Just as the UK general public gets used to the idea of a barista, Roasting Plant Coffee is looking to reinvent its coffee servers as curators.
This is because the US-imported brand automates nearly the entire coffee making process, from the roasting of the beans, to serving into the cup.
The only part of the production process the curators physically do is the latte art, which CEO Jamie Robertson admits could also be automated, but says customers prefer to see being finished by a person.
It’s this automation piece, and the patented technology from its US parent company-partner, which attracted Robertson to the brand.
The former executive headhunter, who quit his high-flying job after a mid-life crisis, was told he was mad to be trying to crack the highly competitive, low margin UK coffee shop market.
But he says this key differentiator makes all the difference, as he prepares to launch a second UK site, in the Strand, and push the button on further expansion.
“Coffee is a continually growing market and I think that customers are absolutely ready for something new,” Robertson says, at the UK debut London Bridge site.
“There is a real preference for specialty coffee. People are starting to understand that the closer to the roast is better.
“Most specialty coffee operators don’t make money purely from coffee, they end up adding food, and quite a full menu.
“Roasting Plant solves that conundrum because of automation. Because we manufacture a cup of coffee from green using automation, we’re able to have enough volume to make the numbers work.”
While serving speciality-grade coffee, he admits third-wave coffee types have turned their noses up at the concept and the lack of human touch in the process.
In response, Robertson points to the packed 3pm Tuesday crowd as evidence of customers voting with their feet.
“Loads of people want to hate us,” he says. “But look around you, customers love it, and keep coming back.
“We really want to be right in the middle between the high street and the artisan. We’re bringing specialty beans to the masses. We’re disrupting the coffee market.”
Described at its launch as the Willy Wonka of coffee, the industrial theatre of roasting, which sees beans juggled around like lottery balls, before being sucked through pipes and delivered through dispensers, is no doubt an appealing draw to consumers in thrall to experiences.
Robertson himself admits that when he first came across the concept he thought it was gimmicky.
However he fell in love with the brand, and set up a joint venture with founder Mike Caswell, a former executive with Starbucks.
Along with UK partner Danny Vroegop, they redesigned the retail footprint and overhauled the food offering, with a focus on the interaction between the customer and the server.
“We call our people curators, because they have to explain about the different coffees and the choices you can have, because you can pick any bean, and you can blend any of the origins,” Robertson says.
While the US stores are full of industrial stainless steel, the UK stores are warmer, with an emphasis on freshness – the flowers, and baked goods aimed at reinforcing the fresh coffee credentials.
“We’re the only business in coffee that roasts in every single site. We manufacture a cup of coffee and from green to cup in every store”, he says.
Roasting Plant UK specifically targets Millennial and Gen Z consumers – though appears to be just as popular with older generation office workers and tourists.
With a second site coming up at The Strand, the UK business is talking to several major landlords, including Grosvenor Estate, Canary Wharf, Shaftesbury, Argent and Berkeley (“everybody’s interested”, Robertson says).
Drawing on his headhunting network, the business is backed by a number of high-profile investors, including former M&S boss Sir Stewart Rose, Steve Ingham, CEO of the the Page Group and former Woolworths South Africa chairman Simon Susman.
Having established the debut site, discussions are ongoing on with bigger institutional investors.
“Clearly we want to grow a lot quicker now”, Robertson says.
“We are very scalable because of the automation, we’re less reliant on skilled barista as the machine does a lot of the work.
“If we get the right investors, particularly if they’re providing resources other than money, of course we going to go quicker.
“But it has to be the right speed”, he adds. “Execution is absolutely essential. What people have enjoyed about the first shop is great customer experience, people interaction, knowledge about the bean. We want to make sure that culture continues, and if you go too quickly you could lose that.”
THE BIG INTERVIEW
Roasting Plant Coffee: ‘We’re bringing speciality coffee to the masses’
Just as the UK general public gets used to the idea of a barista, Roasting Plant Coffee is looking to reinvent its coffee servers as curators. This is because the US-imported brand automates nearly the entire coffee making process, from the roasting of the beans, to serving into the cup. The only part of the production process the curators physically do is the latte art, which CEO Jamie admits could also be automated, but says customers prefer to see being finished by a person.