualitative data on how they felt about the effects of the coffee industry in their country, their own economic development and what they were able to do through getting access to the fair-trade premium.

North Star Holly and Krag SA

Founders Krag (second from the left) and Holly (third from the left)

Before that, I’d never really had any insight into the supply chain so it was really that trip which opened our eyes to the amazing people which were involved in the supply chain; the number of people that are involved and the number of things that can go wrong in it.

So that’s how our interest was peaked to the point where we both left uni certain that that was the industry that we wanted to work in.

Really? So by the end of that dissertation you…
– yeah we just knew that this was what we wanted to do. And being in the North of England people can always says that jobs are scarcer – particularly in fairly niche industries like this but actually the North of England has a really established coffee scene with the likes of Taylors of Harrogate and some fairly big coffee companies up here.

So that was my natural pathway from graduating with a degree in sustainable development and I looked to try and get into coffee using an ethical route in terms of how it could be used to develop economies.

I managed to stumble across a new-start company that worked by importing green, speciality-grade coffee. I did an unpaid internship with them for 3-4 months and learned how to taste, how to roast and I was sending samples out to roasters all over the UK.

That internship turned into a paid job thankfully. Because it was a really young and developing company, I was thrown in at the deep-end and so my own, personal & professional development occurred at a much quicker rate than if I was at a larger, more established company.

Within a year I was in Central America buying coffee, doing taster qualifications and things like that, so it was really about learning quickly on the job.

Through doing that role, I was selling green coffee to all the other roasters in the UK at the time and I realised that there was no one doing that in Leeds. There were 60+ roasters in London; there were 14 in Bristol and Bath, 7 in Edinburgh and things like that.

So there were pockets of really good quality coffee all over the country and then Leeds was just this barren, wasteland of bad coffee at the time *laughs*.

There were a couple of key venues that had been set up and were doing things really well; there was Lanes espresso which was set up over by the train station in 2011 I think – they were buying from a roaster down in London. There was also Opposite which was set up over by Leeds Uni and again, buying from the same roaster in London.

Then everywhere else was just a bit crap. There was just a real gap between the people who were doing things really, really well and everyone else who was just a bit terrible.

Really?
Yeah the supply just wasn’t there locally and people’s knowledge and training regarding how to work with coffee was just a bit all over the place. Everyone was doing things slightly differently depending on where they’d learnt things from – there was no set standard in place.

It was just very much about visiting venues, spending time with people, drinking their coffee and taking it from there.

At the time we were both living with my parents, and Krag had a part-time job working as a chocolatier for 2-days a week which was a pretty good job to be fair *laughs*, he wasn’t complaining.

But the fact is that we were in the position to be able to take a jump into doing something with the thinking of ‘well if it works, it works, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t’.

And so we started looking into how you get started as a coffee roastery and we tracked down a 5-kilo roaster from an old donkey hut in Wales.

Chapter 2: Getting things off the ground

*laughs* that’s amazing.
Yeah this pensioner had started to roast coffee in his retirement. He did one batch on this machine and realised that he had enough coffee for about a year.

So his hobby didn’t last too long but we managed to get a really amazing machine that had barely been used for a really good price.

How did you go about finding it?
There are catering machine companies, people that sell things like deep fat fryers and refrigerators and stuff. Coffee roasters get listed along items like that so we just kept an eye out and managed to get a machine in place.

We managed to get a unit with the council down at Meanwood on an industrial site and that was it. Krag was sent off to learn how to roast from some really well known roasters down south who I had some really good connections with through supplying to them.

North Star Krag Roasting

It took about 6 months into it for us to get to a point for us to think that the coffee was good enough to start selling. It’s a really steep learning curve that’s just based on trial-and-error. I was tasting and saying thing like, ‘well maybe you dropped it in too hot there’ or maybe ‘the development time wasn’t long enough’ and things like that. Really trial and error.

I have to say though, it sounds like every step of the way you guys were having a good time with it – all of this sounds like you were having amazing fun.
Yeah it was great, and the reality of setting up a business is that it’s definitely exciting but it’s really hard work and we didn’t take a salary from the business for about 2 years.

I think that was particularly hard for Krag at the time. I had another job and he didn’t. North Star was his life and he wasn’t able to go out with people on a weekend or buy clothes.

When Krag was able to get a few key customers on board we quickly realised we’d done the right thing because the demand for freshly roasted, locally roasted, ethically sourced speciality-grade coffee was really, really high.

It was a really tough period getting on the road with samples. Krag was only 22 at the time, and so going into restaurants which had been operating since before he’d been born and trying to say ‘this is really good coffee, you should try it’ was challenging.

Getting people convinced was a different matter as well, we were going against roasters that could offer much cheaper price because they were selling commercial-grade coffee rather than speciality-grade.

When Krag was able to get a few key customers on board we quickly realised we’d done the right thing because the demand for freshly roasted, locally roasted, ethically sourced speciality-grade coffee was really, really high. We experienced that classic rocket-growth from year 1.

North Star Coffee Stock

It just felt like we got to a point where we felt like we were supplying every coffee seller in Leeds and it was amazing. That in turn creates a good problem, but still a problem whereby people want something different and unique, and so you don’t want to be ‘too everywhere’.

You also have to ensure that your coffee is in the hands of people who are going to look after it and show off your brand accurately. So that presents a whole host of other problems.

I imagine in the first year you’d think that things would be tight and so to be in that situation would be so unexpected.
Yeah, it is – you have to say ‘yes’ to everything at the start to make sure that you get beans through the roaster and money through the door to pay your costs.

