Harris and Hoole – a conversation with the Tolleys

January 14, 2014

Writing about coffee is writing about people. It has been a central tenet of this blog that the human interactions that cluster around a cup of coffee, of its buying and selling and consumption, are what make a place good. The overall quality of coffee is so high these days in the independent sector that, to stand out, you have to bring that quality of personality, of care, to the sale of coffee.

With this in mind, I have decided to set the blog off in a new direction, alongside my traditional interest in venues and the brews they sell. I have decided to speak to the people in the coffee business, from baristas to café owners to roasters to people running coffee subscription services.

So here goes…

Andrew and Nick Tolley are two of the three siblings behind the Harris and Hoole chain of coffee shops. They started Taylor Street Baristas in 2006 having moved from the coffee-rich culture of Australia, and quickly saw that they could help introduce quality coffee to London. I sat down with them in the Cannon Street café we talked coffee, business, and that Tesco thing.

The brew bar at Cannon Street.

The brew bar at Cannon Street.

Both Andrew and Nick have been in what we might call the new wave of artisan coffee in London from the outset. As both observe, the demand and availability of good coffee has exploded in the last few years. Part of this is, in their minds, down to the impact of the big three, as Andrew explains: “High street chains have introduced espresso-based coffee to a bigger market”. He sees this boom as being the inspiration for a wider and deeper coffee culture: “If you look outside of London, in Leeds, Bath, Brighton, there is quite a high density of very good cafes.” Nick continues, “In all of these places there are lines out the door, manifest demand for good coffee”.

Having been in at the ground floor, the Tolleys have built a reputation and experience of the artisan coffee in the UK and used it to grow what they pitch very much as a competitor to high street chains, rather than other artisan venues. From a business perspective, this makes sense to the Tolleys: “The opportunities are in the high street, not chasing the independents.” The figures speak for themselves, as a conservative estimate suggests that around 95% of all coffee bought in the UK from coffee shops is from the big high street chains. The aim is very much to present a venue that feels like a high-end high street coffee venue, capturing customers from Starbucks or Costa, not from Coffee Circus or Bread and Bean.

Harris and Hoole is therefore geared to providing what Nick and Andrew feel is lacking the high street players and their business ethos was developed to drive this. As Nick explains, “managers have ownership and autonomy, but by the same token, from day one we highlighted three core planks”. These ‘planks’ are great coffee, passionate and inspired staff, and ‘local friends’, the idea that a branch would look to build links with the community.

On quality, Andrew is strident: “It’s about helping customers appreciate how good coffee can be”. He goes on: “We tried to make quality an objective measure, choosing the top 2-3% of available beans for roasting.” This is achieved by maintaining a long-standing relationship with Union, which originated when the Tolleys set up Taylor Street. Andrew sees Union’s ethos as crucial to what Harris and Hoole are seeking to do, because “they have a strong belief in sourcing quality coffee by developing a good relationship with growers”, using a direct trade model. In a two-way process, growers are encouraged to develop techniques that provide consistent product, which in turn guarantees a supply chain. The same approach is being rolled out to tea producers, like the Rishi cooperative in Nepal that grows on three hundred year old tea trees; this partnership should help Rishi grow its brand and guarantee a consistent quality of tea for the business.

From the Crouch End store.

From the Crouch End store.

Without good staff though, the quality of coffee is almost irrelevant, and so the role of the barista is crucial. In the early days, baristas could bring customers with them when they left a café, such was the variable quality of staff; if you found a barista who nailed it, you would stay with them rather than their coffee shop. As such, training to achieve uniformity, consistency of your cup, is privileged as most important part of the business. This, in turn, Nick and Andrew believe, allows baristas to feel inspired by what they doing. Both feel that it is only by empowering staff and valuing them that you get a product that is always of high quality. This worthy approach obviously has business benefits, as Nick is quick to acknowledge: “The staff feel more engaged, it becomes more meaningful and that’s conveyed in the way they engage with the business.” It improves retention of baristas, a worthwhile consideration when training has such a premium placed on it.

