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Leicester Coffee House is about more than profit

They're keen to see the Coffee House used for community activities.

Leicester Coffee House owners sit outside
Gail Brown and Aaron Keen

Gail Brown, founder of Leicester Coffee House, told us what goes into selling 'coffee with a conscience'.


Setting up

Previously, I worked with schools and businesses for Leicestershire Cares. I was the Education Co-ordinator running projects on employability skills.


While I was there a couple of things happened: I realised that I wanted to set up on my own and that whatever I was going to do next should be socially minded.


I wanted this café to be an organisation where one of the things we do is train young people with more difficult needs to get into the workplace.


They have a lot to bring to the workplace but they’re just not able to demonstrate that in a normal academic situation.


In the meantime, my husband Aaron developed an interest in roasting coffee and set up a green bean roasting operation using a popcorn maker initially.


After blowing up a couple of those, we got a small 250g roaster at home and realised that people actually wanted our freshly roasted coffee beans.


We turned that into a business from home in November 2016 and started looking for the right place to set up a coffee shop. Between the two of us we had most of the skills that we needed.


Aaron has finance skills and is very good with figures whereas my specialism is communication, marketing and social media. I love setting things up from scratch and developing new projects.


The unique building

We decided to buy these premises and did a lot of the refurbishment ourselves over all three floors in eight months.


We got some grant funding from Green Belle to help install energy efficient measures and financed the rest through savings. We opened the doors here in October 2018.


We have rented out the five rooms upstairs to a number of therapists and I’d like to support them with developing their new business enterprises.


This ties in nicely with the original idea of a ‘socially minded’ coffee shop where you could also see a therapist.


Values

It’s always been a very socially minded business and we want to keep it that way. Pretty much as soon as we started, we had young people from Keyham Lodge School doing placements in the coffee shop, behind the bar, supporting the roastery and delivering beans.


This really helped to build confidence and social skills. One of their students created beautiful coffee sack bags which we sold in the shop, others were involved in taking pictures and making the planters outside. I’m still working with those students on various projects.


During Covid, we were the only coffee shop open in Leicester and people were really pleased to visit us for a chat. We had a couple of very cold winters trading with the doors wide open for takeaways and we borrowed a bike park from the City Council.


We also launched a cycle delivery service for our beans - just really small innovations to keep us connected with our community.


Another part of what we’re about is sourcing our coffee to support positive social impact. The Guatemalan coffee that we have on today is from Red de Mujeres which means ‘women’s network’.


It’s a women’s co-operative set up to support the women whose partners died in the war.


There’s another social enterprise, co-operative farm in Uganda which we love as well and have fundraised for them.



Supporting sustainability

We try to run on a zero waste basis as much as possible. I try to think of ways not to create the waste in the first place and that guides our decisions on some of the things we buy.


Roasting our own beans on site and buying large sacks of green beans means we avoid a lot of plastic packaging. We’ve reused these hessian sacks for lots of things – tote bags, stool covers and washing up sponges, for example.


Gail Brown - owner of Leicester Coffee House.

Our milk comes in reusable glass bottles from a local family run farm in Great Dalby and we were the first coffee shop in Leicester to do this. All of our cups are compostable (we refuse to use plastic), but the cost is high for these, and we are considering charging people for takeaway cups if they don’t have a reusable cup.


Our leftover coffee grits go to Leicester Print Workshop by bike to use in their planters. The bean chaff left over after roasting has been used by one of our customers to brew beer.


We also reuse our oat milk containers in an innovative way – we make coffee cup carriers out of them. There’s no food waste because we bake in-house so can control the quantities we produce very closely. Sustainability is embedded in this business I think it’s fair to say.


I’m very keen to see our space used for more community-based activities now that Covid has receded.


Customer response

Leicester Coffee House has a lot of loyal regulars that we see every day, sometimes twice! They really like the fantastic coffee, and the experience we give them.


We always ask customers ‘how are you?’ and you just don’t get that in big coffee chains. We’re not a corporate machine, we’re real people and that seems to have become increasingly important to customers in the last couple of years.


People are important, everyone is different, and we hope to encourage people back with the warm welcome we give them.


Finding the right team

In the future we’d like to have a larger team of baristas behind the bar, particularly at peak times. That would allow us to deal with the back-office side of things and think about doing new things.


I’m thinking about events, new activities, products and the community side of things, particularly developing training programmes for young people which is what we set out to do.


There is a real shortage of good baristas in the area, so we’d like to contribute to this skills gap, not necessarily just for ourselves but to help develop transferable skills for use in other hospitality businesses.


There are lots of jobs right now, lots of people applying but not the people to fill them with the right skills and experience.


We also have another vacant space in our basement. We’d love to be able to open it into something, perhaps as an extension of our roastery to give us more space on the shop floor. Or maybe as a barista training facility to support students or maybe even a bakery, as there is a shortage of good bread in the city centre.


There are lots of ideas and opportunities, we just need the time to develop them and find the right people to work with. With your own business, it’s really hard work but you have the flexibility to adapt and grow and it’s exciting to see where we will go next!

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