Ed Barry — Over Under

by Michael Cleland

Common sense innovation, investing for growth and running a cafe group in the time of COVID

29 year old Ed Barry is (or was) just about to open the newest Over Under site in Ladbroke Grove. If he’s not there right now he’s probably viewing properties (ONLINE) for the next site, or forming a plan with 2IC Monwar Hussain for how the OU experience can be delivered in spite of COVID. Or he might be pitching to a future investor, or organising a company ‘away day’ or reviewing how best to streamline his vision and the multiple facets of his business. In fact - in the time it took me to post this online he’s probably done all of the above and some more.

Ed works around the clock on Over Under and is one of the (relatively) new guard of innovative business owners pushing the specialty coffee frontier forward in the UK. In years gone by innovation was defined mostly by coffee science and, while owners such as Ed are coffee obsessive too, they’re also characterised by a broader perspective.

The innovators in our industry are now those with an elevated understanding of the end customer and most distinctly with the ability to think, and deliver, at scale.

The first Earl’s Court cafe opened in February 2017. In the three following years the team has grown to 25 staff, opened 5 sites, bolted on  a mobile coffee events company, introduced modular bar designs that revolve to serve cocktails in the evening and are (still) on schedule for 8 -10 sites by year end (Boris permitting).

In 2020 there are more busy people than ever in the coffee industry but there aren’t that many that are as busy getting shit done as Ed  so I thought we'd catch up to discuss what exactly makes the difference. 

How did you come to be owning a coffee shop? 

Both of my parents have their own businesses so the entrepreneurial spirit I guess was in the genes. I’ve always loved hospitality and always wanted my own business.

I lived in New York previously where I was inspired by their service culture and then I also have Antipodean roots so have seen first hand what abundance and growth in specialty coffee culture looks like.

I eventually found my opportunity in coffee here in the UK where I saw how frustrated a Londoner becomes when they have to wait but how easily you could change their day with that little bit of interaction in the cafe. 

Getting to know people is fun. Serving people should be fun too.

Then I went and worked everywhere I could. Antipode, 26 Grains, Brew, Grind, a coffee cart on Chatsworth Rd. Market in Homerton - basically working out the best way to get coffee out quickly and consistently.

What  does coffee innovation means in 2020?

Innovation isn’t serving coffee on roller skates it’s being better at giving people what they want.

That’s better coffee, better experience and better at being a better alternative to the high street. It’s not obsessing about being better than other independents.

Right now ‘what people want’ is influenced massively by what has been imposed externally and what we’re all living and continuing to consume through. Innovation right now is responding to the new ways that people are consuming. 

Do things go back to the way they were after this?

Nope. Things are changed from here on.

Let’s assume for a sec this all blows over. And we’re free to return to daily routines and rituals. We know most people don’t like the refractometer chat served ‘at’ them. The million dollar question though is what do they want?

I think it’s quite simple and what most people want is: quality, convenience and speed.  If you can deliver on two of those you’ll go ok and if we’re hitting all three it’s when things work best.

Yep so then 'quality….'

Quality is the overall experience from the customer's perspective. It’s the products, the outputs, it’s being exciting being simple being fun and the quality of the interaction.

Most people want to grow or at least want the rewards of growth but it’s hard being an owner operator right?  What are the steps in-between?

Growth is a choice. Not everyone has to choose growth but it’s something we’ve chosen to do because it’s exciting, challenging and creates a challenge for everyone that works in the company

Choosing growth means literally committing to it though and that’s the only way to get the head space. 

We’ve over-hired for the current size of business but this will allow up to scale up quickly without losing the “Over Under’ touch.

Growth is exciting. I’m excited that there’s room to grow for people in Over Under and excited that every day is different coming to work. I love the opportunity I have to share that excitement with other people.

Then you have to have a plan. In order to execute at any sort of scale it has to be following a plan.

We want to continue our trajectory and rate of opening, it’s to maintain our culture as we grow, to retain our staff, to be an employer of choice and to ensure the development of all of the team as they come on the journey with us.

We want to be the most recognised hospitality brand in the UK. That’s what guides us.

What role does staffing play in all of this?

Customers prefer seeing a familiar face everyday and for that reason alone you need to invest in keeping staff.

The more people we have buying into our culture and buying into what we do when they’re coming to work then the more passionate we are. The more passionate we are the better the product, outputs and service

We don’t want people to check in and check out. We have to understand the different reasons people come to work and help develop the bigger goals they may be working towards.

People liking the brand and understanding it are different things. We invest a lot in inductions and company culture. 

I think you need to have a strong vision in order to articulate it. Sometimes it won’t be for everyone but it means that the people who join along the way have been amazing assets because they’re bought into what they’re joining.

Ultimately if you can help people be happier for more of the time they’re working with you then everyone wins.

Do you need to take investment to grow? What has your experience been and what’s the advice?

How much are you prepared to give away? If you want to grow without bootstrapping there has to be a compromise.

I’d say it’s necessary if you want to accelerate growing but also that not enough cash and too much cash can equally be problems for businesses.

It’s not free money and once you have it people will expect a return on their investment at some point.  I’d only seek it out once absolutely confident that you have a clear strategy for growth and an exit plan. Without that you’re unlikely to get the right type of investment or unlikely to deliver the returns.

There’s a network of people out there - you have to meet them all and you have to ask the question, show the strategy and demonstrate how you plan to return on their investment. They’ll either see it or they won’t.

The first person you speak to will probably tear your model apart and make you realise you don’t know your pitch as well as you thought. But that makes it all better in the long run.

So investor(s), crowdfunding, debt?

It’s not just money. You’re potentially also gaining someone’s experience, expertise, advice, network and support. That’s not something you’ll always get that with debt.

Having someone believe in what we’re doing and shouting about it, whether staff, investor or customer is absolutely invaluable.

And the future?

Our business model isn’t changing. It might be slightly delayed and the positive of what’s happening is we’re running it leaner and more efficiently but the idea that we can create a better customer experience  will never change.