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Coffee firm's origins have a real focus on ethical trade

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 12, 2013

Origin Coffee founder Tom Sobey

Origin Coffee founder Tom Sobey

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High streets up and down the country may be in decline but coffee shops continue to flourish in ever increasing numbers as Britons treat themselves to a cup of what they fancy.

This has prompted Helston-based Origin Coffee, until now primarily a wholesale and online business, to open a 'brew house' in nearby Porthleven where visitors can sample different types of coffee and buy beans, grinds or coffee equipment.

Managing director Tom Sobey started the business in 2005 after returning from a trip to Australia with a burning desire to make the quality of coffee he had tried there available in the UK.

As a teenager, he had previously worked for the coffee franchise business his parents ran.

Using coffee sourced from around the world, Tom imported the beans, with roasting carried out by a Peterborough-based business.

In 2008, Origin bought second hand equipment that would allow it to try out roasting its own beans before, in 2010, investing in a new roasting machine.

Established as a quality brand with a strong emphasis on ethical sourcing, Origin started to pick up contracts from cafes and restaurants across the South West.

Over the years this list has grown to include the likes of the Watergate Bay Hotel, Fifteen, the Eden Project as well restaurants and hotels further afield with Malmaison and Hotel du Vin recent wins that Tom said the investment in roasting equipment had helped to attract.

"I don't know if we would have got them without the roasting. It gave us more kudos when we were speaking to them," he said.

This year, Origin will produce 140 tonnes of coffee, with turnover set to reach £2.8 million.

"We were hoping to have a turnover of £3 million by the end of this year but the business is profitable and running well so we're not going to beat ourselves up – we set hefty targets," he added.

Although it has fallen short of the 30% growth target that was set, it has managed a very healthy 10-15%, with independent cafes proving to be a particular driver for sales.

With a strong focus on moving the business forwards, Origin last month opened its first retail outlet, at Porthleven, in response to a steady stream of coffee-lovers seeking to buy its wares from its Helston base.

"We have a lot of people coming to the roastery who want to buy coffee but we're not really geared up for it. We had always looked for a small retail outlet were we could brew, say, two espressos, and people could come in and try different types of coffees and equipment."

This has also had an unforeseen benefit in terms of visiting cafe owners who pop in while on holiday and place a wholesale order as a result, with one London-based businessman who had previously rebuffed sales calls, agreeing a deal after trying a cup while on holiday.

Coffees are sourced from a variety of growers in Central and South America. Tom initially used Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance accreditations when buying but, as Origin has grown, it has developed its own sourcing guidelines.

The company buys 80% of its beans direct from growers, many of whom it has visited, with a 30-page audit required before placing an order so that the welfare and environmental credentials of each grower can be established.

"Fair Trade is great and it did everything we wanted it to, but we wanted to improve the way we bought coffee," he said.

With a marketplace that has far more competition than it did when Origin was started, Tom said the business worked to constantly move forwards in order to keep its offering fresh.

"Coffee is very fashionable in London so there is an increase in roast retailers there. The market is growing and we have continued to grow down here. People spring up and they disappear, but that's life," he said.

"We constantly evolve. When we first came along we didn't roast and we wanted to, then we did and we wanted to improve our own way of doing it. Now we have opened a shop. We are constantly evolving and trying to improve what we do – otherwise we would be standing still."

Coffee has been described as a recession-proof treat that remains affordable to hard-pressed shoppers trying to hold on to their disposable income.

But Tom said that the recession had not impacted on the business, either way, with a good product selling well regardless of the economic climate.

"We have continued to grow so it hasn't had an effect but then, maybe we would have grown more if it hadn't been for the recession. I think we're recession proof because we work on a basis of quality. If you're offering three star coffee at five star prices, then you can't blame the recession. If you go somewhere and the coffee is well brewed in a good environment then you go back."

Despite Origin's strong growth rates, it does face challenges, with a difficulty in recruiting skilled baristas the main hurdle that Tom says the firm has had to overcome.

"For us as a brew house, the challenge is to find someone who is really into coffee who wants to learn. We have had plenty of people apply and I'm sure they have the ability to brew a cup of coffee but it's the tasting and analysing that we also look for, it's really skilled, specialist labour," said Tom.

Although Tom said that Origin had initially benefited from Cornwall's strength as a location for food and drink businesses, he said this effect had started to wane as more roasting firms had sprung up in London, with many cafes and restaurants in the South East preferring to buy their coffee locally.

But he said it was unlikely that Origin would open a base in London to try and counter this.

"It's been tough enough opening a new business in Porthleven which is half a mile down the road from where I live! I would never rule it out, but it would be tough," he said. "We have got a really good people here and a good business and it's important that we don't rest on our laurels."

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