Our second interview in our lockdown series is with Magda Harrison, who owns the multi-award-winning small chain of Artisan coffee shops with her husband Edwin. They started out in 2011 by opening Artisan Putney, with locations in Stamford Brook, Ealing and East Sheen following later. The entrepreneur couple branched out by establishing the Artisan Coffee School educating baristas, and Curious Roo, their own-brand coffee roastery. Their highly successful business won multiple awards over the years, including Best food and drink business at the West London Business Awards 2019 and Cafe Society’s Coffee Bar Independent of the Year Gold Award in 2014. The prestigious London Coffee Guide has listed all of the Artisan shops in their top 100 list of coffee venues every year since 2012.
How did Artisan fare during the lockdown?
It really was tough in those first few months, more from an emotional point of view seeing all our hard work come crashing down and having to empty the shops’ milk, coffee etc. – it was so sad. Over time things become a little clearer and in East Sheen we have a very supportive landlord who worked with us to try and figure things out. The furlough scheme also meant our team were looked after, which was incredibly important to us. Now we are back and up and running and it’s so great to see that the changes we have made to the way we work have helped us do what we do best, which is make amazing coffee.
What changes did you have to make?
The main change was to the ‘flow’ of the shop; we now don’t run coffees to the table – instead the customer takes their own, which has meant the team feel well protected and safe. We have also reduced our menu, meaning this has given us greater ability to manage our waste during this time. It has also meant we can simply focus on what we love – making the best coffee!
What was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was not knowing day to day what was allowed and what wasn’t. We are blessed with an amazing team who understood that the flexibility needed was out of our control and we learnt to roll with it. The other challenge was the fact the each customer has varying degrees of tolerance to how seriously or not to respond to corona. This meant we needed to come up with a new system that everyone, or as many people as possible, feels happy with, which is something we are happy to say we think we have achieved.
What advice would you give other businesses?
Know your core product and focus on that; we found this really helped us focus our efforts around what customers want. Also, during times like these try and keep things as simple as possible – this isn’t the time for overcomplicating things.
What would you do differently? And what was successful?
At one point we talked about and almost introduced selling products within the Artisan shops such as pasta, flour and food produce – we even got as close as writing the menu. Although this idea was tempting, in the end we’re glad we didn’t do it as it would have muddled the customers and the team about what Artisan is all about.
In lockdown, you started an initiative to support furloughed baristas by selling bags of coffee – how did it work?
This was an idea that we had before we knew furlough was going to happen. Our biggest concern at that time was how our amazing team were going to cope without an income coming in. The concept was simple; we would deliver a bag of coffee to our customers’ front door and they could make a donation – all the donations would go directly to a team fund, which was then later distributed to the team. We were blown away by the support of our customers and we raised just over £21,000; which meant the world to our team and us.
You have a new online shop selling Curious Roo coffee. Was this something you started during the spring lockdown?
We never used to sell bags of coffee beans direct to our customers before lockdown, but faced with continuing rents and costs we had to find any way we could to bring in some money so we started selling online. I would bag up the coffee in the morning on our kitchen table and Edwin and our little boy Nile would go out delivering in the afternoon. The demand was crazy and whist we have now moved things away from our kitchen table, we still sell a lot of coffee beans online and it’s now a big part of our business.
What are your plans for the next couple of months?
We plan to focus on keeping things simple and serving great coffee to our amazing customers. We think with so many unknowns, it’s time just to do what you do best. However we do intend to continue to grow our online coffee bean shop and get great coffee into people’s kitchens.
The car free space outside Artisan East Sheen is lovely. What sort of difference did it make for your shop and your customers?
This has made a massive difference to us and really helped us get back on our feet and it has also helped the community in East Sheen feel safer by being able to enjoy coffee outside. Let’s hope they never decide to reopen that dangerous slip road!