As a roaster we have to purchase all of our raw products through our suppliers when we know that we won’t get a return on that until months down the line and so at the start you can’t say no to anyone.

Then you find yourself tied into relationships that aren’t really complementary with businesses that aren’t on board 100% with what you are trying to achieve and you end up agreeing to ridiculous things like ‘yes we will deliver your coffee to you free of charge’ and end up driving a 2-hour round trip to deliver one order.

Just things like that where you learn from your first year to where we are now where we’re much more structured and have clearer supply terms in place.

We were in unit that was really not very pleasant. It was window-less and there was no heating, a tiny roaster and just the two of us. We were both just doing absolutely everything from building a website to marketing to actually operationally roasting, packaging and delivering the coffee.

Chapter 3: Market research, marketing and expertise

There are a couple points there that you touched on which I just want to swing back to. Through the process of conducting market research, how did you go about finding everything you needed to out?
When you get into the coffee industry you realise it’s a very open industry where you know of everyone that’s operating.

Also the good places tend to really shout about who they’re working with because it’s the thing which distinctly sets them apart from the rest.

So it’s actually quite easy to find out who people are supplied by?
Yeah. It was just very much about visiting venues, spending time with people, drinking their coffee and taking it from there.

A huge part of it is social media, that’s been a big part of our development in the early years for sussing out who’s who, and who’s operating in which cities.

North Star Coffee Machine

And then with the marketing as well, initially I can imagine it’s difficult because you’ll be pitching to people that already have suppliers and are in a position of having to say ‘I know you’re using these people, but you should be using us instead and here’s why’.
Yeah you do have to put yourself out there for sure, but particularly in the independent industry that we work within, it’s really not your typical sales technique at all, it’s very gentle. We’re not salesy at all. As individuals it would feel completely unnatural to us to act as typical salespeople. But it was definitely difficult.

It was easier in the early days because we were doing something that was very unique, there was no one else really doing what we were doing and to put it simply, we really just let the coffee do the talking.

We’d invite people into the unit for tastings, we would send out to potential clients a supply for a week just to see how they got on with it and take on board the feedback from the customers.

It was very organic really, a huge part of our business is the relationships and traceability that we can offer to our customers in terms of the suppliers that we’re working with and knowing exactly where that bean comes from.

It’s definitely becoming more and more difficult as the market gets more crowded. There are a few different roasteries in Leeds now, a few in Manchester and Sheffield. So there’s more competition locally but it’s a really strange industry. I wouldn’t strictly class it as competition as it’s more people helping to promote what we’re doing.

When it was just us it was harder to shout about why people should spend more on their coffee or buy from a certain supplier when it’s just you saying that. So having a few more people makes what we’re doing seem less abnormal.

That’s a brilliant takeaway as well. When I’ve spoken to others and competition has come into it, people have gotten a bit cagey – but what a positive takeaway to have from what is essentially a growing market.
Yeah, we started out with the aim of trying to convince as many people as we could to convert to speciality grade coffee because we firmly believe it’s what has to happen for the industry to maintain growth and for it to still be there.

We have to wake up to the fact that if we want to get the same great quality coffee year in and year out, that you have to look after people now. There’s a lot of customers and coffee companies out there that are just buying for the present and not necessarily building that sustainable approach into their business plan.

I think from our perspective, yes we are a business and we’ve got to see some growth but I think we also appreciate the growth of similar businesses in our area because it’s important to the industry as a whole that more people are getting on board and buying that type of coffee.

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That’s something I wanted to touch on as well; the passion you have for coffee is so evident in the blog on your website which is absolutely amazing. Your approach to writing on it could almost be described as academic in the level of detail included. Was that level of detail something that you looked to include from the beginning to give you an edge?
Yeah, I think that we always wanted North Star to represent the knowledge and expertise that it has as a business – the core team that we have in the roaster has very distinctive skillsets and experience to the point where we’ve become elevated to that level in the industry.

My personal experience is in sensory analysis and sourcing, I’ve got very unique qualifications in that field. Krag is very much the head, master roaster – he’s got an amazing breadth of knowledge and natural feel for roasting coffee. Ollie who works for us has amazing barista expertise and so he has an incredible knowledge of the consumer side of the supply chain – machines, equipment, brew recipes and things from that perspective.

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So I think for the website, those are the things that keep us in coffee – growing our knowledge and, not mastering an element of it but certainly being able to give a considered, constructive perspective. So that’s come naturally to us as a team and when writing about something; not just going to be saying something for the sake of it but rather a considered article that’s intended to help people out that have those same questions.

I think we have had to adapt as other roasteries have opened up around us, it’s been about cementing ourselves as being as credible as possible in the knowledge that we have.

That’s part of the setup of the coffee academy, and being able to offer specialised courses where other roasters coming in and get their coffee diplomas here. It’s a key part of that side of North Star in terms of creating a real centre for excellence.

I wish you’d been around to work with some of my earlier employers. I remember working in pubs around that period where all pubs started to offer coffee and so places just bought machines but never really taught staff how to use them or make coffee with any degree of skill.
It’s a classic case. We get approached by people who’ve had a similar experience and it’s a really terrible situation for us to walk in on because of what we train people to do. If you haven’t had any training before, it can seem totally ridiculous.

You’ll see here the baristas weigh out all the coffee they use. You’ll see scales at every work area where people are weighing how much coffee is coming out of the grinder, how much coffee is produced by the machine, timing it and so it’s a very scientific approach which really is what’s needed with coffee to guarantee the consistency and quality and ensure it’s being shown off at it’s best.

Making Coffee North Star

So I think when you go into venues which have never had that or it’s a completely foreign concept, then it makes it difficult to try and say to people ‘no, you need to do this for good coffee’.

