Ask the Roaster
180 years old and still young at heart. As we approach our bicentennial Atkinsons is sitting on a wealth of tea & coffee heritage, the like of which just can't be invented. It's in our brand DNA to take the long view, which means looking for sustainable relationships with suppliers and doing our part to be kinder to the environment, so that we can still be here tomorrow enjoying a coffee together.
When we took up the baton as Guardians of the Flame back 2005 we took our custodianship of this much-loved local institution very seriously and still feel this responsibility every day when we open our doors to the steady stream of customers old and new. The shop and Roastery were just about ticking over after a long period of continuous trading for 168 years. When the young Thomas Atkinson opened his Grasshopper Tea Warehouse in 1837 there were already 6 other Tea Merchants in the bustling west-facing port of Lancaster. Now there was only one. One last link to the city's distant, sometimes glorious, sometimes infamous maritime past, clinging on by its fingernails to the cliff edge of mercantile obscurity, an abyss littered with failed businesses, victims of unscrupulous dealings or commercial ineptitude and hope-filled start-ups that had succumbed to the ravages of changing trends, resulting in piles of obsolete products. Atkinsons stuck to its guns, no compromise of quality, through two world wars and regular recessions and depressions on the world markets. One market remained strong, a staple that was also an affordable luxury, the demand for a really good cup of tea or coffee and it was not just an everyday necessity but several times a day.
When we took over, there were just two part-time staff and a manager, who had been there for 50 years. Like a goldfish in a small pond the business had grown to a size limited by its habitat and occupants. But it was in danger of becoming fossilised. The charm of walking into a Dickensian time-warp was not lost on us. Indeed the very neglect that had taken hold became our greatest blessing. The previous owners very graciously left every artefact, every lock, stock and Jamaica Blue Mountain barrel for us to pick through. For the first couple of years we were still discovering various ephemera hidden away in nooks and crannies. It was like embarking on a project of Retail Archeology!
10,000 tiny decisions made every day to move the business in the right direction, informed by one clear vision. A company culture where people enjoy coming to work and customers enjoy what we make.
In the early days of our tenure, when we were having resistance to every little change we tried to make, I felt the need to write a Company Culture document. I know this sounds very ‘Corporate’ but we’d reached a crisis point with our two members of staff and I needed to clear the air and set out how I wanted to create a better atmosphere. The slightly stuffy world of retail was a far cry from the relaxed individualism of the world of film and advertising that I had been used to for the last twenty years. Now, with 42 mouths to feed, the Company Culture document still gets given to every new member of staff along with their handbook. It’s only a sheet of A4 but I think most of the time we manage to run a happy ship. The best compliment anyone can pay our business is if they say we have great staff, who are so knowledgeable.
Most of the producers we buy from are small family firms too, of course many of the places we visit at origin are huge co-operatives, made up of thousands of small-holders but we always make time to visit a small family farm. In this great big coffee world, it gives us a sense of scale that we can relate to. It’s a world where 80% of the world’s coffee is controlled by just 5 mega corporations and on the flip side 80% of the world’s coffee is grown by small farmers with just an acre of land or less. Our notion of Relationship Coffee is very real when we have met the families involved in its production, no matter how far away they are