Mat North — Full Court Pressby Michael Cleland
Discover what insights Mat’s experiences can offer our businesses as he discusses, ‘filtering’, guests, formalisation and burgers.
Many of you know Mat North as the owner of Full Court Press, a pioneer and thought leader in the Bristol and UK independent coffee industry. You may also know that he is Events Coordinator and Board Member of the SCAEUK, author of ‘Coffee: A Modern Field Guide’ or potentially that he frequently publishes insightful blog posts covering everything from extraction innovations to the state of cafe culture. You might not know however, that Mat North has been involved in coffee since 2002 in a career which has touched every corner of the coffee industry.
“There are enough consumers out there that fall on either side of the fence”
Mat entered the world of coffee as a barista at Cafe Nero in 2002 moving on to hold operational management positions at EAT, Boston Tea Party and Fopp. In 2006 Mat joined equipment distributors Beyond the Bean where he encountered the, then nascent, Independent Coffee movement. After working with Clifton in an engineer and training role for three years, Mat opened Full Court Press (FCP) in May 2013 which has since become an institution and destination for coffee enthusiasts in Bristol.
“Coffee is like burgers. Think about it”
How did FCP come about?I wasn’t the first place open in Bristol. FCP was a response to what I saw as a gap in the market though. It was based on the observation that there are enough people out there who value coffee in a similar way to us and therefore, there is potential in creating a cafe which fulfils their needs specifically.
We feel like there are enough consumers out there that fall on either side of the fence. That is, they either want what a chain is offering, or they are into the ways in which independent coffee can be different. I can’t compete with the chains at what they do. There are millions of people that go back to them as evidence of that, but we’re confident that there are also a significant amount of consumers that have different values.
I guess all of my experiences, from Nero to spending a lot of time with Max in Bath influenced how the actual concept was executed.
“A coffee shop is a business and in that sense they’ve (the chains) nailed how to run it efficiently.”
That’s interesting. I think sometimes we’re trying to be everything all at once which becomes a bit confusing for consumers. How did you execute this at FCP?The first thing is location. Location is the most important part of any coffee focused business. Without that you’re fucked. FCP is in the middle of town.
Centre of town must mean more competition and more chains though right?
Exactly, which is why ‘filtering’ becomes important.
It’s human nature to worry about people coming through the door and trying to please everyone but you’ve already positioned yourself in a certain way before you opened your doors. By filtering, I mean that, it’s about doing enough to differentiate yourself so that it’s evident what you’re offering, while still being a coffee shop/cafe. Most of that is visual.
I don’t want people coming in and expecting the experience and product of either a chain store or generic Third Wave cafe because they’ll be upset that we don’t have that. I want the people who have similar values as we do when it comes to coffee to understand this is where we offer that. I think it’s important that they are able to make that distinction before even walking in the door.
It’s common sense but if you are set up to fulfil a certain set of needs then you should create a space and experience which conveys that. All of the ‘scene setting’ is what I mean by filtering guests.
“The first thing is location. Location is the most important part of any coffee focused business. Without that you’re fucked”
Is it only a visual thing?
It’s everything really. Visual cues are very strong for human beings but take for example when we put the price of our drinks up by ten pence. We filtered or lost the customers who were only here for cheap and fast coffee but we also gained a lot of customers who understood good coffee costs more.
It’s really about market positioning. If you think there’s a niche in the market then you need to exploit that in the most efficient possible way, otherwise you’re neither one nor the other.
It’s getting to the point where roasters are needing to differentiate themselves now too.
I get that. Values can be so distinct that they might be, in fact, mutually exclusive. Your experience has touched on every segment of the coffee industry though, not just independents. Are there any values which are universally true?
This was always drilled into me at EAT and every time we couldn’t move to make coffee:
‘You keep them every day until you fuck up and then you’ve lost them for six months until, by chance, they come back.’
What they’re coming back for might vary from independent to chain but the same rule applies. It’s not as competitive like that with the roasters. There are less market forces which would cause you to switch.
“By filtering, I mean that, it’s about doing enough to differentiate yourself so that it’s evident what you’re offering...most of that is visual”
We touched on it before but where the chains operate is much more competitive in terms of the available alternatives. People seem to be acknowledging now that independent coffee is increasingly moving that way. Is there anything we can learn from the chains in terms of how they approach that?
Well it increases the need to be efficient and differentiate yourself because people can always go elsewhere. Every chain has its ‘angle’ which can only be developed if the operational stuff runs efficiently.
In the chains you have systems for literally everything and it gives you a lot of clarity in terms of what you’re doing. If you have a system which works so well you can do it with your eyes closed then the more you can focus on how you’re getting ahead. The chains are at thepoint where they can measure and quantify all of the basics, like greetings, wait times, wastage etc so they can focus on other things.
You are starting to see it now with Blue Bottle or Intelligentsia is a classic example. By the time Intelligentsia opened Venice Beach they’d done it so many times that the operational stuff takes care of itself and they can experiment with things like the extra brew bar.
Maybe that’s where a lot of people in independent coffee fall down. Worrying about differentiating yourself before the standard business practices are in place.
Tell me more about systems and efficiency.
Chains have Bibles. There are procedure manuals that are huge.
Cases in point:
At EAT, I had to record every shot made, every gram of coffee and mL of milk wastage.
At Pizza Hut we used different coloured rings to make sure every single crust is the same or different coloured scoops for every ingredient so that the portions are identical. Each size had its own colour, simplifying the system.
It’s not just the Bibles though, it’s structure. There are Operations Managers, Training Managers, internal incentive schemes etc and it doesn’t stop there. These are things which are driven by business though and a need to provide a certain level of quality, consistently.
Company culture is another way that chains operate more efficiently. It’s about influencing employee behaviour so you see things like Human Resource departments, inductions, internal competitions etc. At Pizza Hut they host a Pizza Olympics which is actually about making people better at their jobs. Then on a large scale you have motifs, symbols etc which contribute to culture.
“(Competition) increases the need to be efficient and differentiate yourself because people can always go elsewhere”
Is this something which can be applied to independent coffee?
I think the business principles probably start to be necessities once you get beyond a few sites and/ or a certain degree of competition but absolutely. I mean you only have to look at how Taylor St and Harris and Hoole are using internal competitions to drive education to see the benefits..
In smaller businesses, it’s the managers and the owners who determine culture and whether the staff are motivated but it’s the same idea.
One sentence on what we need to know from chains?
A coffee shop is a business and in that sense they’ve nailed how to run it efficiently.
What about beyond the chains? Do you think there are insights elsewhere that can be applied to coffee?
We’re in such a specific position with our product being that it’s fresh, single serve etc so I don’t think we should replicate anyone but we should be taking ‘bits’ from everyone. For example, service from restaurants, knowledge from Sommeliers and efficiency from franchises just to name a few.
Differences between London and Bristol?
I think customers are customers wherever you are. There are less people in Bristol though. You really need to be efficient in terms of how you connect with that niche and nail the whole filtering thing because you’re starting with less people in the first place. One percent of eight million for example is still a lot of people. one percent of one hundred thousand is really not many.
In London there is a density of people that doesn’t exist anywhere in the country. It can sustain much more.
Any last words
Coffee is like burgers. Think about it.