In early November 2022 we made a long overdue visit for a cupping and catch-up with our partners Clement & Pekoe in Dublin. Commercial Director Danny Davies caught up with Clement & Pekoe Co-Owner Simon Cummins over a pint of Guinness in a cosy local pub near their South William Street outlet
D: Simon, you and I have worked together for 10 years - here's to that! I would like to ask you a few questions about your business over that time. Starting with the shops, how are they going?
S: Well, as we are coming out of Covid, things are definitely improving. Weekends are very much back to normal, everyone is in town, weather is good for November. During the week we are still finding we are lacking the office workers being around, as much as they should be. So, workers are maybe doing 2 days a week in the office in town. Then obviously everyone is feeding off maybe 40% of what would normally be 5 days a week.
D: Central city syndrome.
S: Yeah exactly so, a lot of restaurants are closed Monday, Tuesday. But there's all the students back in, back around. You notice your busier days just so happen to be a random day, say a group of your regulars are back working in town. Hopefully in January we will see it go up and up again, with no more setbacks.
D: When did you first start the wholesale business with the teas ?
S: Dairine [Simon’s partner in life and business] set the company up in 2008. We built a website, our first website then. We had about 40 teas on it. Some we still have today, but there was a lot more. Maybe there were fewer black teas and more choice on flavour teas, European style teas, and obviously some very good breakfast teas. We were kind of trying to appeal to everyone, by making it loose tea. So, from there we did a few trade shows and did a few markets testing the water. Really until you open up a shop, on a high street or somewhere you really don’t get a feel.
Certainly in Ireland as well, when you go to trade shows they want to know where you’re based, and when you say we work from our home and all the teas are in a second bedroom, they want more substance. When we opened the physical shop in September 2011 it was only then we felt we had a proper presence, so that then would lead to some accounts.
We have some accounts now that we still have from back in the day, it's just naturally grown. We’ve never really gone after accounts, we've always let it happen organically, people come to us. We’ve always found that we much prefer when the owner of the business comes to us, because we had it before when someone comes to us and says “oh I’m going to be working here and i’m going to be running this” and they're not really into tea and the thing is, they leave after a year. When people are opening, especially cafes and they want to use our tea they always come last minute, “we need it now, we like what you’ve done, we like your branding, we want to have good teas” and I’d say “When are you opening?” and they go “oh yeah in two days”, and I go “ when did you sort your coffee out?” and they respond “oh we have that sorted out 3 months ago”.
D: Teas can be much more of an after thought
S: And I know it's a much smaller sell within the realm of the shop, like in a cafe it could be 10% of your drinks. Even for us we are still primarily coffee sales.
D: But without it you’re just a straight coffee shop and that won’t please everybody will it!
D: Cool! I remember discussing last night that I found the first email from you in July 2012, over 10 years ago which is amazing. I think you’re one of three longest lasting Climpson customers, so well done that's very good.
How many staff do you think you’ve seen come and ago over your 10 year period?
S: Well it's funny actually it was our first or second staff member that put us in touch with you, 'cause he had worked with you in London through Ristretto. Dan, Australian Dan.
D: Right yeah, I remember him
S: It's probably a couple hundred people that have gone through the shop, if not more. Some obviously amazing assets, sad to leave, but some need to leave for their own health and sometimes just getting on with something else. Even ones that did work out I’ve always wanted to be able to leave when they are ready, and “Go Well” as such!
So I’ve always kind of pushed that because, I suppose different places I've worked at in the years, I’ve been treated differently, badly, incorrectly. I never wanted that for staff. I tell them “best boss you’ll ever work for” - obviously jokingly - but a lot of them say they’ve never been treated better, so I'm happy with that. If you look after them and care for them they’ll treat the business and treat the customers and the product with great care. That’s what we try to do.
It’s a safe place to work, it's that they are cared for and respected, and a place where you want to see them come into work smiling. Sometimes staff come in and you know something's going on…
D: You just want to help them get through their life as well. It's part psychologist and mentor.
So, Indigo and Cloth that was around 2014, 13?
S: Well they were across the road from us in St.Williams street and when they moved down to Temple Bar, I think they moved down in 2012, 2013. We set up a brew bar there, and certain filter coffee and teas. So it's Temple Bar and it’s a little bit out of the main stretch so it was a destination store that people came to, but the footfall wasn't necessarily what we wanted it to be for traction on tea and coffee.
We always try to go well, you can come in here and just have a coffee you don't need to experience the store. Probably what would tend to happen was most of the customers were shoppers in the store, and we kind of gradually grew the locals.
D: Did you learn anything from that, doing concessions?
S: The person renting the concessions is always the one who seems to benefit for example at rent plus 8%. But you know you're giving them 8% of turnover, it's not profit.
D: Exactly, if your turnover is really low it's not covering costs, but you still gotta pay.
S: Back then when Clement and Pekoe opened on St.William Street, when a speciality tea or coffee place opened everyone knew about it . It was like this was the 5th or 6th one ya know. It was who’s coffee was best, that was the kind of way it was nearly a cult. Whereas now basically everyone's grown up and realised that it's coffee, and the standards are high in Dublin.
D: You should expect higher standards right?
