Interview: Kurt Stewart of Volcano Coffee Works
Wake-up and smell the coffee folks! I’d never visited a coffee roastery before, let alone one hidden within the depths of the old Pye Electronics building in South East London. It’s now a hub for creative industries. It’s also a labyrinth of gates, steps, and corridors, and yet, I managed to home in like a cruise missile. It was easy because I just followed the unmistakable aroma from the churning, coffee roasting machine.
Ben: Who are you & what do you do?
Kurt: I’m Kurt from Volcano Coffee Works, formerly known as Full Steam Espresso. That’s where I started roasting coffee for a company in Portobello, London. But eventually, I wanted to do my own thing and so… I went off to form my own brand (Full Steam Espresso) with my own roasted beans, … the idea of it to be organic, ethically-traded, … with a healthy, wholesome product, and with a modern interpretation to it.
I stylised that up in the form a 1940’s Piaggio Ape (a 3-wheeled vending cart pronounced “ah-peh”.) The intention was always to setup my roastery, roast first, and have this as a kind of a marketing tool. But excitement got the better of me. I so love all things Italian, old Vespas, Lambrettas,… and old espresso machines.
I’ve always had both those things in my life but to have the two together at once… so, when I saw the opportunity of getting that van, I let it get the better of me.”
At the time, I was roasting all my supplies with my previous company and bringing that back on site and selling a few bags to customers.
Ben: When was all this?
Kurt: In 2000, I was still roasting. 2005 was when I started Full Steam Espresso, and ran it until June last year, 2010…when I incorporated and rebranded the roasting division as Volcano Coffee Works. That’s when I had investment from two friends who came and joined the company. They had always shared a similar vision… we wanted to create coffee for the ‘now’ generation. One that’s a cuisine-based product, not just, a cup of coffee. Like going for a fine meal, where you could concentrate on absorbing the flavours. That’s what it’s always been for me.
Ben: Let’s go back to the beginning of your interest in coffee. When did it start?
Kurt: I trained as a professional chef…in New Zealand. Whilst doing that I branched off in my very limited spare time and opened a small cafe, with a friend who was also a chef. I imported some vintage espresso machines from Melbourne, broke them down and rebuilt them. That was in the mid- to late 1980’s.
Ben: In your spare time?
Kurt: Yes, I was working 60-70 hours a week chefing, doing night shifts. I’d then do morning shifts on the new project and then go off to my chef job.
We approached a local coffee roastery and made up our own blend. Coffee was just coming into its own at that time in the mid-1980s in New Zealand. I bit before where we are now in the UK. Pretty exciting. We coined our own blend and branded it.”
I’ve always wanted to dabble in coffee…I finally broke away from the bad hours of chefing in 2000.
Ben: What was the biggest challenge in getting the company off the ground?
Kurt: Sourcing equipment. Finding that elusive roaster, for a good price. I wanted an older grass roots machine to enable me to use apply a hand-made technique to it.
I finally got the machine over at ebay. It took quite a while. I thought there would have been more hidden away since the 1950’s and 60’s in barns, in garages etc, but no… The one I finally got is a Mexican model which I’ve had to customise.
Ben: What’s your sense of how many independent roasteries there are in the UK now?
Kurt: I would guess in excess of 30. I was surprised. Including 10 I’m aware of in London. My indication, using New Zealand as a guide, where there is almost one roastery per cafe these days! Incredible… and new ones opening all the time.
Ben: Why should anyone buy coffee from you? After all, I can buy coffee from almost anywhere now. What makes yours so different?
Kurt: Loads of reasons. I’m roasting in small batches every day, and I like to keep my coffee for at least 4 days before grinding and packing to stabilise. To allow the flavours to reabsorb; so you can pin-point the individual flavours.
That means the coffee I produce, like other independent roasters who care, the coffee is as fresh as it can be and so can be drunk in its prime.”
Unlike a no-name supermarket brand…say an organic, fairly-traded Peruvian…it would have been roasted in a large pressurised coffee environment, probably a very fast roast. The coffee tends to be be dull and flat. It would not have been roasted for enough time for the flavour to develop.
Ben: What about storage? Doesn’t a vacuum pack seal in the flavour?
…for the big branded coffees, it’s months between roasting and you opening the vacuum pack. The smell on that first gasp as you open the pack can be quite good but it flattens very quickly and after that it will stale quickly.”
Ben: How do you source your beans?
Kurt: I buy ethically produced coffee, where the provenance [where it comes from] is traceable. Usually certified.
Most of my packing labels are hand-written these days, and often include the estate of the bean…
Ben: Have you thought about using QR codes on your packaging? Perhaps you could link straight to information on the estate where the beans came from…
Kurt: I’d love to do that sort of thing in the future.
It’s where I want to be 100%… sourcing my own beans, travel, having a direct relationship with growers and plantations. And, to help facilitate in an area where there’s been exploitation in the past. With that would come my own forged provenance.
Ben: I would personally love to see that sort of thing as a consumer myself and I’m sure many others would too…
Kurt: With that unfortunately does come a price.. because there is so much more work along the way. The process of mass producing coffee does bring down the quality of it.