Beyond this, though, it is the idea of rooting each branch within its community that might be the most interesting facet of the business model, what they refer to as ‘In Good Company’. As Nick explains: “A coffee shop is so much more than just a place to get coffee – it builds communities and friendships.” It is part of the ethos of the business to hark back to the age when coffee shops were nodes around which communities clustered, met to talk and exchange ideas, to be exposed to new ideas; indeed, the Pepys inspired name is a nod to that. As such, my local Harris and Hoole regularly hosts new artists like up-and-coming locals Sophie Gainsley or Adam Joppich, literary events for the likes of Peirene Press, as well as fitness classes and meetings for local charities. And that is before you consider the people using the café as a venue for various forms of work (like blogging!). Each store can take its own direction on this so, for example, Peirene is local to N8, which is why the store welcomes them for salons and discussions. This, to me, is the most interesting and best part of the business model. According to Nick, it isn’t a specific form of CSR, largely because they don’t measure the effects, but it “reflects the family values; it’s the right thing to do”.

The competition.

The competition.

A lot of commentators would not see a business relationship with Tesco as “the right thing to do” though. It is, rightly or wrongly, the thing for which Harris and Hoole are most famous. I have made my feelings on this clear in another post, but I was interested to hear what Nick and Andrew think. According to Nick, the relationship developed largely because the Tolleys were looking to grow the business towards the high street after the success of Taylor Street and Tesco were looking to expand their portfolio into coffee. An initial chat, largely about the state of play in the coffee market arranged by a mutual friend, led to a recognition that a business could grow out of the relationship. Nick stresses that Tesco are like “the good parts of a private equity firm” interested in developing a business but with a longer-term view than might have been expected from other sources of funding. He says the relationship is “intuitive”, growing and changing as the business does and that the expertise Tesco brings in fields like property development is invaluable. Most importantly for Nick, Tesco are invested for the long haul and happy to accept “slow-time” development if it maintains quality. He sees no difference between accepting funding from Tesco and accepting it from any other normal source of investment, and, indeed, the lack of critical response from most of the independent coffee sector itself would tend to suggest that they feel the same. Having said that, Tesco have an interest in growing the business alongside the Tolleys’ philosophy and certain areas of skill that can help this happen, which makes more sense than simply taking money from a bank or investment firm. Indeed, Harris and Hoole are pioneering developments in the field, securing Danielle Andersen from market leaders Burberry to be Head of Digital Experience to head up a new app and other digital tie-ins, and it is likely that while the innovation comes from the Tolleys, the funding from Tesco doesn’t hurt.

While their tie-in with Tesco has been controversial, Nick and Andrew remain optimistic and, indeed, impassioned. To them, providing a better, more engaged coffee business to high street customers that helps them learn more about coffee can only be a good thing. If what I have seen at my local Harris and Hoole is indicative of some of the ways they might achieve this, then I am inclined to agree.

Nick Tolley is CEO & Founder of Harris and Hoole

Andrew Tolley is Coffee Director & Founder of Harris and Hoole

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2 Responses to “Harris and Hoole – a conversation with the Tolleys”


  1. Nice piece. It echoes much of what Andrew said when I talked to him on behalf of Caffeine Magazine. I was very struck then by his passion about, and commitment to, quality. I’m curious to see if this can be maintained as the chain expands, particularly at the rate it is expanding.

    I think, on the whole, Harris & Hoole will take business from the big High Street chains rather than from the independents. I also think that it could be good for the independents as it weans people off the buckets of milk business model of the chains and introduces them to concept that there is better coffee out there!

    I’ve always seen the Tesco thing as a bit of a red herring. I do wonder if it will hurt them though if the public perceive Harris & Hoole as the Tesco of coffee chains and, as such, no different and no more independent than the usual big three (Costa, Starbucks and Nero).

    Brian.

    • staggeredhermit Says:

      Your last point is interesting. I think in terms of the high street, it probably won’t hurt because Tesco are seen as a more ‘ok’ brand than, say, Starbucks. I also agree that it might introduce consumers to better coffee and thus actually increase the revenue, or at least exposure, of indies.


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