Ceris Hymas, Head of Marketing at PMW, interviews Ben, one of the owners of the Surrey Coffee Company in Walton-on-Thames, to find out how he saved his new business from the unexpected lockdown.
On the edge of Walton high street, the Surrey Coffee Company is in a prime location for those wishing to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee or spot of brunch after visiting a few shops. The company turned one in September and what a challenging first year they have faced. I’m sure that when Ben and the team first started they didn’t anticipate that a national lockdown would force them to rethink the entire café concept to ensure its survival. In just 11 months they went from a coffee shop, to supermarket, to supermarket delivery service, to a hybrid café supermarket. No doubt there will be more changes ahead as we navigate a second wave, but for now, I am sure they are just happy to have survived their first year.
Although the Surrey Coffee Company started life as a coffee shop, when the news came that they had to close, it became clear they had to do something to ensure they would survive. Despite the fact that the business was only six months old, the team had gotten to know their customers and the local community extremely well and realised that many were struggling to obtain the basic essentials, such as milk, bread, vegetables and tinned food during the pandemic.
“The demand for our produce in its rawest form was still there. People were very aware of the quality of our bread and the fruit and vegetables that we used, so one day into the lockdown we took it upon ourselves to speak to the local council about becoming a supermarket. As far as we were concerned a business that was only six months old, could not afford to close its doors indefinitely. It was our best interest to give something back to a community that had supported us. Without them, we wouldn’t have made it. A lot of businesses don’t make it past the first year, especially those in food retail.
We spoke to the council; they were extremely welcoming in giving us a licence to operate as a supermarket. We set up a digital ordering service and began operating a local delivery service. We advertised online and through our social channels and word began to spread very quickly. By the end of the first month of lockdown, we were a full-blown supermarket with a queue out the door for our products; from 5am every morning we were packaging deliveries to be sent out to the local community.”
The fact that they were able to act so quickly, meant that the business became a bit of a sensation for its local delivery service. The community started to rely on the Surrey Coffee Company to provide the produce they were unable to get from regular supermarkets. It wasn’t just their usual customers who were benefiting from their new offering, but most importantly those that were shielding or unable to get to the shops. They could sleep easy knowing that anything ordered the night before would be delivered first thing in the morning.
“The light bulb moment came when we realised that the local community were unable to get things delivered quicker elsewhere. Some of these people were in dire crisis in terms of their health and wellbeing. We knew that with our contacts we could obtain supplies very quickly; we could deliver to anyone within a five-mile radius within 24 hours and that became our new unique selling point. It was no longer about just keeping the business open and our staff employed, but also about helping those who needed crucial supplies.”
Like many companies during the lockdown, their goal wasn’t just their own survival. It also became important to support other independent suppliers in their fight to keep the local food industry trading. As the service grew they realised that there was a demand for sweet treats, fresh bread and other homemade produce. They started sourcing these from local bakeries and showcasing their offering on their social media channels. This meant that these bakeries were able to keep trading and take advantage of this wider supply chain.
“It became clear that it was important for us to start to support bakeries in our local community. The demand for fresh baked goods was through the roof and people were looking for something to brighten their day whilst cafes remained closed. We had started to build a reputation for having freshly made and delicious sweet treats, which allowed us to form a partnership with a local baker who provided us with 100 cupcakes a day. This meant the bakery grew with us to cater for the demand that had been created. They are still extremely popular and we even commissioned rainbow cupcakes to help raise money for the NHS.”
The key to the Surrey Coffee Company’s survival is their ability to adapt quickly and frequently, meaning that they were able to change their service offering at each stage of the lockdown. Another important and notable trait has been determination and commitment to ensuring the business kept trading.
“It is imperative for business owners, especially those in food retail, to look at this challenge as an opportunity to adapt and add more strings to their bow. Being able to learn about other food retail businesses within this little shop has not just been challenging, but also exciting. It has allowed us to learn more about what is available in terms of quality of produce, how close is it to our doorstep, how much it costs and what we need to do to ensure it represents value for money to our customers.”
Adapting the business became the best and most successful thing that Ben and the team have ever done for the Surrey Coffee Company. Although they are now operating as a normal café once again, there are many changes that remain. They still offer delicious and creative sweet treats from the local bakery and they have a small shelf where customers can buy fresh bread and other local high-quality produce. Most importantly, people still value the Surrey Coffee Company as a key supporter of the local community and a business that was there for them when they needed it the most. The Surrey Coffee Company is no longer just a café, but also a Surrey Coffee Community and, as a business that is just over a year old, they couldn’t wish for more.