Ben: Who are you selling to?
Kurt: Cafes, small delis, bakery delis, at the moment. Good times. I retail from the Piaggio Ape cart and direct from here at the roastery. There are many small businesses in the same building. Lots of coffee addicts, … and they’re all buying for their friends and families.
Ben: What about selling online, over the Web?
Kurt: We’re in construction right now and aim to start in the next four weeks. We’re starting up an online subscription service. Gift ideas to friends. Christmas, wedding presents that sort of thing.
You’ll be able to gift a selection of espresso every week or fortnight. Accessories as well. And, tweeting what we’re roasting, as we roast it.”
To boot we’re planning to host a few corporate tem building days and start private group barista training and roasting seminars and workshops. Essentially, I’d like to give people the opportunity to get a glimpse into where their cup of coffee comes from, and to observe the ‘black art’ of roasting, and to have a go at producing their own roast and then turn it out as a perfectly formed drink complete with a ‘latte art’ flourish.
Ben: What about marketing? How does that work?
Kurt: Pretty Lo-Fi at the moment. Word of mouth has been the bulk of it so far… and it’s worked very well so far.
Also, the plan is get the little Piaggio Ape out and about more.
At the moment, we doing a pop-up cafe for the Icon Build Off at the architect’s Renzo Piano’s Central St Giles in London, to celebrate Icon, the architecture magazine’s 100th issue. It’s where people can go and build their own dream buildings – out of lego. Good exposure from all angles, and a good demographic for us.
Ben: Another way is to use digital marketing using social media channels…
Kurt: One of my partners is Twitter-savvy and is in charge of social media.
Ben: Or you could blog about your travels & new developments on your website, tweeting links etc…
Kurt: Yes, it’s very exciting how this can build upon itself. Exposure for next to nothing… apart from time.
Ben: Yes, it’s making that time count that matters of course. Company doing OK right now?
Kurt: Doing OK yes. Difficult but positive.
There’s lots of potential … we’re reaching a simmering point at the moment, and the excitement is building.”
Ben: What’s your single biggest challenge right now?
Kurt: Balancing production with demand. As demand increases, so we need to upscale our capability. We expect to have to do this by Christmas… to invest in more roasting equipment in particular. I now know what I would like and where to get it from, for the right price.
The other thing of course is establishing our market.
Ben: How many people are working in the business now?
Kurt: I have two business partners. One’s active in marketing and development. The other is more product / image design. One full-time and 2 part-time staff members. About 5 in all. A growing team.
Ben: How is the business helping you reach your lifestyle goals?
Kurt: I get self-fulfilment out of it. It’s just that the development stage we’re at now means it takes up a lot of personal time. I have a young family and I’m losing time with that now but I see this as a short-term thing, perhaps another 12 months. I’m hopeful and can see that the business will become more self-supporting and I’ll be able to keep my focus more direct instead of having to be in 50 places at once.
Ben: At Muse Stories we believe in businesses that can provide an outlet for one’s passion…
Kurt: Absolutely. This has kept me going through good times and bad.
I’m not working for anyone else, and following their vision. I’m following my own.
Ben: The other part of it is that the business can give you the means to follow your dreams outside the business too. Time with family, friends, travel – if you get it right…
Kurt: Yes, living it in it’s entirety. In charge of your own destiny. Every day. That includes family-times, good-times, travel and all of those are for me, trips of wonderment and research, and can lead to a chance meeting with others who happen to be of interest or have some link.
Ben: On the flip-side, what’s it not giving you at the moment?
Kurt: Personal time. But, I’m giving the company such a good foundation that it will be there for good. To elevate me up to more free-time, more lifestyle time.
Ben: We’ll be looking at strategies to achieve that [on Muse Stories]… to avoid the owner getting burnt-out; ironically, the more successful a business becomes…the more it seems to happen…
Kurt: We’re looking at delegation already.
Ben: Do you know the book, The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E Gerber?
Ben: It’s all about getting round burnout. Building systems and delegating. Thinking, acting, building ‘as if’ you’re going to franchise. I’ll send you a link to it.
Kurt: It sounds great.
Ben: Finally, what’s more important to you…
1) Realising your personal lifestyle goals (by delivering the business vision to your customers & partners), or,
2) Growing the business as much, & as fast as possible in the hope of selling it in the future? (This seems to be the knee-jerk path for most business owners!)
Kurt: Raising my customers’ awareness of coffee as a cuisine. It’s a journey of discovery for me. Ever since my time as a chef and how it works for food. Developing over time, with the seasons, adding new styles. I want to share it. That’s what it’s all about for me.
I’d like to take the family to live in New Zealand. Six months here, and 6 months there. On, off. An eternal Summer. Running the business remotely. Spreading my time across the family in New Zealand and in England.
I recently tried running the business via Skype for a month while in New Zealand. It works.
It would also be nice to have a business where I can enjoy the other things I’m interested in like the Vespas along the way. And I think I can.
I’m totally in it for the ride.”
How to find Volcano Coffee Works
Online at www.volcanocoffeeworks.com
On Twitter @Volcano_Coffee
On Facebook Volcano-Coffee-Works