FEATURE: One year on, Hitchin’s Groundworks pals can toast their success in the shadow of Starbucks

Tom Weller, left, and Ben Hedley of Groundworks Coffee, Hitchin. Credit: JAF Milligan

Tom Weller, left, and Ben Hedley of Groundworks Coffee, Hitchin. Credit: JAF Milligan - Credit: Archant

If you’re just 23 and planning to go into business with an old school friend, why wouldn’t you go head to head against one of the biggest global brands in your chosen field? Come on, boys, wake up and smell the coffee...

Groundworks Coffee, Hitchin. Credit: JAF Milligan.

Groundworks Coffee, Hitchin. Credit: JAF Milligan. - Credit: Archant

But as Hitchin’s Groundworks coffee house heads towards its first birthday, partners Tom Weller and Ben Hedley have no regrets about opening up just a stone’s throw away from Starbucks in a town centre that’s awash with places to bag a brew and a bite to eat.

They’re confident that their cool modern venue and quality coffee help them stand out from the crowd, and they’re passionate about continuing their success story.

Coffee is at the core of what they do, but Ben is a comparatively recent convert to the cause.

He said: “I absolutely hated coffee until a couple of years ago. My experiences in chain outlets led me to believe that all coffee was bitter and something I would only begin to appreciate with a receding hairline.

“I was determined to see what all the fuss was about, so I booked myself on a coffee forage and ended up absolutely loving the stuff.

“The best coffee I’ve ever had was at Flat White in Soho, London. I never knew coffee could taste that good, and I still don’t think a lot of people do either.”

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Tom and Ben, who both live in the town, have been friends since schooldays but went their separate ways when they left Hitchin Boys’ School.

Tom started his coffee education at university, after a housemate came home with a cafetiere blend from Fortnum & Mason. He recalled: “It was a nice simple blend but still miles ahead of the instant coffee I’d be chugging down for fuel during all-night essay sessions.

“From there I started looking around online for new roasteries on the scene. It wasn’t until I started exploring London’s many specialty coffee shops that I realised how good coffee could taste – people have come to expect bitterness in coffee but that doesn’t have to be the case.”

Ben learned a lot about the business working for a big contract caterer, joining on a graduate entry scheme and working his way up to a head office role. He said: “It taught me a great deal about the industry: how to run a food operation, how to manage a team and all about the intricacies of the food supply chain. I don’t think I would have been able to set up The Groundworks without that experience.”

But he could see that demand for speciality coffee was spreading beyond London, and spotted the opportunity.

“I only see this trend growing in the future,” says Tom. “Australia is a great example, where ‘proper’ or ‘specialty’ coffee is simply ‘coffee’. Last year there were only 24 Starbucks stores in the whole country – in Greater London alone there are 246.

“Italy as a country follows a similar model. I think with that comes a greater appreciation for good coffee from people of all ages.

“Properly roasted and extracted coffee is neither bitter nor astringent and, depending on the bean/blend, has a surprising amount of sweetness.”

Between them Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero – all of which have a Hitchin presence – gulp down around 90 per cent of the UK market share so it’s always going to be tough for independent operators.

But as Tom said: “We have always been confident in the quality of our coffee. The time and attention to detail that our roasters, Allpress, put into their beans is staggering and we’re very fortunate to be working with them.

“Combine that with some talented baristas here at Groundworks and you’ve got something Starbucks can’t replicate; artisanal production of coffee where taste comes first.”

Coffee isn’t the only attraction – the Groundworks look was inspired by Scandinavian design and hip London coffee shops.

Tom said: “We just wanted to create the kind of space we would like to hang out in ourselves – not too fussy or overcrowded but without pretension.

“I’d like to say that we did all this work ourselves, but in fact we had a fantastic team of builders led by a good friend of ours, Mark Woods, who was invaluable in finishing of the final look and feel of the shop.”

Then there are the cakes, courtesy of Beccy Fulleylove from Stevenage who creates weekend special offers and Henlow-based Lisa Bridges who keeps the shop stocked with goodies during the week.

Groundworks set up shop in an established cafe location, formerly occupied by the award-winning Triangle cafe, and the setting in the shadow of the historic St Mary’s church and close to a clutch of other specialist food and drink outlets is another bonus.

After a frantic first year which has seen Groundworks diversify into private functions in the evenings and pop-up music and arts events as well as building its name as a daytime destination, Ben and Tom are clear about the one thing they wish they’d done before they opened the doors.

“Buy a new till straight away, that’s the gist of it,” is their top tip. “We started out for the first few months with an ancient till that just rang up the totals on a little monitor.

“To manage orders we had the affectionately named ‘peg system’ that involved pegging up the separate, hand-written, order sheets – one for the baristas and another for the kitchen. It was mayhem, especially on a busy Saturday.

“Now we have an integrated modern system that works flawlessly. Every time we look back on it, neither of us can believe how we got by. Essentially once you’ve got the right systems in place, it all follows through.”

Now they can take satisfaction in what they have achieved so far.

Ben said: “The best part of the job is seeing people come and enjoy something that we’ve created. We’ve both lived in Hitchin all of our lives so it’s nice to be able to give something back to the area. Yes, the hours are very unsociable and I could do with some more sleep, but there hasn’t been a day yet that I’ve dreaded going to work.”

So no regrets about giving corporate life the body-swerve at such a young age?

“It’s important to understand the merits of both a larger company and of a smaller business,” said Ben. “Tom and I have always aspired to set up our own food business and I think our age is what differentiates us from our competition.

“Even on our days off you’ll find us visiting new restaurants and bars getting inspiration for the shop. The nature of our business means we need to constantly be on our toes thinking of fresh ideas.

“The market, especially in the hospitality sector, seems to be seeing a transition away from the multiples in favour of the independents so it seemed like the perfect time to start our business.”