Welcome to the first instalment of “Tim on Tour”! For all those oblivious this revolutionary concept, it’s a monthly feature where I’ll be travelling the breadth and length of the country interviewing industry experts and even trying (if they let me!) my hand at a thing or two…and then writing about it. Simple!
This week I was lucky enough to sit down with UK’s leading expert on the coffee industry, Marco Arrigo.
When it comes to coffee he certainly knows his beans. He’s the Head Of Quality at Illy, founder of the University of Coffee and co-owner of Soho’s Bar Termini (along with his long time friend and cocktail-alchemist behind 69 Colebrooke Row and Zetter Town House, among others,Tony Conigliaro).
Described by Time Out as “a dream team” I sat down with Marco to discuss his new venture with Tony, his journey up to this point, the secret to running a successful coffee bar, tips for being a better barista, and his expert predictions for the future of the industry. Enjoy!
How did you get into the trade, and where did it all begin?
I started off by importing Illy in 1991, brought it into the UK and sold it around Soho. 1994 is when it got going, taking a few years to get it from just me to other people. I then met a company called Euro Food Brands who took it to the next level.
You can go it on your own or you can meet a good company that really gets you going. So meeting Euro Food Brands who put in all the structure so I was free to just go and sell it.
“It was all about just about delivering a different menu, like why is everybody still copying a 15-year-old menu?”
Would you recommend this route for someone wanting to establish himself or herself in the industry?
Well I went down that road of working for a big company, and now Illy is a massive business, you know we’ve got 40 salesmen and all the rest of it, and I think that you get bigger quicker going to a big company.
As long as you trust them and everything it is the way forward you know? You see I didn’t have the skill set to take it to the next level… who’s got the experience of running a big business if you’ve never done it before?
So why jump into it with both feet if you don’t know what you’re doing? So I joined them for their expertise- I knew nothing about retail, and they were retail experts so that’s why it’s in all the supermarkets and that’s what they did.
“Coffee bars are going to become cocktails bars. Coffee and alcohol have to merge to become economically viable”
So tell me about Bar Termini, what was the journey to owning a coffee shop on Old Compton Street?
Yeah, so last year I decided to open this place and asked to go part time with Illy, and in partnership with Tony Conigliaro…how could I say no?
We were old flat-mates together we talked about this for years before we did it, and we looked at several sights over the last 5 years and the concept was always bubbling away… We wanted to do something that we wanted to go to and that’s what I felt was missing.
You see it’s a natural progression… you’re a supplier for 20 years and then comes a frustration that no one is making my coffee properly so I like to take control over the delivery of the product and everyone’s using the same menu and I didn’t agree with that.
Financially and everything, we haven’t put millions in or anything you know. It’s just 4 mates buying a small shop on the most expensive road in Soho.
A little thing like this, however, does costs an arm and a leg; I could’ve bought a 120 person restaurant in Muswell Hill or something, but you see the concept works in Soho. Soho is a village it’s a different animal and it amplifies a concept!
“The 10 gram espresso which we do for £1 on the Bar. You walk in, you drink it, you leave. You’re not allowed to sit down”
So what exactly is your concept at Bar Termini?
It was all about just about delivering a different menu, like why is everybody copying this 15-year-old American chain menu?
Think about it. It’s extraordinary that every coffee shop has got the same menu. It’s crazy. Like imagine if every restaurant and bar had the same menu life would be dull!
I get annoyed with people just ‘copying’. You know you could go to a Coffee Expo buy all the popular equipment and ingredients there, open up a shop there and then… but then I ask, how are you going to make it busy?
I meet so many people who think it’s cool just to open a coffee shop but they’ve got no idea what they’re doing, no concept just “I’ve got this site and I’m going to knock out what everyone else around me knocks out because that’s where the money is”.
And you know we’ve got more coffee shops in the UK than any other country in Europe, with the lowest volume. So our coffee volumes are just above Russia, so there’s no point just “opening more coffee shops” there’s nothing special or different about them.
And so it was just about delivering a different menu…. But our menu consists of 4 quality drinks.
“There’s this whole thing that Italians don’t drink Cappuccinos after 12 so we don’t even have on the menu, and so people can drink our coffees all night”
So talk me through the coffee menu?
Quite simply, it’s 2 espressos a frothy coffee and a flat coffee.