We always wanted to be really approachable as a business. Not your usual London-hipster, exclusionary type business where coffee is almost a bit intimidating.

We’ve approached it in the most Yorkshire manner that we possibly could, hopefully very down to earth and approachable – especially to people who genuinely come to us with an attitude of wanting to learn more.

But we have had to adapt how easily we take people on in terms of wholesale relationships because the brand has grown to a point where we’ve got to work hard to protect that.

To make sure that quality is being maintained in the way that coffee is served here and served at Cha Lounge (for example) to make sure that everything is consistent – to make sure that people aren’t having a great experience of North Star at one venue and then somewhere else it being terrible because of how the coffee is being made…it’s a challenge.

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Absolutely – although I’m curious, how do you go about ensuring that? Say a new company approaches you and say’s we’d love to have some of your brilliant coffee and you start trading with them – is there an agreement where you say you have to make it in a certain way? I imagine that’s a really difficult thing to enforce without having a presence on-site.
It is and it’s difficult for us as people – you never want to give the impression of ‘oh, we’re too good for you’.

There’s a couple of things that we do; where we have minimum supply terms in place where you have to have a minimum standard of machine and grinder in order to trade with us.

They have to have an automated grinder, not a manual one like a paddle grinder where you can’t control how much is coming out and the machine needs to have temperature control. A lot of cheaper machines at the lower end of the market, they just jump massively from anywhere from 82C to 94C which has a massive effect on the coffee’s flavour in terms of how much is extracted from the bean.

So that’s the starting point, if people have that machinery in place then we’ll talk with them extensively – particularly if it’s at the early stages of them setting up, we try and be as involved as we can be from day 1 to ensure things like they’re getting the right cup sizes, the right milk jugs, using the right milk…

What a customer experience! I can’t think of anyone else doing it they way you guys are.
It’s really labour intensive; we take a really engaged approach to wholesale relationships.

We don’t just sell someone coffee and never talk to them again – we have to vet them to make sure that they’re going to appropriately serve it and so we visit them once every 3-4 months. Sometimes we let them know we’re coming and other times we just pop in and just have a quick scout of the machine to check if it was clean, if the coffee was tasting good and we also have monthly wholesale events where we invite all of our wholesale customers to come down here and learn about an aspect about coffee.

When we take someone on as a wholesale customer we make it our responsibility to help grow their business as well in terms of how much coffee they sell, how well known they are in the industry and so we do whatever we can from that perspective.

I think our customer base is extremely loyal and proud, I think, and that’s probably been one of our proudest achievements – to see the relationships that we’ve developed with businesses across the region.

We don’t tie people into contracts and don’t force people into relationships where we say things like ‘if you buy our machines then you have to use our coffee’, we don’t do any of that.

We’ve approached it in the most Yorkshire manner that we possibly could, hopefully very down to earth and approachable – especially to people who genuinely come to us with an attitude of wanting to learn more.

We want people to buy from us because they want to buy from us.

I think the relationships we have are really solid. We’ve worked with most of them for years, since we’ve started and we’re happily seen their coffee sales double and triple because their quality is better and they’re becoming known as a coffee destination.

I mean yeah, I can attest to that from Cha Lounge – it’s the first time I’ve ever gone to somewhere which sells drinks where they go into detail about where they get their coffee from. It’s not a conversation I’ve ever had before, it just shows that you’re giving them something to shout about.

It must be rewarding as well to come away after this process of development and see that enthusiasm come off on the people you work with; even after this conversation I feel really enthusiastic and just like I want to be drinking loads more coffee!
It’s strange, some people have that experience where their eyes are opened up to this whole new world that coffee can be really amazing and interesting and other people are really business focused and if coffee isn’t their main product – say they’re a pub or have food on offer or something like that where coffee isn’t their main push then from a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to approach it in that way.

North Star for us was always a passion project in the sense that we never did a business degree, we never thought that we wanted to start our own business and for us to be someone’s boss is a horrible idea, we never wanted that.

So generally, we tend to find ourselves gelling with business owners who have opened businesses from a similar perspective where they want to do things as well as they possibly can rather than people that are solely focused on the bottom-line profits.

Just, this being a passion project for you guys and working with people where that’s a similar case and everything about that makes the whole process seem so much more enjoyable.

I imagine there are frustrations and concerns during the process of starting a business but it just sounds like every decision you guys have made comes from a place of you guys enjoying what you do – you do the things that you enjoy and have turned that into a business rather than starting out with the goal of earning money.
Honestly, the downside of having your own business can occasionally far outweigh the perks and I think that if we didn’t live and breathe everything that we do here then the business wouldn’t keep going.

People always assume that coffee is a really great business to be in – there are coffee shops opening up on every corner and people are always talking about the margin that you can make on a cup of coffee and everything and the fact is that if you come at it from a quality perspective where you want to be ethical then it’s really hard to make money in coffee. Really, really hard.

You have to sell a lot of coffee and I think if we were coming at it from that perspective then we would have given up a long time ago because you need to love what you do to be able to continue getting out of bed every day.Chapter 6Reading the blog and reading more about how closely ethics ties into your values, sourcing coffee in the first place how does that value tie into your process of finding and working with new suppliers
I think that lots of the relationships that we have in place now were established when I had my previous role as a green coffee-buyer and that was what I did 7-days a week –

This is probably going to sound like me being really simple but…‘green coffee’?
No, not at all. Green coffee is the term for raw coffee before it’s been roasted. So a green coffee buyer is essentially someone that sources coffee. My job was to go and find new producers that were producing coffee in a way that paid homage to the quality and the surroundings that it grew in.

