Hello, I am writing this reflection on the past 12 years of my life in this company, as part of our 20 year celebrations. In a company of 50 people and with over 200 staff that have come and gone over the years I am by no means the core storyteller for the company, but I wanted to share my impressions to contribute to our history narrative.
My own journey with this company began 20 years ago when I was roasting in West London and a young man named Ian Burgess (founder of Climpson & Sons) became a wholesale customer with his brand, Burgil Coffee. My colleague Kurt Stewart (now owner and founder of Volcano Coffee) and I liked his sense of humor and passion for coffee. He was clearly driven, he was doing something very rare in the UK (great coffee in market stalls) … and he ordered a LOT of coffee each week. When I left that job and moved to Melbourne in search of new coffee experiences, Ian and I swapped personal emails.
Fast forward 4 years and in the heat of the Global Financial Crisis I came back to London for a visit, dropping by the now-rebranded Climpson & Sons roastery on Broadway Market Mews for a chat and a coffee with Ian. Things were going well, the GFC left the public affording small luxuries such as coffee and yes I should consider coming back to the UK! So early 2010 we packed up and returned via a trip to see family in SE Asia and during that trip, Ian’s wholesale manager Matt Dessaix handed in his notice; would I like a job on arrival? Yes please!
Those early days in the Mews are etched forever in my memories. Long days roasting on our 15kg Toper; obsessing over coffee forums and blogs and experimenting with new knowledge and techniques; trying to develop a wholesale business that would stand out in the burgeoning new wave of specialty coffee in London and Europe. Our team grew from me with Ian doing to sales, to 3 full-time wholesale staff and a full-time logistics & customer service person. The space was tiny and we all knew each others jobs pretty well. We would also “rope-in” cafe staff from the shop a few doors down Broadway Market and likewise we would jump on the bar when needed.
Its a cliche, but we are obsessed with coffee. Subjective though this is, and as much as the obsession can morph over the years, it is a fairly unique one, most similar to foodies and wine obsessives. Whats the best recipe? How is this coffee processed? Whats new and breaking through? We read Sprudge, we follow James Hoffman, we read the growing library of books both technical and general (anything by Scott Rao!). We attend SCA workshops on our weekends. We travel to where there's a famous coffee roastery or coffee farm. Trade shows, “smack downs”, meet-ups. This industry is all-consuming if you want it to be, and its kind of why we love it!
Although its inevitable if you are in a business for a number of years that your career path draws you towards more senior roles, more administrative activities and mentoring roles, most of us at some point did our time at one or another of the coffee “coal faces”; baristas, coffee roasters, production jobs and at origin farm and warehouse workers spend some extended time doing repetitive jobs involving some aspect of the coffee “value chain”. Those years for me were as a barista then as a roaster, with management roles here and there too. I always longed for the simplicity of being back on the bar, for the “head down” nature of roasting coffee uninterrupted. And as the internet exploded in the early noughties, suddenly the routine extended to nights and early mornings reading more, learning more, about coffee, with hope of trying something new the next day. The rewards seem endless and still do, though we have come a long way since the “second wave” of coffee and things have consolidated into a new era where much has been discovered.
For baristas, the big evolutionary leaps came with the introduction of better equipment and the use of timers and volumetric measurements, then scales to create consistency and measurable parameters to control the flavour profile in a cup. Automatic tamping and grinders with built in scales offer modern baristas new tools to improve their workflow and the impact from repetitive effort. For roasters, digital roast logging and more efficient and faster roasters offer more space to develop roast profiles, easier sharing of information, better feedback from cupping note collation, and high tech sample roasters to gather data before roasting a big batch. Of course, a lot of these things come from affording them, but even a person new to roasting can find so much information these days to improve their skills quickly, there's no need to fly blind as much as we did in the old days!
And as for coffee itself, that seed of a cherry grown in a mountainous area far from our factory and shops, our relationship has changed dramatically down the years. Its no longer a matter of calling a merchant, having a chat about price and quality and being sent some roasted samples to quickly confirm your order. We buy from the same producers every year and keep in touch via Whats App. We hear and taste whats been going on at origin early in the harvest cycle and can forecast accurately with them what we need so they can get on with finding other clients. The coffee producers face a difficult paradigm with climate change and economic factors to be wary of. We do what we can to be good partners and are lucky to welcome them to our home as well as visit their farms when we can.
There are so many amazing producers these days, focusing on producing the cleanest coffees and incorporating sustainable practices. There are new ideas and innovations that are beyond our awareness taking place constantly in producer countries that affect what we might expect next in the cup. Its so exciting to taste coffee as part of our work day; as coffee industry people we secretly lament we can’t share our sensory awakenings more with you. Our only advice is to learn to make more delicate brew methods such as with paper filter, grind fresh and drink it black! You will see what we mean if you take the time. Try one of our Home Brewing workshops perhaps.
It is a business after all. Our story has been of the independent spirit right from day one and you can see the thread continuing today, from the autonomy our team enjoy in their work, to the supplier partners we choose, and the customer partners who choose us. In our cafes its the same, regular customers choosing Climpsons when there are a plethora of chains and options nearby. Thank you all for your continued support and community!
