How and Why to Start a Coffee Shop – The Wren

“What did you do this Sunday?”
“Well, I went to church”
“Oh… cool.”

Well, churches aren’t cool. He doesn’t think they’re cool. That’s the end of that conversation.

In November 2012, after a little over a year of on and off preparation we met with the senior leadership team of my church, St Helen’s Bishopsgate. We had with us a strong 26-page business plan with a proposal to open an artisan coffee shop in part of the church. Confident and prepared our pitch went something like this:

“This should be a no-brainer. When people think of church cafe’s, they are thinking volunteering pensioners serving bad quality instant coffee. Let’s change that perception. You have a great space that is underused. By renovating part of it into a full-time coffee shop, it would be a massive ministry aid. It would not just open up the building and massively raise awareness among the local community but also, on top of that, it would also provide a place for members of the congregation to meet throughout the week and should be a substantial financial contributor toward the good works of the Church.

The building is 800 years old, an amazing architectural achievement and right in the centre of the city. It should be one of the coolest destinations around and with the addition of an artisan coffee shop, it will be.”

start a coffee shop

These mock-ups were done by Beck & Brendan Sexton.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they disagreed with the claim that the church space was ‘underused’ and, to be honest, a couple years on I agree. The church must be one of the most active in London with stuff going on every day. They didn’t have room to add a coffee shop.

But despite it being inappropriate for St Helens, they did like the idea in principle and suggested we met up with Chris Fishlock, the minister of St Nicholas Cole Abbey – a building that was being renovated near St Paul’s cathedral.

start a coffee shop

St Nick’s would become a ‘centre for workplace ministry’, a hub where a team could organise and prepare for holding bite sized Christian talks during lunchtime around London.

Chris liked the concept and invited us to present to the trustees of the charity. We improved and amended our business plan and renamed the coffee shop “The Wren”, a nod to Christopher Wren the architect who designed St Nick’s:

“What we propose is that we pay you a small monthly fee and then write in a big profit share. That means that the coffee shop will be providing a minimum monthly income for the church, but will have a low threshold for breaking even. There is also an unlimited potential for how much it could make.“

On 24th May 2013 we were given a provisional go-ahead.

Why would you want to start a coffee shop?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you may be surprised to learn that the aim of the coffee shop was never to make us money.

In one of the first documents we drafted as new directors, Andrew and I set out the aims of the business. On page two of our ‘statement of intent’, you’ll find:

“The café will be run as a business, but none of the surplus will be paid out as dividends. Instead, all surplus will be shared between the Centre for Workplace Ministry, our staff or reinvested to improve the business.”

The Wren was to be a non-profit business that’s sole purpose was to support the church. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to describe it as a church cafe, than a coffee shop. Just the best, most awesome church cafe that ever existed.

My faith is very important to me and this was a way to give my time to the church in a way that used my business skills.

Don’t get me wrong, if I thought opening a coffee shop was a great way to make money, I would probably have tried to set up a non-christian more commercial one. But if you want to start a profitable business – opening any sort of shop, restaurant or café should be right near the bottom of your list. They cost a lot of money, are hard to get into, hard to get out of, require a lot of work, are taxed to the bone and are ridiculously competitive.

On the other hand, I believed a coffee shop would be a great and innovative way to support the church.

Money

Coffee shops cost a lot of money but despite having never raised any money before I assumed, in my naivety, it wouldn’t be too hard:

“How much are you trying to raise?” – An old business partner with too much money.
“We need another £70k” – Me
“Ohh is that all? I can give you that.” – Him

Unfortunately, that wasn’t it. First off our decision to be not-for-profit meant that we couldn’t give away a share of the company. Instead, we were looking for a loan. My old business partner wasn’t interested in a paltry loan, he wanted to be an owner.

Secondly we only wanted to be a debtor to people who shared our vision for the coffee shop. We wanted people to invest because they wanted to see The Wren become a reality not because they wanted to make money.

It took a few months to work out our strategy and identify the people we thought would be interested but in January 2014 we held a presentation to a carefully selected few. The presentation outlined our vision, what we wanted to spend the money on, our financial projects and finally asked the audience to invest. After some grilling, we received most of the money we needed.

Being optimistic, we assumed we would start making money right away (I mean look how much Starbucks turns over, we’re bound to be as good as them.. right?!). We left aside just enough money to last about 2 months without any revenue and started spending.

start a coffee shop

The Product

In some regards, defining our product was the easiest part of the startup process. We had come up with the original idea back in 2011 and it hadn’t changed much:

There is the venue. A massive, open space in right in the centre of London, designed by England’s most famous architect – Sir Christopher Wren. A hub of tranquillity in the busy city with lots of seating both inside and outside on the terrace.