There are certain areas and farms in the world that have better growing conditions then others so it was very much a case of maybe having a connection with a marketer or an exporting agent and then just flying to Guatemala and saying ‘let’s check out this farm’.

Then when you get there someone tells you ‘oh, my brother has a farm just over that way that’s 1800m above sea level and he’s experimenting with a new way of processing it’ so you think to yourself that you’re definitely going to go and check that out.

Then you just start a relationship by receiving things like samples which we roast here and then we taste them and if they meet our scoring guidelines – to be speciality-grade coffee it needs to score 80/100 based on different attributes like acidity and body.

Is this something you do in here or do you bring someone else in to do that?
No, so I’m a qualified Q-grader, so it’s kind of like a sommelier but for coffee. Like a coffee taster.

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The coffee taster’s flavour wheel – there’s a giant print of this image on the wall of the North Star Classroom!

And that’s how a relationship starts really, if the samples are good and it tastes good then it means that we can buy it because we only roast speciality-grade Arabica coffee so if it tastes good then it’s up to us to ensure that everything’s in place for us to buy coffee from that farm.

From an ethical standpoint, we developed some guidelines which are based on some of my experiences in my past employment for sourcing coffee and an understanding that just because a farmer grows quality coffee, it doesn’t mean it was produced ethically.

A lot of people just assume just because something tastes good that it must come from someone who really cares about the plant and the people they work with and it’s just not always the case. So we developed some guidelines which dictate that we have to buy from rainforest alliance certified farms in Latin America that are like larger estates.

What that certification says is that it has to run in-line with international labour law, so there has to be a minimum wage and a minimum age in place, different accommodation for men and women, first-class protein in every meal which is provided by the producer to the workers and the environmental guidelines that are in place are in line with sustainable agricultural networks so there are safety signs, evaporation ponds in place to remove any of the coffee processing water and by-products in the water.

If we taste a sample and there’s no certification in place then we basically don’t do anything until we can arrange a trip to go and see it. So if the coffee was that good, and it’s something that we were looking at creating a long-term partnership with then it means going to see the farm and checking those things out for yourself and making that call when you’re out there.

And if something wasn’t or didn’t feel right, then we wouldn’t pursue a relationship with that producer.

For the producers we work with, we pay a price that guarantees to cover the full cost of production and at least a 50% quality premium on top, which is way above the minimum Fairtrade price which is set.

We like to work with farmers that are innovative and aware of the challenges that are going on around them. So we work with a lot of farmers that put time into working with different varieties of coffee to get around disease and things that can be brought on by climate change and things like that.

We invest our own money into projects which will improve quality and therefore increase the price that we have to pay for the coffee in the long run if that makes sense.Chapter 7 headerAbsolutely brilliant, so what advice would you love to go back and give yourselves now with the experience that you’ve built up since then?
I think that we’ve always waited too long to bring someone else into the team if that makes sense? We’ve always been super, super cautious. I don’t feel like we’ve ever really taken a massive leap outside of starting the business in the first place, when it was established we always tried to run ourselves as if we’re a big organisation when we’re just two members of staff.

There was definitely times where if we’d brought someone in earlier, the business would possibly have been further on in terms of what we’d have been able to offer with the resources we’ve had.

We’ve always just been so aware of the responsibility that you have when you bring someone else on when you’re paying their salary and it’s someone else’s livelihood in your hands really.

you have to really understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term.

I think if you feel confident in your offering, approach and structure in terms of your pricing and margin and things like that then I would advise people to go for it and just take a leap at times and not overthink things too much because I think if you feel confident in your knowledge, experience and offering then that will in turn create good.

We’ve also always written a business plan, always. That’s a real practical piece of advice, always have goals for each year. Whether you do one each year or a 5-year plan in terms of what you want to achieve, I think that’s really important to track and help you understand which decisions to make and keep you on track.

That’s something we’ve had from day one, there’re several parts to the business which present several opportunities for growth whether that’s wholesale or education or retail – you have to really understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term. It helps you understand which opportunity might be the right one and when it’s not. So that and spending time working on your core values because that has made it easier for us to never stray.

Yeah, like to define who you want to be.
Yeah, we’ve had approaches from things like supermarkets and really large, corporate chains who’ve expressed and interest in working with us but we’ve …you know, sometimes those opportunities can make you think ‘Oh my god, this could be the one, this could be the thing that transforms the business’.

But one things that’s always helped us make those decisions is our values or quality and ethics so if something comes along which makes us stray from those ethics or compromise either the quality of the coffee that we buy or the ethics in how we source them then that’s when we know it’s not right for us.

Having those brand values from day one and making sure that everyone agrees makes sure that everyone’s very much on the same page when making decisions. That helps you stay on track with what you’re doing when competition strikes up, so you’re not looking around at the competition and thinking ‘oh god, they’ve got this and maybe we should do this’, you’re able to stay really focused on what you want to achieve.

That’s a great tip! Thank you.

The next question is, what were the most useful tools for you when you started to get North Star off the ground? The things that you’d find yourself relying on most.
I mean Excel spread sheets played a massive role in everything from stock control and counts to customer lists like a CRM system so, Excel was a key part of what we did.

Most important would be social media as a platform. That was something that really enabled us to speak to our customers and create a real brand and create a message about what we do right from day one.

North Star Roast Cafe Image

It’s a great free resource at your fingertips, so we utilised that as much as we could. We didn’t have a set social media strategy or someone that was taking care of that, we just made sure that we kept in touch with our customers and provide them with bits of information that would be interesting or supporting them and shouting about them in social media as well.

