The photo for this article was provided by the interviewee.
A few weeks ago I visited South Queensferry, the home of Brew Culture Coffee and Tea. I had wanted to walk over the Forth Road Bridge and also visit Brew Culture, which opened earlier this year as the only speciality coffee shop in the area. I had previously interviewed the owner, Robert, about his blog a few months prior, but I wanted to ask him a few questions about starting his coffee shop. I sent Robert some questions over email which he kindly responded to. I hope you enjoy the interview.
P.S. If you are ever in South Queensferry—or the area—and want a good cup of speciality coffee, I'd recommend checking out Brew Culture.
Can you tell me a bit more about Brew Culture and why you decided to open your coffee bar?
I've been a speciality coffee fan for many years and a frequent visitor to the many great speciality coffee shops we have in Edinburgh. At the beginning of the covid lockdown last March, my daughter Lynsey and I started to look into opening a small coffee shop. As lockdown continued, our outline plan became more detailed and we were soon looking at the reality of opening our own shop. Having considered the pros and cons of starting a new business - in the middle of a pandemic - we started looking around for a suitable vacant shop - something that was manageable for the two of us to operate.
There are a lot of decisions that need to be made when you start a cafe. I'd like to learn a bit about how you planned your coffee and food offerings. How did you decide where to source coffee from for your cafe? How did you decide which food would pair with your coffee?
You're right - there are lots of big decisions to be made so it's important to have a vision of where you want to go; and a plan on how to get there. We decided that the coffee was central to our "vision" and looked at the huge range of speciality coffees on offer. It was obvious that a lot of new roasters had started up in the past few years which made it more difficult to single one out. We wanted a supplier who was able to provide a good range of speciality coffees with certifiable provenance and we eventually decided on Union Hand Roasted Coffee, based in London. We were impressed by the Union Direct Trade model they use for sourcing coffee fairly and ethically. For our food offering, we wanted to keep it simple, without the need to cook hot meals - as the type of property we were interested in would not permit hot food consent anyhow - so our offering consists of cakes, bakes and sandwiches.
How long did it take you to go from deciding to start your cafe to being ready to open?
We started planning in March last year and had an outline plan drawn up by the autumn. We wanted to open in December but things took a lot longer than expected due to lockdown restrictions. Eventually we were able to open in mid-March this year - so 12 months in total.
Let's say I walk into your cafe in need of a brew. What could I expect from as a customer in terms of service, from arriving in the door to walking out after having my drink and/or food?
As a customer, that first step into the shop is so important in forming a perception of the business. If the process is easily recognisable - where do I order? can I take away? can I sit down? can I see the menu easily? - the customer will feel more comfortable. A bad first experience may prevent that customer from returning. We only have a small shop so we can greet customers as soon as they enter and it's easier to engage with them while we prepare their order. However, we have only been operating for two months and the first six weeks was spent operating as a takeaway from our doorway, due to covid restrictions. We're now able to offer a "sit in" service so now is our chance to prove that our approach can deliver a good customer service overall.
How many people are on your team at the moment? What tasks take up most of your time during the day?
For now, it's just me and Lynsey. When we're not serving customers it's repeated cleaning of surfaces and equipment; and clearing and wiping tables, etc. The old "Clean as you go" saying is a good process to follow.
What are the most enjoyable parts of running Brew Culture?
The banter with the customers and the great feedback we're getting about the coffee. It's early days of course but hopefully we'll sustain our initial enthusiasm as we become more established. The other enjoyable part is operating in South Queensferry. It's a fabulous location, has a great local community and attracts lots of visitors all-year round.
What are the greatest challenges you face on a day to day basis running a cafe?
Every day is different and you need to react accordingly but ultimately, it's a small business and needs to be financially viable to survive. Like most businesses, the greatest challenge at the moment is obviously the impact of the pandemic, which means relatively low footfall, offering a restricted menu with reduced covers inside; and making sure all the Government advice and guidance is followed.
What is your favourite coffee drink?
Oat Flat White.
If you could sum up the Scottish speciality coffee community in one (or a few words), what word(s) would you choose and why?
Friendly, inclusive, supportive. We've had contact with a number of speciality coffee shops and they've all been so friendly and helpful. They're so knowledgeable and provide a great speciality coffee scene for Edinburgh. It's a pleasure to work with them.
What is your favourite snack to have with a cup of coffee? (NB: Mine is a cinnamon bun!)
Lemon tart probably, or carrot cake, or chocolate brownie, or cinnamon bun...