Harris + Hoole, Pinner

Local Independent or Corporation Plaything?

21st June 2013

Nathalie Bonney meets one of the names behind the newest coffee chain on the block

Exposed brick walls, menus scrawled on chalk boards, ‘proper’ coffee, focaccia open sandwiches and red velvet cake at the counter: a Harris & Hoole coffee shop has all the touches of a good independent café. Despite appearances, though, there are already 14 Harris & Hooles in and around London. Beginning in leafy Amersham, the mini-chain expanded into nearby Rickmansworth and, more recently, Ruislip and Pinner. Locals tend to love the cafés’ laid back ambience, and certainly the community atmosphere they generate is different to the Costa-Starbuck-Nero chains. However, as the company sets to expand further, can customers expect another cutout coffee chain in the making?

At the start of this year, there was uproar in the national media on discovering that Tesco has an (undisclosed) stake in Harris & Hoole. Journalists were critical of a chain that puts such emphasis on community spirit but that turns out to be owned by a multinational company so huge that it claims approximately £1 out of every £10 on the UK High Street. Australian coffee lover Nick Tolley, who began the business together with brother Andrew and sister Laura, says they have never made a secret of the company’s Tesco-backing.

Nick & Laura Tolley

Dressed casually in hoodie and jeans and, surprisingly, sipping tea, when I meet him in the Pinner store, he is the first one to bring up the Tesco connection – no doubt primed by previous experiences. He calls their involvement ‘serendipitous’ on more than one occasion, and has no qualms about the company’s financial involvement.

“There’s no question it is an unconventional source of funding with Tesco, but sometimes life just takes you on those journeys,” Nick says. He cites earlier attempts to secure a bank loan for previous business Taylor St Baristas: “In spring 2011 we applied for a £300,000 loan. The bank eventually battled us down to £165,000 and it then took until December 2012 for the money to come through. Tesco views things in a slightly different way. The banks are worried about security. Tesco takes more of a corporate venture view where it looks to build to the future.”

The entrepreneur in the family, Nick recognised that the small, take-away focused Taylor St Baristas, which you “need a map and a compass to find” wouldn’t translate well in yummy mummy land (where to put the pushchair?) and looked to develop a formula – Harris & Hoole – that would.

Tesco’s financial backing has given the Tolleys the chance to buy up outlets that were formerly branches of Clinton Cards and turn them into Harris & Hooles (thus explaining the sudden flurry of H&Hs in a relatively short period) but with this expansion comes the question of integrity and creative control. “This is our café”, insists Nick, stressing that Tesco, as a silent investor, doesn’t call the shots. Tesco’s group chief executive, Philip Clarke, echoes this sentiment in his Tesco blog: “It’s the Tolley’s business, their brand. Our investment helps them take it further.” Clarke goes on to say Harris & Hoole’s success is good for the high streets that they are in and that any success to date “should be attributed to the Tolley family, who decide the strategy and run the business.”

Having already launched Taylor St Baristas, the Tolleys had proved not only their business credentials but also their coffee know-how. These small coffee bars in City of London locations continue to be a hit with coffee addicts; that Andrew Tolley is a champion barista and world championship judge helps, as does the use of Union Hand-Roasted coffee. They use Union in the Harris & Hoole shops too and that’s a sign that as much as the family is serious about H&H as a business they’re still passionate about coffee too. Union Hand-Roasted is an East London fair trade coffee company, which sources coffee direct from farmers in developing countries, and roasts small batches of coffee each day to maintain the bean’s freshness: brownie points all round. Jeremy Torz, one of Union’s founders, observed: “Tesco may be doing this knowing that ‘better’ coffee is now on the radar of most consumers, and that they may create a bridge between the artisan world and the chain world.”

This sentiment is shared by many in the coffee industry and, ironically, Tesco’s involvement could enable more consumers to embrace fair trade, well-produced coffee. “The more people are exposed to quality coffee the more you expand the market,” argues Nick Tolley.

There certainly aren’t any complaints about the taste: “The coffee is excellent – much better quality than any of the other coffee chains,” says Tara Atkinson, a new mum and frequenter of the Rickmansworth branch. Aside from the coffee, Tara also rates Harris & Hoole’s neighbourhood vibe: “The manager really made an effort to connect with local Twitter users even before the shop opened – the emphasis on local events and good communication seems to be an H&H focus.” She’s right: book clubs, pilates classes before opening hours and Christmas craft fairs are a few examples of how the shops are being used for more than just drinking hot beverages. At last year’s Christmas Craft Fair in the Uxbridge shop Nick met the proprietor of a cake business, and they’re now in disussion about eventually serving her brownies in the shops. They’re also working with a local cupcake baker, and they display artwork and photography by local artists in stores too.

The carefully cultivated care for the community ethos seems real because it is real, and this is what sets apart Harris & Hoole from the other chains. For some customers that is enough, even after they discover the Tesco connection: “You’re given the impression that it’s an independent, like Cinnamon Square [Rickmansworth café],” says Pinner customer Bjarne Thelin, who was surprised to learn of the supermarket’s investment – though it hasn’t deterred him from going there.

“The coffee is good, the tea is good and I like all the community signs – I’d rather go there than Starbucks,” says Anna O’Neill, who uses the Ruislip outlet; she also didn’t know of the Tesco investment but was similarly unfazed. As far as Tara Atkinson is concerned, what difference does it make that it’s part-owned by Tesco? “It’s hardly any different to Starbucks being an international chain. If people didn't know Harris & Hoole wasn't an independent, that's their problem! We still go to our local independent coffee shops as well.”

Interestingly, Nick Tolley says that Harris & Hoole isn’t trying to replicate the local one-offs. ‘If you asked me who I see as our competition I honestly don’t think it’s the independents, our competition is with the other chains. We hope to bring a different sort of experience to those people who go to these sort of coffee shops.”

It will be fascinating to see how things develop as Harris & Hoole outlets start to appear within Tesco stores; the first of these opened mid-March near London Bridge. While it has a separate doorway and operates as a standalone café the close proximity of the two is a reminder of their financial relationship. It also poses the question: how long can H&H bill itself as a community-focused chain while simultaneously expanding faster than you can say ‘espresso’? Nick Tolley admits it’s a careful balance that they have to get right. “That’s the real risk and challenge for us.”

Risky business indeed…

Find Your Local