Food Retail Workshop

How Union plans to differentiate its coffee roasting business

Coffee wholesaler Union has set up a sideline that allows coffee shops to roast their own beans using its facilities. But will coffee shops go for it?

1 Mar 2017

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when high-quality coffee was a new phenomenon. But over the last few years, so called ‘third wave’ coffee shops have been popping up in greater numbers than ever before. They’re everywhere.

There are currently around 1,400 speciality coffee shops in the UK; that’s expected to grow to 2,500 in the next three years. Roasting high-quality coffee has become big business as a result, so it’s unsurprising roasters are themselves looking for an edge.

There are now more than 180 companies roasting coffee in the UK, with a significant chunk of those founded in the last three years.

Union, which was set up in 2001 and shifts around 60 tonnes of coffee a month, is one of the bigger UK roasters. Last summer, it began a scheme offering coffee shops the chance to create their own blends using its facilities; it’s betting this will give it an advantage over other wholesalers.

From bean to brew

Coffee shop owners and baristas can book a slot at Union’s ‘Campus’, located by its HQ in Canning Town. The client selects green beans and is given training on how to roast them. Packaging and labelling is also taken care of at the site.

The finished product is a blend the client has created, ready to grind, brew, and serve.

For a coffee shop to set up its own roasting operation would be an enormous undertaking; a modest 3kg roaster can cost upwards of £10,000. Roasting 3kg of coffee at Union, with guidance from its in-house roasters, can cost as little as £33.

Risky rewards

Yet the response so far has been modest to say the least. Less than a year into the venture, Union has worked with a handful of new clients and one cafe has signed up to a long-term contract.

David Jameson, Campus’s general manager, admits it’s been slow progress. ‘Especially with uncertainty around the economy, people are less willing to take risks,’ he says.

Some wonder whether by training coffee shops to do what it does well – roasting and branding – Union risks undermining its own business, and becoming little more than a supplier of imported green beans.

‘It’s not practical’

For now, Jameson doesn’t think the Campus model would suit all its wholesale customers. Geography is a big factor. ‘From Oxford or Brighton, it’s not practical,’ he says.

The real question is whether an open coffee roasting facility can take off at all.

If the answer turns out to be no, Union may have to look for other ways to gain an advantage in the swelling wholesale market for quality coffee.