That really played a massive role, we’d hit a point in 2015 where we’d run out of capacity for the roasting machine that we had and really needed to invest in a bigger machine and so we run a kick-starter campaign to fund it which raised £20,000.

Sh*t, that’s amazing!
*laughs * Yeah, but that was done really off the back of the social media following that we had and the community that we had created with people that had been popping down to Meanwood to buy their coffee on the weekend since when we got going.

I think that’s had the most influence on our business to date, that goal we purely achieved by using those platforms really.

Fantastic, and the final question I’ll wrap up with is…I’m trying to think of a better way to phrase this question because it always comes out so rambly but one thing I try and do with Inkbike is to try to create value…I was wondering if there was any area which you might not know too much about which you would love to learn more on to help you with the running of things or any kind of personal or professional development which I could go away and research and write about.
That’s a really good question, I wish we were asked that more. I think one thing that’s been really difficult with setting up the retail side of the business is the sudden explosion of personnel which we’ve had. We’ve gone from a team of four, to 16 literally overnight. So that side of things with HR and staff management, the legal requirements of having staff.

We have those things in place before with employment contracts with holiday entitlement but I think it gets to a very different scale very quickly when you have that kind of expansion. That’s something we’ve had to absorb into our job roles. I’ve spent hours looking online for guidelines from the government on different types of contracts and statutory obligations.

We’re not quite at the stage where we can afford a full HR person or office manager but if that kind of information was…not more accessible, but more understandable – written in a way that you can understand without having to Google every single phrase – that would be useful to a lot of businesses which experience the same journey we’ve had.

Things like music licences, insurance, suppliers of plumbing or electricians, all of that information. If there was something local, like a resource that people could share and utilise…that’s been a real headache. Things like who to contact if the electrics go down, or who to contact if the drains back up.

I’m sure there are other businesses around here that maybe have used one company which have been extortionate and another which has been reasonable and reliable and it would be good to get to the point where that information is shared.

That would be a benefit to a lot of people.

It’s sounds like one of those things where unless that is literally your business, it’s not something that anyone would have time to start.
No, exactly. It needs to be a dedicated forum where people can share experiences and things.

We’re going to start a ‘How to start a coffee shop’ course because it’s just things like that that we’ve learnt by doing things ourselves. Trying to get information on anything, what music licences do I need to get, does it need to be PPL or PRS, what do you need to do to get an alcohol licence and just things like that. It was agonisingly difficult to figure that out from different resources.

Hopefully we’ll get that on the curriculum going forwards because I think people would benefit from.




I hope you found that interview as useful as I did! Keep up with what Holly and Krag are up to on their blog, Twitter or Facebook. To do the same with Inkbike, you can check out the below;

Email: kaeyo@inkbike.com
Twitter: @Inkbike
Facebook: @lnkbike
LinkedIn: Kaeyo Mayne


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Cha Lounge: Discover the cafe you’ve always been looking for.

At a glance

Type of Business: Tea, Coffee, Brunch & Curry.
Business name: Cha Lounge
Key Learning Points:
  • Stay flexible

    Planning and execution don’t always line up perfectly when starting your new business – adapting to compromises is all part of building a business.


  • Minimise the amount of tasks you have during the first few months

    Mandeep advises new business owners to allow for a comfortable period of time to train staff effectively. The first few months of running an active business are busy enough without having the added stress of training your staff at the same time.


  • The importance of a company manual

    Having this ready before staff start and managing staff expectations of roles and responsibilities from day 1 makes everything much easier. It’s a lot simpler to change behaviours earlier then it is further down the line.


  • Find a business partner who can take the heat

    Mandeep assures us that bouts of disagreements are par the course when starting a business with someone. When deciding to partner up, it’s important to make sure that your relationship can survive stresses and strains to be able to get back to work the next day. If you have that, the benefits of having a second person to bounce ideas from and receive feedback are huge for morale and the continual development of the business.


  • Cha Lounge’s most useful toolEposnow – Mandeep took about 0.2 seconds to decide which her most useful tool in running Cha Lounge was. For a new retail business, imagine a tool which not only processes transactions, takes food orders, prints kitchen tickets but can also provide you with detailed statistics for items sold and even tell you how many pints are left in your keg of beer. Sounds good right? Click the link above to read all about Eposnow.

Listen, let’s just get one thing out of the way first alright? I’m a MASSIVE fanboy for this cafè. There’s no denying it – I’ve literally gotten behind the counter to serve drinks and take orders on a night when I’ve heard they were short-staffed after I finished work. And why? Did I do it so I could get a free curry? No….well yeah partly, but also no.

The reason why is because I’m fully in love with the place. It’s because…like have you ever sat and tried to work in a Starbucks? Starbucks is the kind of place which looks like it should be a good place to work but then you get there and it’s kinda impossible to get either fully comfortable, or relax and concentrate. Know what I mean? Cha Lounge is like the polar opposite of that.

From the beautiful decor to the chilled out tunes, it’s just incredibly easy to feel right at home. It’s exactly the kind of off-the-city-centre-high-street independent cafe you hope you’d find in a big city but have never quite managed to. ALSO Starbucks doesn’t sell beer, so that’s 2 points to Cha Lounge.

It was no surprise then to find that a place with such charm of  has an owner to match – maybe the warmest, friendliest person on planet Earth, it’s wonderful co-owner and acting manager Mandeep. Beloved by the regular Cha Lounge crowd, as we sit down to talk at a table by the window you can’t help but admire the almost village-like community feel she’s created as she receives regular smiles and waves by passers-by.

