Harris+Hoole co-founder Nick Tolley explains how the business entered a saturated cafe market, faced multi-national competition and still came up smiling.
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Harris+Hoole is the newest brand in high street coffee. Founded as recently as 2012, the business has expanded to 40 shops in the London and the South East and is primed to take on the major high street café chains. With investment from Tesco, it also has the backing of a supermarket titan.
Coffee is a mature market in the UK, why did you think you could get a foothold?
We brought something new to the market – by making premium quality coffee accessible to everyone. Harris+Hoole is the only high street shop to only use speciality beans, to create professionally crafted and ethically sourced coffee.
"Understand your chosen field from the ground up; I worked at a sandwich shop"
We’ve changed not only what people can expect from their drink, but also how it’s served. In many of our shops, the customer stands right next to the barista as the coffee is made – and they can order and pay for their coffee in a tap of their mobile, using the H+H app. Basically, we felt the time was ripe for us to come in and shake things up.
Where did you start and how did the business fare in the early days?
I founded Harris+Hoole along with my brother and sister (Andrew and Laura) in 2012. The three of us had already launched Taylor St Baristas, a speciality coffee shop in London over eight years ago, soon after arriving in the UK from Australia.
We’re still in our early days. We launched our 1st shop in Amersham, but now, only two years on, we have 40 shops across the South East and London.
The name comes from Samuel Pepys’ diary; what is the significance of that?
It’s a funny name, which we chose for its history – as it hails back to the very first days of London's coffee scene. This was captured in the diary of Samuel Pepys in 1664, who described a number of characters (including a certain Mr Harris and a Mr Hoole) socialising and having coffee. It’s pretty cool that this was going on 350 years ago.
Why are you unique?
What’s unique about Harris+Hoole is our dedication to quality coffee and our focus on customer experience. From our digital initiatives and our comprehensive barista training to our shop designs (unique to every location and community), we are always creating the best coffee shop experience we can.
We’re as dedicated to quality coffee as it gets: we only ever use speciality coffee beans of the highest quality – which no other high street operator does. The technology is also as high class as it can be: our Simonelli machines, used in every shop, are the same ones that you can find at the World Barista Championships.
A high street in Cambridge, this is a seriously competitive environment
How have you evolved the brand, and were there any mistakes?
We have had a lot of positive and vocal support from our customers. We are lucky in that we have a lot of freedom in what we can do with our shops – and because we’re really involved with the local communities. We adapt to their needs and are always creating new additions, such as more spaces for strollers, a wider selection of food, interesting new designs.
In terms of mistakes, we’ve made our fair share. In particular, we learnt a lot about the variables that help to make a high street shop work – in terms of space, format, location and the like. And we are constantly listening to feedback and are not afraid to make changes to our plans if it becomes clear that something isn’t working.
Was it a tough decision to take investment from Tesco?
As a start-up business, it’s sometimes necessary to look beyond the usual bank loan for finance. In fact, alternative forms of finance have worked well for many start-ups – particularly those who needed to set up during the economic downturn.
Tesco was one such option for us and we haven’t looked back since. We have always been open about Tesco’s part in Harris+Hoole and we really appreciate their support, both in terms of helping us start out and for the advice they can give.
Does your business mean a lot of travel?
As coffee geeks, we really care about where our coffee beans come from – which is why Andrew regularly organises sourcing trips with our roaster (Union Hand Roasted) and H+H’s own baristas, in order to visit the farmers where we get our beans, most recently from Guatemala.
Coffee is an organic product, so different beans are in season at different times of the year – which is why travel is important for us to always be able to source the most delicious beans for our coffee.
What is your golden piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
The first thing you need to do is pick something you love. It’s not a set career path so you need to figure out how to create something for yourself; which is impossible to do if you’re not fully passionate about what you are going into.
It’s also important to understand your chosen field from the ground up, which is why I worked at a sandwich shop right after graduating from business school and learnt as many useful ideas during this time as when I was doing my MBA. Finally, always focus on the customers; they decide whether or not your business succeeds.
What does the future hold for Harris+Hoole?
We are really excited about bringing Harris+Hoole to more and more customers. In terms of our presence, we will continue to take an opportunistic approach to expansion with our shops, in the South East of the UK and beyond.
Now that we’ve launched the payments function on our app, we are able to see the ways in which technology can enhance a customer’s experience, by making it simpler, more efficient, more relevant and more engaging. Technology is going to play an ever increasing role in our offering. Harris+Hoole will constantly be looking for more innovative ways to bring quality coffee to our customers. Watch this space.