Roasting Plant CEO Jamie Robertson speaks to World Coffee Portal about why ‘just-roasted’ coffee resonates with customers and investors alike and how its unique Javabot technology is delivering quality and consistency while enabling the brand to build better human connections
Roasting Plant CEO, Jamie Robertson
Cafés are synonymous with background noise and the steady sound of just-roasted specialty coffee beans ricocheting through Javabot’s transparent pipes overhead highlights both the quirky side and growing popularity of Roasting Plant.
Opening its first store in New York in 2007, Roasting plant now operates five stores across the US and after making its UK debut in 2019 operates five stores in London.
Watching Javabot in full swing at Roasting Plant’s Strand store in Central London, the brand’s focus on speed, automation and customisation is immediately evident – every cup is brewed to order from nine single origin options or a custom blend from Javabot’s tubular hoppers and whisked to the store’s Eversys super-automatic machines using compressed air in less than a minute.
Surrounded by a multitude of coffee shops in London’s high footfall West End Theatreland, Roasting Plant certainly has a unique proposition, but what is behind its growing appeal?
“From our perspective, just-roasted coffee is the key differentiator,” says Jamie Robertson, who became Roasting Plant UK CEO in January 2018 and Group CEO in February 2022.
Roasting Plant is the only multi-unit coffee retailer that roasts daily in every café, while serving freshly roasted coffee at a speed many convenience-focused operators would envy.
“People are recognising that coffee doesn’t have to come from a manual machine anymore and that you don’t have to wait a long time to receive your specialty coffee,” Robertson says.
The former leadership consultant says the coffee industry is becoming more customer-orientated and focused on choice.
“It’s a bit like what happened with wine. We all used to drink Le Piat d’Or, but now everybody knows the different types of grapes, along with blends and origins. It is now the same with coffee and not only is that very exciting, but we are ahead of the curve,” he explains.
But can just-roasted coffee be too fresh? Robertson accepts that some in the coffee industry view Roasting Plant’s approach as being at odds with coffee’s degassing process, which typically allows up to a week for the release of CO2 to optimise flavour.
“The Zurich University of Applied Science has documented that flavour and aroma compounds in coffee degrade rapidly during the first 7-10 days after roasting. At the end of the day it is the customer who will decide if they think it is a better product, and the majority do,” he says.
A rollercoaster ride
Regarding the inherent complexity of Javabot’s technology, Robertson is quick to assure the apparatus rarely breaks down. “Our machine’s quality is like a Toyota or Lexus,” he says, adding that the mechanics who engineered the first Javabot had a background in super-yacht engineering.
“That is why Javabot has been produced in the way that it has. Their mentality is built around being faultless – they can’t go wrong at sea and they must be beautiful,” he adds.
That is not to say that disruption is entirely avoidable. While problems relating to air pressure or the roaster machinery are easily solved, navigating a global pandemic is not.
“To have exactly the same Ethiopian flat white in London as I have in Detroit is amazing”
Having debuted in the UK in Borough High Street in 2019, Roasting Plant opened its Strand store ten days before the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020.
Many hospitality businesses did not survive Covid but Robertson, while not denying the difficulties it brought for the business, says the last three years have been more of a rollercoaster ride of affirmation for Roasting Plant.
“We were lucky enough to grow out of Covid. We managed to raise some money here in London and, with an amazing team and government support, we remained cash flow positive,” he says.
Lockdown presented opportunities for Roasting Plant to secure cheaper leases, afforded by having a “concept that landlords really love.”
In the last 18 months Roasting Plant has debuted a kiosk at Selfridges Food Hall and opened two further London stores at High Holborn and South Molton Street. Strong sales growth across the five outlets has also enabled the business to raise $7m for expansion.
Roasting Plant's Strand store, London
Roasting Plant is seeking to shake up the high-street coffee scene and open over 345 stores in the US and UK over the next five years, starting with three new outlets in Washington and another three in the UK this year.
In the short term, this involves demonstrating that the freshly roasted concept works in different formats, including incorporating Javabot into kiosk locations where providing adequate ventilation for the roasting process will prove challenging.
It is also dependent upon Roasting Plant industrialising its manufacturing processes. The hand-made Javabot technology is expensive, although return on investment tends to be realised within two years. Capital expenditure will reduce further as the company grows and value-engineers its product.
Technology for the people
Robertson says scaling successfully ultimately comes down to maintaining a positive company culture and preserving product quality.
“Our technology allows us to keep consistent quality because it is not based on baristas. It is hinged on the technology executing flawlessly in each city, every day. We currently have machinery in San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis, Detroit, Palm Beach, New York and London. To be able to have exactly the same Ethiopian flat white in London as I have in Detroit is amazing,” Robertson says.
Consistency is key to Roasting Plant’s affiliation with Swiss super-automatic espresso machine manufacturer Eversys, which, Robertson says “simply have the best machines on the market”.
“Our current technology allows us to be infinitely more scalable than our competitors in specialty coffee”
Ambitious expansion plans mean Roasting Plant will soon reassess its supplier strategy, but a deviation from Eversys is highly unlikely. “No one comes close to matching their offering. Our current technology allows us to be infinitely more scalable than our competitors in specialty coffee,” he adds.
‘Elevating customer experience’ is a phrase that Robertson frequently uses to describe Roasting Plant’s culture and mission.
With the development of preordering capabilities becoming more widespread, Robertson insists that technology is only worth adopting if it makes businesses more efficient and elevates human interaction.
“Human beings fundamentally need connection. My experience is that most people like to be served with a smile and engaged as a customer, rather than a sale,” he says.
Roasting Plant clearly has an opportunity to scale, using automation and its unique Javabot technology to offer a fresh take on the specialty coffee experience. However, Robertson is adamant that Roasting Plant will continue to deliver the genuine human connection and high-quality beverages that increasingly savvy coffee shop consumers demand.
“We deliver the fresh roasted experience and that is it,” he concludes as the next battalion of coffee beans charge across the store.
This article was first published in Issue 14 of 5THWAVE magazine.
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