Speaking to her, it’s also hard not to be inspired by her can-do attitude which has resulted in an enviable body of experience and a career which has taken her all over the world!

36298584-1140-426F-A51B-FC42F0D9AD8DSo the first thing I wanted to cover off with you is what your background was before you started Cha Lounge, because as I understand it, you weren’t self-employed to start off with…
Mandeep: No so, I was a qualified science teacher.

I had no idea, that’s so cool!
No, I was a qualified science teacher.  I did my BSc (Hons) at The University of Liverpool and then a PGCE at York. After that I taught in Manchester for a year before heading to Phuket to the British International School. I also taught in Bolivia.

After that I reevaluated, and I was saying to my mum ‘I like teaching but I’m a bit bored. I want to do something to do with business‘. Then me and my brother have always thought about going into business together, toyed with the idea starting a kind of education consultancy firm or supply agency.

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Best of both worlds! So after that, how come you didn’t go for making the supply agency?
My mum asked ‘why don’t you do an MBA?’ So I was looked into it and saw an advert in the Yorkshire Post for an open day at University of Leeds.

It looked really good, it covered every aspect of business and I thought ‘I’m ready to go back to education’.

doing an MBA at Leeds Uni was one of the best things I’ve ever done

I loved the course and the people that were on it with me as well. It was just amazing – all international students and all mature – I learned so much from everyone.

There was a lot of group work involved and a lot of big projects with companies like Marks and Spencer’s, trips to Germany and Shanghai, as well as working with small charities and social enterprises like Slate, the Furniture Store in Leeds.

I was also voted to be the MBA rep for the year which meant that I was in charge of doing all the events on the social side, as well as the Regatta down in Port Solent.

University of Leeds campus

That sounds awesome!
It was really good. I really enjoyed the events side and I ended up getting a job in London after the course, organising corporate events.

I’m presuming there must be difficult parts to it, like negotiating costs and but otherwise it sounds like such an amazing job; someone coming up to you and saying ‘can you organise some cool sh*t for us to do?’ And you’re like ‘hell yeah!
– and you make it work, yeah! I found it quite easy actually, I enjoy working to deadlines. In this industry, you’ve just got to not get flustered and just make things happen without getting stressed.

You’ve got to have quite a positive can-do attitude because if it’s a challenging event to plan then it can be a complete nightmare and can potentially all go wrong if you don’t dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s!

But I really enjoyed it. I mean we weren’t doing global scale events, but for what we were doing it was good.

My objective was to start my own corporate events company from up here [in Yorkshire] because I really enjoyed the work, from getting the event, to getting to know the client, to the writing the proposal and contacting suppliers.  A lot of work went into each one but the end result was satisfying.

I thought, ‘why am I working for someone else, I could just do this on my own!

6079DB22-C306-49C0-B53A-87C66D761281Absolutely fair play!
I’d made great progress getting everything together; I had had the branding done, I had a website being made, had potential clients – and then I took a totally different direction.

One day my brother rang me – I remember this – I was in London shopping on a sunny day and he said; ‘I found a place to do the tea shop’ and I thought ‘oh I don’t want to leave now’ because I was really enjoying my job.

He said; ‘I’ve found this place and it’s perfect’ . We had been discussing opening a tea room for a few years. He always wanted it to be a place that contributes to society and isn’t just about making money.

Sometimes you have to grab opportunities where they arise and have an open mindset.

Cha Lounge: Selection of loose tea leaves

I thought ‘oh I’ll have loads of time…it’s only a coffee shop, it’s not going to take up that much time‘. *laugh* So that’s just never happened.

So my plan was to open the tea room with my brother and still set up my events company.  I was planning to go to London once a week to meet clients and also find new clients up here.

I thought ‘oh I’ll have loads of time…it’s only a tea shop, it’s not going to take up that much time‘. *laugh* So that’s just never happened.

Sometimes you have to grab opportunities where they arise and have an open mindset.

My brother did a lot of the initial planning for the layout. A lot of our furniture was handmade and sourced locally; the benches, bars, doors, tables and chairs were all handmade to order. That all took about two months – we did it really quickly! It was a new, exciting project that we loved working on.

He also introduced the ethos and his passion for being a café that helps the environment and reduces waste, really enthused me to be a part of this movement.  I spent quite some time researching ethical products, sustainable and compostable packaging eg take away coffee cups, and renewable energy.

We knew that all these things would put our start up costs way higher than most other café’s, however it was something we did not want to compromise on and we had faith that the public would believe in our ethos too.

Cha Lounge interior

You said you sustainably sourced materials, how did you find people to provide them?
I suppose it was word of mouth, contacts and asking people around here and the assistance of Google! Our shopfitters had a lot of industry knowledge so showed us the best materials and suppliers.

There were some aspects that we didn’t think about however, like having a sink front of house, having sensor lights in the toilets and designing the kitchen to suit the menu.

 

Cha Lounge

Looking back though, there are a few things we could have done slightly differently.

8C049CC0-DE0D-4F1C-A45E-BC3148B30E05Firstly, we should have found our staff and a chef who could help us finalise our menu.  Initially, our plan was just to sell tea/coffee and cake with a few snacks, so the menu we created was simple. However, after some research we felt that  this wouldn’t be enough, so we decided to develop the menu.

We also thought it would be a lot easier to find staff than it is. We thought ‘there’ll be loads of people wanting jobs’ and you can just find staff like that *snaps fingers*.

We should have found all the staff before we opened, planned the opening week, marketed to let people know we were opening. We didn’t do any of that, we just built it and then opened.

Oh I see, so how long before you opened did you start looking for staff?
Probably about a week.