The 10 gram espresso which we do for £1 on the Bar. You walk in, you drink it, you leave! You’re not allowed to sit down. I’ve had many people say to me that ‘people have tried… the English will never understand or do that’ … but do you know what, there’s been no trouble from it at all
We serve between 40-50 a day, people walk in, drink it and then walk out. No ones had to be told, no-one’s come in with a laptop and sat down with it you know.
We also don’t do takeaway. I didn’t want to do it, and have paper cups. I don’t do skimmed milk. It’s a real pure and simple menu.
And yeah, we also have a sort-of Latte and a big Macchiato. So we don’t even have a Cappuccino on the menu. Why? Because we sell more coffee at night then we do during the day.
There’s this whole thing that Italians don’t drink Cappuccinos after 12 so we don’t even have on the menu, and so people can drink our coffees all night.
We also use very high quality coffee that is only 1% caffeine so you can drink it all night.
“It’s only Arabica coffee, we don’t touch Gusto coffee and you know it’s a cheap addition to lower the price of the beans”
So, your concept was influenced by your Italian heritage?
Yeah, we’ve amplified it a bit. You know we’ve exaggerated everything a little bit and it’s nice to amplify the coffee. What you’re drinking is a 21-gram espresso it’s almost like a triple shot but there’s only 30% of water in it, so it’s a different animal, it’s more oily.
Most places would dilute and dilute… It’s almost like you’re drinking a big espresso. The thickness of it and the strength and we do strong coffee here.
You see the cup is getting bigger, and as the cup is getting bigger the coffee is getting weaker. But we work the other direction and we’ll make the coffee strong and the cup smaller and even our hot chocolate is super-super rich and I bet you that you couldn’t drink more than a small jug’s full of it.
We compress quality here; it’s a real industry place because of Tony obviously as well. It’s a place for barmen and other professionals alike.
Would you say that quality is suffering across the industry?
Yeah well the size of the cup has diluted the quality. And to be honest, not many people are using high quality anyway, but then they’re diluting that as well. So all that comes through are the imperfections, it’s the defects that cut through the milk and not the quality- and the more you dilute quality the less you have.
We’ve gone the opposite direction and we aim to put as little milk as possible, to not dilute the quality of the coffee… our biggest drink is 6 ounces which is what no-one does.
Quantity reduces quality then?
Definitely. Like I laugh at people asking for skinny hot chocolate as you’re basically getting a 16 ounce, which is a pint of skimmed milk, with chocolate. And that’s not good for you is it? You’re better off drinking a really, really good quality rich hot chocolate in a small serving… that scratches the itch I promise you.
Overall people need to start with the coffee and work backwards, instead of the coffee being an after thought. You know, they’re so quick to nail a bicycle on a wall, get tattoos and grow a beard, but the reality is the coffee is what its all about. If you showcase the coffee and the rest of it will follow.
“Tony’s attention to detail is extraordinary, like if I serve you the coffee and the spoon is to the wrong way round Tony would have a heart-attack”
Given your collaboration with Tony Conigliaro, do you see coffee and cocktails being the future?
This is definitely where I see the industry going, and I wanted to merge coffee and cocktails together because I think that in England you separate everything.
Gardening and cooking, for example, in the UK are two different hobbies but in Italy it’s the same bloody thing! Bar and coffee, is the same thing in Italy, we do one in the morning and one in the evening- but it’s the same venue. But in England your coffee shops are shutting at 5 and struggling to pay the rent, and your bars are opening at 5 and struggling to pay the rent.
It’s not mega-busy in the mornings, Soho, it’s quite quiet in the mornings and it just gets livelier and livelier as the day goes on- in fact you can’t in here after 5pm, you must book any day of the week.
So has Starbuck’s move toward and evening menu in recognition of that?
Yes precisely, because economically we can’t pay the rent and you’ve got to be making money. We make money in here from 7 in the morning till midnight whereas most coffee shops or bars would only do half those hours. You know, it is was that philosophy as an economic concept which is why Costa down the road has gone bust and shut its doors.
Even Costa Coffee can’t keep a shop open on Old Compton Street you know, it’s a tough business model.
Asides from all that is it enjoyable? What’s the most enjoyable aspects of owning your own place?
Oh yes much more fun. It’s nice to be in cocktails now, as I’ve done coffee for the last 20 years so the cocktail side is nice… I’ve never drank so much in my life! Like I was tasting Mezcal this morning! I come in and there’s always a bottle of something to sample and taste. So that’s been good fun.