There are some pitfalls on the road less travelled. It's often a case of all the ideas and none of the budget. Providing a clear career path for staff. Balancing the independent spirit with organization and the right amount of discipline. Facing higher prices and lower margins for making ethical decisions in our purchasing. Having jobs for some specifically-skilled people but not being “big” enough to have a full-time position. The list is long and continues to grow, but having willing and adaptable employees who are keen as much as you are to succeed is key.
You set out on a business journey with little idea what success might look like, those early days are encapsulated in a brazen spirit that can also burn you and your team if you aren’t careful. Looking back we have put the brakes on many times to consolidate the level we were in, and learn to do the day-to-day better. You begin to treasure the staff capable of stabilizing their departments and firm up processes before reaching for the stars. The skill of gatekeeping specialists is often overlooked next to the rock stars - the rock stars can bring you attention and moments of infamy but really it's the gatekeepers that carry that through to business success.
It's not all projections for growth or landing new business that matters. It's the little things that mean a lot - the quick lunch with a supplier whose representative has become your friend. The invitation to a competitor's new site opening. Being included as an influence in another business’ success story. A post or write up featuring one of our coffees positively. Coffee tourists coming out of their way to visit the shops. The community events we have organized, such as our in-house competitions, wholesale customer parties and the inter-roastery football competition are among my fondest memories of working at Climpsons, and I believe they have contributed immeasurably to both our internal vision of who we are, and the collective optimism we project. If you are new to the small business journey, never be shy to invite your customers and even competitors into your space to share a brew, this is where communities begin and your business will glow a little more as a result!
Covid, who’d a thunk it. Every business, including those less fortunate, have a story to tell about this time in history. From our side, yes we went to the wall and had to crawl back to normality very slowly and we were grateful for the government support offered and even more so for the incredible efforts of the NHS in choosing others’ over their own safety. But the life lessons inherent in the pandemic for me were deep; that we can slow down and give nature a breather; that keeping in touch with one another remotely is a gift, if not a real substitute for human contact; that the everyday non-pandemic life with its pubs restaurants and exotic travel has much to be treasured that we take for granted.
Being a business leader during Covid times has forever put extra layers of meaning in my interactions with the community we engage with as a coffee roasting organization. My respect for our suppliers has increased dramatically; so many extended a helping hand and worked with our desperate circumstances to keep us liquid, and would still be there for a beer over zoom on Friday afternoon. We could see the mental health of our staff under pressure, whether on furlough or still working. We tried to circulate updates and offered zoom quizzes and suggested reading for those wanting to keep up their coffee knowledge. We had to take into account personal differences and feelings about safety when asking staff to return to work. We had to think on our feet with new policies and protocols, adapting to changing guidance and threats.
I kept in close contact with my friend Bruno de Souza in Brazil and was shocked at the battles he was facing. Their government was in denial and sent a henchman with megaphones to Campos Altos to tell them to carry on as normal despite the known risks and growing hospital numbers. Their precious harvest was almost lost due to a lack of seasonal staff but they all mucked in and saved it. Existentially the shipping crisis made it feel as if their coffee would never see its intended market, but Bruno was always chirpy and made light of the situation most of the time!
We did our bit with NHS coffee donations and fundraising and encouraged the team to think of ideas, get creative! With little options available we resorted to our love of food and joined the food box brigade. What happened next was amazing - chef Tomos Parry (our 2013 resident chef, now co-owner of Michelin-starred Brat) returned to our roastery at the arch after his round of food box and set up an outdoor dining experience designed for Covid safety. This quickly became one of the hottest tickets in London. Credit is due to our roastery team for being good sports when personal safety was at a premium and working with Brat to make the cohabitation work. Since then Brat have made the arch their second home, still a surprise after giving up on chef incubating ways of 2012-2016. Never say never …
12 years at Climpsons has enriched my life, as it's more than just a job, it's a community and a lifestyle. I think this happens when you become part of the furniture somewhere. You hold the experience to avoid repeating the same old mistakes; you know where to find that old tool you hardly use to avoid buying it twice; you know your team so well and you’ve probably done that role before.
The risk of course is that work takes over your life, the lines become blurred and your colleagues become your friendship circle. This is an important lesson too, to step back from work, no matter how great it is, and remember who you actually are without it. Holidays and down time are so important; switching off the emails, reading a non-coffee book, listening to a non-coffee blog. Keep up your non-coffee hobbies and interests (speaking to the obsessives here!). Remember to keep in touch with old friends and family! Keep your independence and know your value as both an employee … and as yourself.
In my career I’ve tended to stay a long time in jobs, so perhaps that's my nature but I would encourage you to seek a business that feels like somewhere you would be comfortable staying for a decent stint. Question the values and strategy of the company. Look for openness and friendliness in the team. There's such a thing as the right amount of fun at work and this must be consciously created and encouraged by the business to work. When done well the business becomes more inclusive; I have to credit our MD Nicole Ferris for striving to make Climpsons a better, more diverse workplace, it's a big achievement and I’ve witnessed the struggles! Bring on our pending BCorp status…
Anyway, thanks for reading. Please allow me an epic “thank you” to all the staff, customers and suppliers I’ve had the privilege of working with all these years! And well done Ian for creating something that has stood the test of 20 years of time, congratulations!