When would you think to get them now, like a couple of months?
Yeah and get them trained up before you opened the doors. We did on-the-job training.

It’s a bit difficult though, I imagine when you’re working on something and you’re passionate about it, but there’s so much to consider – there are bound to be things that you just don’t catch the first time around.
I know, I mean you’d think that’d be an obvious thing but we just didn’t think about it as being a difficult task.

It’s difficult, Leeds is a big city and there are loads of people about, loads of students. You’d assume it’d be quite easy to find people looking for jobs?
Yeah, and there’s so many restaurants and cafes – you’d think you’d just be able to find someone easily.

Definitely. How did you find people in the end? Did you go through a recruiter?
No, actually one of our first members of staff was from the dry-cleaners next door – when we were building, the owner just said ‘oooh my nephew is looking for a job’ and he was our first recruit. He ended up staying for a year, he was really good!

Now that we have experience in recruiting, hiring staff is a lot easier as we know what type of person we are looking for.

BF56A4A2-2BDF-4E12-BEA0-F1B3B5E4D789

It seems like a lot kindof resolved itself even if you didn’t initially plan for it.
Yeah but I would say, for your website, definitely encourage people to find staff before opening – give it a couple of months and train them up before you open.

Also have all your training manuals done; your core values, documents on health and safety, fire training, alcohol training, standard operating procedures, how to use the till, tea making process, how to take an order, disciplinary procedures etc etc.  It will take a long time but it is so important to do.

Oh wow! That’s so on it, I assumed it would just be when they got there you show them ‘oh this is this machine, use it this way blah blah’
Yes, it has to be a measured learning process, so if you hand them a manual it just shows them exactly what you expect.

Things like health and safety checks, standard operating procedures, daily checklists, your stock and orders lists, fire safety and disciplinary procedures too.

45248BCB-3387-42A9-A59B-7CC5E1EF6142Sh*t you are on it! That’s so good! I honestly would never have thought of all that…I mean that’s actually a whole other area to touch on, like with health and safety how’s that to sort out?
If you have five or less members of staff then you don’t need to include risk assessments.

Is that five who are on site?
On site, yeah.

And do you have to send it off?
You don’t have to send it off for anyone, you just need to have it so if anyone comes by you can show them it.

With food as well, do you have to send something else?
I had to register with the food agency before we opened. That was easy, you just have to fill in some paperwork and hand it in. They’ve got an office near Elland Road and you just have to go into the office and submit it.

[Note: For people who are interested, you can find out more information on what is required if you want to start something which involves selling food or alcohol here and here]

Oh really, and then do they send someone over to take a look at it or?
They just come whenever they feel like it.

Oh wow that sounds fun, do they have to give you notice?
No.

Wow, that’s intense *laugh*
So yeah we had to do that before we opened and obviously we had to take our alcohol licence exams…

Exams?!
Yeah you have to sit an exam. Me and my brother did it together, if you have five or less members of staff then you don’t need to include risk assessments.This place had a licence before we took it over and then we thought we should keep it before it expired, as it would have cost a lot more to reapply for the licence.

So is the regulation that if someone’s held a licence on the premise before then you can just transfer it over with an admin fee?
I think you have a certain amount of days yeah. I think you have 30 days, but then obviously someone has to be a premises holder. But once you’ve done the exam then that’s it, you have it forever.

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A Cha Lounge Jazz night in full swing!

Are there different exams depending on how late you want to open? So if you wanted to stay open until like 5am for example…
Yeah we can if we want, if we want to stay open later, we have to put an application in to the council and say ‘on this day we’re having a party and want to stay open until 5…’ and then they can approve it or not.

So you don’t have to pay for it, they just give you approval or not?
It depends. If its an event then they might charge you for it but there’s some guidance. I can’t remember exactly what it is, you can find it on the council website (and it was, satisfy your curiosity here) or you can call them up and they’ll tell you.

It’s a different set of regulations for food; if you’re serving food after midnight or if you’re having a band, things like that.

Oh really? So do you have to have a special licence to have live music?
Yes you need to get a PRS and PPL licence.

Nice! And then, with suppliers, in terms of finding people to supply the coffee and the food, how was setting that up?
Jagdeep [Mandeep’s brother and business partner] found the coffee and, I don’t exactly know how he found them. It’s Northstar who are just down the road.

They used to be in Meanwood. It was just two of them down in Meanwood and we used to go down to get lessons on the coffee – they’d show us how to roast it. Their ethos totally aligned with ours and Jagdeep fell in love with the product immediately.

I used to go round Leeds and try different coffees and but we always preferred that one.

To do market research and find those sorts of suppliers…like in my head if I was to do that I would just be like ’ok…Google it’ and hope for the best. Are there any better methods that you found yourself?
I think it’s always better just to go around and taste it yourself.

Oh really, so just find a bunch of suppliers and go do the circuit to taste them all yourself?
Yeah. You’ve got to because then you know you’re getting the best product.

..you’re talking like people are gonna have to pay like £10 for a sandwich and no one wants to do that.

And then in terms of costs, is negotiating something you had quite a lot of experience with from your time spent working in events?
Yeah I’m quite good at negotiating, but with a lot of your suppliers, your prices are fixed and because we are a small independent…it’s higher than if we were a big place because of economies of scale.costs are higher than if we were a big place because of economies of scale.

I mean all our suppliers are great but they have their fixed prices like we have our fixed prices and if we are low users of certain things then unfortunately we don’t get cheaper options.

What was really hard when we opened was trying to source where we get our meat and veg from, because I wanted everything to be organic but I didn’t realise how expensive it would be! It pushed costs up so much, it was ridiculous. I mean then you’re talking people having to pay like £10 for a sandwich and no one wants to do that.