I’ve also done a few bar shifts at 69 Colebrooke Row (Tony Conigliaro’s place) to learn the cocktail side and learning to make new drinks. I’ve been in the business for 20 years and it was the first time I’ve even used a till!
Nice to try something different I suppose?
Look you’re never told to learn something new and you should never be scared of that.
I’m just learning a hell of a lot from Tony obviously; it’s all very formal the way they work they taught me a lot. I’m very hands on and I’ll get behind the bar and they taught me not to. That’s not my business in this job, so they taught me how to set it up and teach the staff how to do it rather than me worry about everything… and if you’re not learning anything you’re wasting your time.
Tony’s attention to detail is extraordinary, like if I serve you the coffee and the spoon is to the wrong way round Tony would have a heart attack. And that is the difference to them. Before I wasn’t so fussy, and the detail does make the difference. Things like creating an atmosphere like in here, and Tony goes to great effort to put the music together and all these things that I’ve overlooked and never worried about or even considered before.
“The guys at Illy who blend the coffee are dead serious. They don’t eat curry, they don’t smoke and they don’t have sex the night before”
Are you still actively involved in the London School of Coffee?
Yeah I still run that and I’m head of its operations
So what tips would you give to a Barista looking to extend their skillset and become more accomplished?
Well firstly a barista is limited to making coffee, and so must also learn how to be a barman. You see bartenders have different mentalities to baristas… A barman if you show them how to make a drink they will absolutely do what you tell them to a tee and if I tell these guys to clean the machine every hour they clean the machine every hour. But baristas don’t.
They start getting into latte art, which is the equivalent to (bar) flaring for me. With a lot of baristas it is all “look at me, look at me” and it then becomes not about the customer, which is why we don’t have latte art here.
I’ve seen so many baristas become consultants because they can do latte art but they don’t know anything else. And latte art is 5% of the equation its not everything. They don’t clean the machine, or do other jobs that barmen do. Barista is Italian for barman… it has nothing to do with coffee! There’s a lot of baristas out there making shocking coffee with beautiful latte art on top.
A lot of baristas just don’t know… they don’t understand the defects of the coffee or anything, so you need to not lack the knowledge about what you are making too.
It’s like a chef who just changes the colour of the food but has no concept of what he’s doing… there’s a lot of barista’s roasting coffee – but they don’t know how to do it!
They’re baristas not blenders like the guys at Illy who blend the coffee are dead serious. They don’t eat curry they don’t smoke they don’t have sex the night before… they can’t just go out the night before and expect to wake up in the morning and blend coffee to the standard that is required. And that’s an example of a specific skilled job that you shouldn’t take lightly.
“If you can drink 3 of your own coffees in a row then that’s a sure sign that the quality is there”
If someone was an amateur looking to extend their knowledge about coffee, firstly what would you look for in a ‘good coffee’ and where should you look for it?
Arabica. It’s only Arabica coffee, we don’t touch Gusto coffee and you know it’s a cheap addition to lower the price of the beans. I’m an expert from opening the can onwards, and with Illy in 20 years I’ve never had a can back because it’s consistency and quality is the most perfect out there.
I can’t use anything else. It’s also a £25 a kilo coffee… you know most of these people get their coffee at £15 a kilo maximum. You have to pay for the quality you see.
Most places round here (Old Compton Street) are quite pretty but serve shocking quality coffee and I think that you should buy a coffee that you like and you can drink 3 in a row. I defy a lot of these people to drink 3 espressos in a row without being sick.
If you can drink 3 of your own coffees in a row then that’s a sure sign that the quality is there. I could drink 10 of these in a row without feeling sick… there’s coffees out there where you can’t even drink one.
So at the end of the day buy something you like. It’s a rule of thumb for most industries, and if you are buying and doing something you like it’s easy to do and if you’re trying to be something you’re not it’s hard work.
Moving onto my last question… what’s the future of coffee?
Coffee bars are going to become cocktails bars. Coffee and alcohol have to merge to become economically viable, pay the rent, pay the staff and has a good business that makes money from morning to evening. At the moment you’ll always have someone that is strong at one and weak at the other… so it’s about getting both right.
And on the retail side of coffee?
Look we’re a country that still imports 70% of Gusto, so our importation is the lowest quality coffee you can get in the UK and these coffee bags etc that are coming out are still very poor quality. People are focusing on the delivery and always forgetting the quality of the beans. Innovations aren’t going to change the world, although if I had to name one innovation then I would probably say these “coffee pods”.
For more information about Bar Termini head to their website bar-termini.com.
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