12 June 2019 | UK

Interview: Jamie Robertson, Roasting Plant UK CEO

Allegra research reveals a growing number of coffee roasters retailing direct to consumers through café concepts. Roasting Plant UK CEO, Jamie Robertson, speaks to World Coffee Portal about how his firm is using hi-tech solutions to stand out from the crowd

"I’ve always had a close connection with food and retail". Jamie Robertson, UK CEO, Roasting Plant



With a roasting business in every London borough and virtually every town and city in the UK, roastery café concepts are an effective strategy to increase brand visibility and bring coffee consumers and connoisseurs alike into direct contact with the roasting process. In the context of highly competitive high street trading, stores with visual appeal and an experiential focus can make all the difference in attracting and maintaining footfall.

One new coffee shop that’s bringing consumers into direct contact with micro batch roasting in-store is London’s Roasting Plant. First developed by US entrepreneur Mike Caswell in 2007, Roasting Plant lays claim to being the only multi-unit coffee retailer that roasts in every café. The concept operates across five US locations and made its UK debut in London under the stewardship of CEO Jamie Robertson in January 2019.

Coffee is a relatively new field for Robertson, but the former headhunter highlights his great affinity with retail and hospitality, having worked with key industry figures such as former Marks & Spencer boss, Sir Stuart Rose. “Growing up, my parents ran fish and chip shops and I had a French upbringing, so I’ve always had a close connection with food and retail,” he says.
 

"I believe this business is an absolute ground-breaker, and dare I say it, disruptive to the coffee market"


But when it comes to coffee, consistent UK market growth over the last 20 years was what inspired Robertson to get involved; but with one proviso: In an increasingly crowded market, any new venture would have to stand out from the crowd. Roasting Plant, after all, competes locally among a cluster of premium coffee businesses, including Grind, Monmouth Coffee Company and Flat Cap Coffee – not to mention a proliferation of convenience-focused chains vying for London Bridge’s fast-flowing commuter traffic.

“Specialty coffee is a fast-growing market, so I was definitely interested. But if I was going to move myself into a new business, it would have to be scalable and have a defendable, patented, unique proposition. I invested in Roasting Plant because it delivered all of those things,” Robertson explains.
 

Green and roasted beans are displayed in-store. Every customisable single origin order is spirited from huge vertical hoppers via overhead piping and sent directly to one of the store’s Eversys Swiss super-automatic coffee machines | Photo: Tom Bird



The lean, mean roasting machine

Roasting Plant’s concept revolves around its patented Javabot technology, a largely automated roasting and brewing system that integrates every stage of coffee craft from green bean to beverage. In-store you won’t find baristas pulling shots, instead every customisable single origin order is spirited from huge vertical hoppers via overhead piping and sent directly to one of the store’s Eversys Swiss super-automatic coffee machines. It’s a neat fusion of specialty coffee and technology that appears to chime with a local clientele of busy professionals on a hectic strip of central London.
 

We’ve vertically integrated everything into one process, effectively manufacturing a cup of coffee from green beans at every site


Robertson acknowledges Javabot could at first appear gimmicky, but is keen to stress the high-tech system has enabled his business to not only produce consistently high-quality coffee, but remain profitable from its core beverage proposition too – no mean feat in a market where coffee shops are increasingly seeking to diversify into dining and night trade to boost sales.

“One of the biggest industry issues currently is that not many artisans make money, so they find it very hard to do the volumes. Hence, you have amazing coffee shops turning themselves into restaurants,” says Robertson.

“Our economic model and business operations solved many of those issues. Using automation, we’re able to deliver specialty just-roasted coffee with personal choice at volume, at speed and with consistent quality, and we can do that in every single store. That’s why I believe this business is an absolute ground-breaker, and dare I say it, disruptive to the coffee market.”

Javabot isn’t just a great piece of coffee shop theatre with operational efficiency built-in, the patented system is also incredibly difficult to emulate and ensures freshness with every transaction, a key facet of the brand’s narrative. 

Roasting plant offers a range of nine freshly roasted single origin coffees | Photo: Tom Bird



Each storage tube holds around a 3-4 day supply of beans and roasting takes eight to twelve minutes, with an initial off-gassing process of 10-12 hours. “The coffee industry is largely set up to try and preserve coffee rather than drink it at its best moment while it’s still fresh and smooth with no over-taste typically exhibited by stale coffee,” says Robertson. “We’ve vertically integrated everything into one process, effectively manufacturing a cup of coffee from green beans at every site.”

The ability to roast to order at each store not only negates the need for off-site storage, it also helps to reduce waste. “We roast in micro batches and have zero waste because every bit of roasted coffee gets used. We don’t roast again until we need it,” Robertson explains.

But crucially, Robertson reveals he’s been blown away by the reaction of ordinary consumers to Roasting Plant’s product. He cites an SCA study which found 86% of specialty coffee drinkers prefer, ‘fresh roasted’ coffee, something which is central to Roasting Plant’s proposition. “Customer say things like ‘it’s so much smoother, there’s no bitter aftertaste’ or ‘there’s a cleaner taste’, which I think is incredible.”
 

Small batch brings big value

Having a rotating range of nine single origin small batch specialty coffees means there’s always a flow of fresh beans coming to the store, but Robertson is also an advocate of using higher specialty prices to give value back to coffee farmers. “Purchasing micro lots gives us access to a greater variety of farmers than perhaps some of the larger roasters, which need huge volumes,” he explains.

“We’ve built relationships with farmers and we always pay above Fairtrade prices. Higher specialty prices are really the only way for many farmers to remain in the game.”

With the UK’s first Javabot fully up to speed serving up to 500 customers a day, Robertson says the business has more than exceeded his expectations. But he’s also under no illusion of the challenges ahead in attaining that holy grail of hospitality – profitable scalability. Although some 65% percent of roasters surveyed by Allegra are positive about current trading conditions, nearly half agree there is an oversupply of roasters in the market compared to consumer demand.

After a successful UK launch in January 2019, Roasting Plant plans to open three new stores over the next 12 months | Photo: Tom Bird



“Many people see the business opportunity of having a roaster in-store and customers definitely appreciate these experiences. But getting the economics to work isn’t easy. It’s can be great for the first five stores, but how can you get to 100 or even 700 like the successful chains? It will be interesting to see in five years’ time how many of today’s new roasters will still exist.”

It’s clear Roasting Plant is breathing new life into the farm-to-cup narrative with its holistic and innovative approach to sourcing, roasting and customer experience. With three stores in the pipeline over the next 12 months, Javabot looks set to continue its transatlantic expansion and represents a brave new world of interactive and engaging hospitality concepts emerging on the UK high street.
 




Featuring a complete directory of all UK roasters, including size, contact details, cafés, machine partnerships and certifications, The Roasters Report 2019 also identifies key success factors, inhibitors of growth, market trends, and future growth channels within the UK’s highly opportune coffee roastery segment.

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