I thought we’re just going to have to find a happy medium, so I tried a whole bunch of farms around the area and that was really difficult – that was where I was thinking well where do people get their meat from?

So you went directly to farms?
Well yeah, I Googled them and then rang them but the organic ones were really expensive. So we realised we’re not going to be able to do everything organic, we’ll just have to do what we can and do the rest free range and local.

Cha Lounge: Breakfast served in sustainable containers

 

Did you end up sticking with one of the farms you found initially?
I think it took us about 3 or 4 ones before we Sykes Farm in Weatherby and have stuck with them ever since.

Wow, again – never would have thought of a farm. I honestly would have just gone to Sainsbury’s and been like yeah! These are the prices then I guess!
*laughs* A lot of places like us will go through farms.

869B1E65-626B-4F5E-BE48-D848486A1EC5How have you found being in a partnership rather than a sole ownership? Are there any benefits which come to your mind or any particularities about the relationship which stand out to you?
It’s much easier, but I wouldn’t go into business with a friend – no way. You need someone that you can really argue with and then be fine the next day. I think if you go into business with a friend then it can more easily go wrong.

I don’t know if its just stress but I just think don’t go into business with a friend. With family, it’s different…for me it is any way, you still have to see them at family meals so it can’t go too wrong *laughs*.

He’s been really good, he’s got experience with management and managing people and so he’s helped me with that side of things.

So you guys work together when it comes to things like training?
Yeah, and he doesn’t have a lot to do with the operations, that’s me but you know I ring him every day and he’ll give me advice.

Cha Lounge: Image of tea pot and delicious tea

Did you feel like you fit in with that quite easily? In terms of who was managing what and who was comfortable doing what like how he fell into more of the management side and you take care of the operations?
No I think we kind of fell into it. Well, originally I wasn’t going to be the manager – that was never the plan. It was just gonna be us getting it up and running then we’d hire a manager to run things and I’d focus on the marketing side of things, accounts and my events business.

He was going to focus on the training, management and some of the money side as well because we split that – but then we realised quite quickly that we couldn’t afford a manager, *laughs* so that’s why I was doing it.

Is that still the plan for the future?
We’re looking for one now!

So yeah, definitely better to have a partner then to go in on your own. Like if you’ve had a bad day, you can’t really ring up your mate or tell your partner about it because they don’t really understand.

It’s good to have someone you can talk to, who can give you advice and be able to motivate each other to move forward and say ‘oh what about doing this or that’. Two heads are better than one.

And also it’s good because he doesn’t work here. He’ll come in on a weekend and he’ll spot things that I don’t spot. You know when you’re in something too much and you stop seeing certain things?

Even things to do with service, he’ll just come in on a weekend and he’ll spot things that I don’t spot.

So I was going to ask how was finding the location?
My brother found the location. It doesn’t have high footfall which meant business was tough to get going in year 1.  However, we wanted it to be a hidden gem that people travel to, which it is now and we attract lovely customers.

It’s good to have someone you can talk to, who can give you advice and to motivate each other to move forward and say ‘oh what about doing this or that’…two heads are better than one.

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7F28D0A5-4DB4-4087-8C8C-8B7ED3D00F3BWhat advice would you give to yourself now back when you started?
I suppose if I could turn the clock back I think I would go and work in a café and do the job for 6 months to see how it worked. It’s very easy to open a café and think its easy but it’s not, because we didn’t have enough industry knowledge.

Then, I would have put the training manual together so when staff started they would have known exactly what they were doing, because they didn’t [when we opened]. We spent the first few months trying to train them all when we weren’t trained ourselves.

That was our fault, you know? So the challenge was trying to find the right staff with the right skills but we didn’t really know what we were looking for.

The main challenge was definitely getting the staff right and I think that would be a challenge for anyone starting a business who didn’t have industry knowledge. – so I would definitely say go and work somewhere for 6 months.

And, one of the things that I’m doing as part of the website is to have an accompanying blog that goes over skills and topics that people want to learn about…so is there any skill which you think that someone in your position could learn about?
I think one of them…ok, a skill that I look at now is how to encourage staff and team-building which is really important and staff training which I still look at now.

How to get the best out of your staff because everyone’s so different – the human element is the hardest bit to control.  When your staff are happy and motivate at work then it makes the business so much fun for everyone.

[Read the finished article on getting the best out of your staff!]

Screenshot 2018-03-04 21.44.39

And finally, when you were getting starting with Cha Lounge, were there any tools which were particularly useful for you to get things up and running?
Oh the best thing I’ve ever had here is that till *gestures*, it’s amazing. I can sit at home on my day off and see everything in real-time.

That’s so good, so that till prints the tickets for the kitchen as well as takes payments and orders?
Yeah, and, I can see what products sell the most, I can get analytics to see what products are moving when and so I’ve used that over the last 6 months to re-shape the menu. I can analyse results daily, hourly and by product.

What’s it called?
It’s called and eposnow…and it does the stock take too.

Like you can program in your beer barrels of how many pints you can pour from it and every time you sell a pint it goes through the till and then it will tell you things like ‘you’ve got 5 pints left’. I love it!

Mandeep thanks so much for your time, loads of great tips and stories! I can’t wait to drink some North Star roast in a Singapore Cha Lounge one day soon!




You should absolutely head over to Cha Lounge and discover it’s charm for yourself when you get the chance – my advice is to head over on a Thursday and take advantage of the Curry & Jazz night.

You can follow Cha Lounge on;
Instagram: @leedschalounge
Facebook: @chaloungeleeds

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