James Shapland launched Coffee #1 in 2001 and served as CEO of the company until the then 15-strong coffee chain was acquired by Cardiff brewery SA Brain in 2011. In January 2021 he announced a new venture, Coffi Lab – a community focused, dog-friendly coffee business with seven stores and counting. Shapland speaks to World Coffee Portal about the magnetism of the coffee industry, launching during the pandemic and why specialty coffee is here to stay
James Shapland, CEO, Coffi Lab | Photo credit: Coffi Lab
Coffi Lab opened its first store in July 2021 in the Welsh town of Monmouth and has since grown to six stores across Wales and the West of England. Named after the Welsh word for coffee and an abbreviation of Labrador, the business donates all gross revenues from the first day of any new outlet to the Guide Dogs UK charity.
Along with other fundraising efforts, Coffi Lab has raised more than £30,000 for Guide Dogs UK to date.
In October 2022, Coffi Lab announced it will be opening its seventh location in Cardiff’s Llanishen Village in December 2022.
Having had success with launching and growing Coffee #1 in 2001, what drew you back to the coffee market with Coffi Lab?
You only really understand what you’ve got when it’s not there anymore. I realized whilst I was away that the coffee community is special. Always innovating and always welcoming. I’ve made some great friends. The guys at Clifton Coffee couldn’t do more for us. They’re always helping us to stretch and produce excellence. But they are also good people.
I’ve travelled the world – visited coffee plantations in India and Costa Rica, attended trade shows in North America, met the founder of La Marzocco in Florence. But it’s so much more than travelling. It’s about personal growth. I can’t put a value on how much I’ve learned from the coffee business. And that learning piece never stops. There is a never-ending pursuit of quality which is both pivotal to competitive advantage and also immensely gratifying.
Ultimately I love coffee and I feel enormously fortunate to be back.
What does Coffi Lab offer that the larger international chains do not?
We don’t see ourselves as just another coffee chain. We have a deeper sense of purpose.
Bringing people together and enhancing the local community is very important to us. Positioned in places we know and love. Obviously the core ingredients which drive an excellent coffee shop are the foundations. But that’s only the start. We have a laser-like focus on the customer experience and quality. We don’t always get it right, but we are always striving to improve.
More importantly Coffi Lab comes from a place of meaning to me. Real heart. And I think the levels of engagement we are seeing from customers show that the emotional context is resonating. We continue to pursue a social mission which positions Guide Dogs at the beating heart of what we do.
What opportunities/difficulties did you face launching Coffi Lab during the pandemic?
There were obviously many difficulties trading during the pandemic. Social distancing meant seating restrictions, introducing one-way systems was challenging in some of our stores and face masks create an automatic barrier between customers and baristas.
However, as restrictions were lifted after a year of anxiety there was a feeling of freedom, of wanting to go out and socialise again. To connect, drink coffee and appreciate small pleasures.
It just so happened that the vision I had was positioned in the neighbourhoods. At a time when we were in the midst of the pandemic and working from home. I realised three things.
Firstly, people craved contact. Secondly, most of them had bought a dog in lockdown. Thirdly, they still loved excellent coffee. We gave them beautiful spaces in their neighbourhood to enjoy all three!
Coffi Lab’s first Cardiff store in the picturesque neighbourhood of Llandaff | Photo credit: Coffi Lab
How would you describe the current state of the UK coffee shop market, post-pandemic?
Clearly the sector was punished during the Covid-19 pandemic. And whilst habits have shifted the appetite for coffee has never been stronger. For those who are able to navigate this next phase of brutal inflation, I think the future looks bright. Fundamentally, the demand for premium coffee will only continue to grow. It now forms part of our cultural fabric. There are over 9,000 coffee shops in the UK.
Trust has never been more important. Don’t lead with meal deals and upselling, lead with trust. And build strong relationships.
I look forward with optimism. Specialty coffee is undoubtedly here to stay. Each year brings a new wave of innovation which excites me. As the sector becomes more quality focused it undoubtedly leads to better results in the cup. And this leads to a better customer experience.
How do you balance being community-centred with expanding the Coffi Lab store footprint?
Our values-based mindset shouldn’t diminish with footprint it should only develop. As awareness increases and our infrastructure gets stronger, we get stronger. We partner with Guide Dogs UK and we invite all local puppy trainers and Guide Dog owners to our store openings, giving them a place to gather and a safe place to bring their dogs.
How much growth potential do you see Coffi Lab having over the next five-ten years?
We have ambitious plans to grow. We believe 50 Labs in five years is achievable.
But we won’t grow for the sake of it. With each new store, we must retain our integrity and remain true to Coffi Lab’s values.