Coffee and Interview with Tom Sobey of Origin Coffee Roasters
Former editor, Phil Wain, caught up with Tom Sobey who founded Origin Coffee Roasters in 2004 to talk coffee. In the last few years they have opened cafes in Cornwall and London which have set standards for design, quality and hospitality. Their partnership with the British Library has been revolutionary. Importantly, their flagship Charlotte Road café re-emphasises the brew bar, showcasing it by the front window for all to see. We asked Tom about the growth of Origin and his thoughts on café design and the London and Cornish coffee scenes…
LBC: So how did it start? What were your earliest experiences of coffee? And what led to the formation of Origin Coffee Roasters?
TS: My experience of coffee started in an earlier age; my father was a franchisee of Bewley’s in the early 90’s and I helped out as a delivery driver. At this time espresso wasn’t really on the menu in most Cornish cafes - it was all pre-ground three pint filter sachets.
When I first started working with him I didn’t drink coffee, but that all changed when I spent a week in Dublin learning about coffee. Around that time, I’d also managed to convince the new Hall for Cornwall to invest in an espresso machine. The theatre had been through two years of refurbishment and was opening a coffee shop. We installed a La Cimbali espresso machine there and the whole experience got me excited about the coffee industry. I then went travelling to Australia in 1998, which led me into speciality coffee - I managed to get a job with a coffee company on the Gold Coast. It was a huge learning curve and I had people coming for training that knew more about espresso than I did so I had to think very quickly on my feet. Travelling around Australia, I visited roasteries in my spare time which cemented what I wanted to do when I got back – set up a speciality coffee roastery in Cornwall.
LBC: How has Origin changed over the years?
TS: What we do has changed dramatically over the years but our approach and the way we do things has remained pretty much unchanged. When I first started up in 2004, I didn’t have the money to buy a roaster (I literally only had a few hundred pounds to develop a logo for the business) so decided to kick start it by using Master Roast whilst I saved and developed the business and my knowledge. In 2008, four years after launching, we purchased a Diedrich IR12 and that marked the start of the long-awaited roastery. Since then, we’ve grown to fifty people and now have a full service offering with direct trade sourcing, two busy Loring Smart Roasts, an education team and machinery and servicing. In the last couple of years, the shape of the business has changed again with our own shops in Cornwall and London – places where we can show people who we are and what we do.
Fundamental to all of this is people. We’ve got a strong team of smart, creative people who all share the same values – striving to produce the most delicious coffee in an approachable way.
LBC: How is the Cornish coffee scene?
TS: It’s incredible. Over the last ten years the landscape has changed unrecognisably. At one point there were barely even any espresso machines in Cornwall and now we have impressive speciality coffee throughout the county. From beautiful hotels like Watergate Bay and The Scarlet, to coffeeshops like 108 in Truro, Strong Adolfo’s in Wadebridge and the Sorting Office in St Agnes; from beach cafes like Godrevy and Gylly Beach to stunning gardens like Heligan and Trebah. There’s delicious coffee being brewed throughout the region by people passionate about great food and drink.
LBC: What was the thought process behind your coffeeshop in Charlotte Road, Shoreditch?
TS: I always wanted to open a café in London, it’s a great way for people to experience what we do and understand more about who we are. We had been doing quite a lot of work with Selfridges in Oxford Street the response we received first hand from customers gave us the confidence to do it. We had also employed a really great and ambitious manager at our pop ups in Selfridges - Tom Pye - and it was really important to us to keep him interested. At the time we’d also started working with Soho House and so creating a coffee shop with a training and tech facility on site enabled us to give them critical support in London.
Tom Pye worked tirelessly visiting potential sites across London until the opportunity came up to open in Shoreditch. It just felt like the right space. It was important for us to do something different in the shop, and so rather than fit a window bench in the large floor-to-ceiling window we decided to use it to frame a brew bar in order for our baristas to be showcased.
LBC: So many people have been taken with the design of Charlotte Road, Euston Road and The Aircraft Factory in Hammersmith. What are your thoughts on what makes for good café design?
TS: We’re fortunate that we’ve got some great partners we work with on our shops, including interior designers Hart Miller Design. Anna really gets who we are, but also gets what people need from a coffee shop environment. There’s obviously the functional side of things (which is never easy to plan) such as flow around the shop to make sure we’re giving customers the most pleasant experience we can. Critically though they need to be interesting and engaging spaces that people want to spend time in. That means that there can’t be a cookie cutter approach to each shop – each needs to work in the space, the building and the area in which they’re in.
LBC: Who are the other key people at Origin?
TS: It sounds like a cliché but everyone employed here is key. From Joshua our Head of Coffee to Gabby who baristas at our Hammersmith shop, to Erin and Chloe in customer service. Everyone plays a key role and has to be right for the business to succeed. A really important thing for us is supporting our staff, from London living wages for our baristas to SCAE training and coffee competition entries. We’ve got some great stories of people growing and moving within different roles in our business. We have some of our staff from Cornwall in London now and vice versa; it’s great to be able to support staff in their professional growth and also in achieving the lifestyle they’re looking for.
Dan Fellows (the current UKBC champion) started off as a barista in our Porthleven shop, then as our wholesale manager for the north whilst he was at university in York and is now our Head of Wholesale in London. Will Pitts started at Harbour Head too and is now the GM at our Charlotte Road shop. On the other side, we have some of our London baristas switching down to Cornwall to work in Porthleven – Graeme has just come down for the summer after working in Charlotte Road, with Chris doing the same last year. There are lots more of those stories too – TJ, Lizzy and Ruby are also examples – and this is what we’re all about.
LBC: What makes Origin Coffee Roasters unique?
TS: The people. Everyone’s proud and passionate about what they do and keen to excel – this is what keeps the business fresh and evolving. Joshua spends months of the year venturing to new territories in pursuit of the most delicious coffee available – he works tirelessly to do this and the results are incredible. Our Authorised SCA Trainers, Jesse and Alex, live and breathe coffee (and food) and love what they do, they’ve also both visited farms we work with so can recount these experiences and knowledge to our customers first hand. And this is the same throughout the business.