S: I think that the kids growing up these days now they’ve got so much choice. We sat in pubs as kids like this now. You’ll see the students they are happy to hang out and get good tea and coffee, I like that. I like that buzz in the cafe that they will have their laptops open but we are also a destination for everyone to just hang out as well. Then at the weekends it's the hustle and bustle of everyone in town which is great.
D: Do you think that sort of notion of more saturation of specialty coffee in the market has reflected in the staff that are coming along now, who probably worked at 2 or 3 of the other speciality cafes before and are quite well versed and grounded in specialty coffee, so you’re less likely to be teaching them the whole thing from the beginning?
S: It's very rare that you will hire someone thats worked a few years that still wants to be involved in coffee making. They want to move onto the next thing which is roasting generally.
D: Usually it's roasting or maybe training, or another whole beverage!
S: Yeah, like whiskey. But, I much prefer when someone comes in and they have a passion and they want to learn, and they’re enthusiastic. I will take that and get them learning how to be an accomplished barista. I always say to staff as well, “you get out of this what you put in”. So whatever you’re interested in we’ll try looking into developing that. Wanting to do a competition, that used to be the thing. Baristas wanted to compete! It's less so now but if that's the platform you want, yeah let's support you and do that.
I say to the guys that anytime you're with someone [customers or other staff], try and absorb something from them. Get some bit of information that maybe you can now pass on to someone else, or just help you improve what you’re doing. From the word go, just keep asking questions, I don’t care how long you're here, just keep talking. Don't make it up and if I dont know I wont make it up!
D: “You’re working here but we are also going to try and teach you something of value here”.
S: “We don't want you to leave your brain at the door. We want you to enjoy work and we want you to be learning.”
D: You’ve worked with a lot of different roasters over the years. Do you find having that guest program or just holding more different coffees holds a bit of interest for the staff?
S: We’ll say “what's on the filter bar?” We try to change it up every couple of days, there's three different coffees. We always go “look, just try it. If you don't get it, that's okay as well”. Our customers definitely know a lot more than they used to and are looking for more information.
It’s the same when you’re going on the espresso machine, what coffee is in the hopper? What do you know about it? If you’re serving drinks you’re representing what you’re making, so you can’t just suddenly go “oh let me look at the bag”.
D: Try and brief them beforehand!
S: It’s not trying to catch them out, it’s just that I want them to go “oh this is something I should be doing”. It’s part of starting work. Like putting your apron on, this is just part of something I need to know as I start the job. With the teas as well we do all our training with Jenna.
D: How many tea’s do you carry these days?
S: 55, 60 teas
D: You’ve built on the original range.
S: Yeah, so what we did was we paired back on the tisanes and the herbal teas, we still have a few of them and they’re very popular. But we’ve rededicated to sourcing the best black tea and green teas that we can. We spend a lot of time doing tea cupping and tea tasting in the stores. We get the Autumn and Spring flushes that come in.
D: I think more people are making tea and coffee at home.
S: Yeah. Which is great as well because there is a lot less people asking, coffee for example, to be ground in the shop.
D: So there is more bean market now. That's a good trend.
S: We are not holding a lot of equipment, we are really just focused on getting as much good coffee as we can get in. Then after that we are just telling people we have you know V60’s Aeropresses and French presses. After that it's a case of we are happy to send them down the road to another coffee shop. But what they are leaving here with us, is that they are leaving with information and also having bought. The fact is we are one of the very few shops that would offer a wide range of roasters at any one time. It’s more like a wine shop with the choice.
D: I like that, the wine shop model. My first roasting job was at a tea business. Having 50 teas and 10 coffees. So much to learn and I had to write a lot of notes. It was like a daily lesson, rather than like 5 weeks of training. It was like when someone asked for it, and you’d get people who knew way more about the products than I did, so I’d learn from them.
If you ask the right questions, staff need to be not shy right?
S: Yeah. Also that's the key of seeing it all before. They don't know, and they pass them onto someone else and they feel like they should be clearing the tables. What's golden is when you stay there and just listen to the answer from Jenna or whoever it could be that’s explaining the tea options. Then you have that ability next time to pass on that knowledge to someone else.
People are realistic, customers know that I can’t physically train staff so that they know everything about teas and coffees when they step through the door. They are very patient and understanding but they want to get it from someone in the shop. It's important that at any one time that's represented.
D: Before we finish, any interesting or funny stories that come to mind? Things that might of happened, without naming names?
S: We’ve always had some great times and great nights out with the Climpsons team. Its been an amazing 10 years!
We turned 10 ourselves in the shop last year, we just decided not to celebrate it. I think for us it's a bigger deal with you guys!
S: Really though, it's just been a really good relationship. With a lot of shit that's happened that's gone on through Covid, Brexit, we all need that patience and understanding. We all want to come out of this. It’s a good bond. What I’ve always liked is that it's a natural one, it's never been forced.
You kind of going “I want Climpsons here!” So yeah from the beginning it's just been a lovely friendship and partnership.
D: Long may it continue, regardless of Brexit.
S: As I lean and hold the wooden table in front of me. How long can it continue?
So I think we are going to have a proper normal Christmas, the weather's changed, is it going to get cold at all? Certainly more people are trickling back in, it's happening. Again talking to people who are going into offices, thinking January is a big time.
D: So far so good, we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. Well, thank you Simon!
S: No, thank you!
Clement & Pekoe have two stores in Dublin.
They stock and serve the Climpson & Sons range alongside offerings from other roasters in Ireland & Europe.