There is the food and drink. We planned to offer the best. We chose our favourite coffee (Workshop Coffee), our favourite tea (BrewTea), our favourite cakes (homemade and from the Candlestick Bakery) and even our favourite milk.

There is the staff. Friendly, competent and most importantly, they want to be there. One requirement for all the staff we hired was that they wanted to work at the Wren as a way to support our vision, not just because they needed a job.

With these three we were sure that The Wren would become a destination for those working in the local area.

The People

A lot of people* have helped out with The Wren. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to have a 6,000 word post so I’ll have to mention just a few.

Since as far back as 2011, Brendan Sexton had been voluntarily helping out. He is a very talented architect and dedicated a large amount of time to both the original, St Helen’s, concept and The Wren. He also personally designed our beautiful servery. He also knew a bunch about this sort of industry – how do we find the best carpenter to build us the servery? Brendan knows.

start a coffee shop the servery

Getting in the right full time management team was probably the most important part of the whole startup process. Andrew and myself couldn’t commit full time to the venture so we needed to find some really good, proactive people. They had to be able to work independently and would be expected to do a lot of the idea generation as well as the execution. They would have to work above and beyond, this wasn’t your average 9-5 job. A big ask.

But it was also a great opportunity for anyone who wants to start a small business. They would get the full experience without having any personal financial risk. If you want to start your own business, why not start one for someone else first? Spend a couple of years on it, let them pay for all the mistakes and then when the process is perfected, do it yourself.

Meet Olivia Adshead. She had previously worked at a good small independent coffee chain, including helping set up a new branch. Efficient and with a wealth of relevant experience. And Lucyanna Perry, a graduate from LSE and the St Helen’s associate scheme. An ideas machine with a work ethic that puts me to shame. Both had and have a real passion for enterprise and our particular vision. Basically anything from now on that sounds like it required a lot of work, was done thanks to them.

start a coffee shop

The Process

People sorted, money sorted. Now how do you actually go about setting up a coffee shop?

I become intimidated by the unknown, I look at a coffee shop and think, yeah it’s quite straightforward and mostly common sense – you have got to have coffee, a coffee machine, somewhere to put the coffee machine, places for the customers to sit etc. If you’re like me then you don’t need to be told how to buy a chair or table.
That’s all fine, but what about the all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes?

There was a lot that needed to be researched. From working out what you do with the daily rubbish (hire a company to pick it up for you), to how to plumb in a moveable servery (hire a competent plumber to work it out). From what insurance a coffee shop in a grade 1 listed building needed (not too much – most of it was already covered by the current building’s insurance), to the health and safety requirements for serving homemade sandwiches (you need to fill out a tediously long form).

Olivia and Lucyanna did what I recommend anyone does when trying to break into a new industry, just ask your suppliers – they have a vested interest in seeing you succeed. The coffee roasters in particular were really helpful. They told us exactly what we needed to do and hooked us up with a bunch of other suppliers. They also helped train our staff.

But despite all the help, it still took Olivia and Lucyanna about 5 months of working full time just to get it all done. There was so much to do we also got another paid member of staff, Christian Stuart, on board to help out on a part time basis.

As you probably expect, everything costs more than you think it should (an instant hot water tap? Sure thing, that’s only £2.5k).

Blunders happened, problems occurred, and they cost money. We built in a 10% margin for mistakes and naivety. It should have been higher. We bought the wrong dishwasher, twice. We hired a dangerously incompetent plumber which delayed our opening by a week. We didn’t realise there was a legal requirement to have a pest control contract. We underestimated the cost of pretty much everything – remember that the headline quotes don’t include pesky VAT.

Start a coffee shop

The Opening

Despite the learning curve and a few hiccups along the way we opened on March 8 2014, 37 months since Andrew first mentioned to me the idea of opening a coffee shop in our local church.

We still have a long way to go, there is a lot to improve on and we are not making as much money as we had predicted – but we are learning, ironing out the processes and moving in the right direction. More importantly, almost everyone who has come to the coffee shop has liked it, so much so that less than two months after opening we won an award for London’s best new coffee shop. We’re here to stay and are a permanent addition to the London coffee scene.

the best new coffee shop

Some of team Wren accepting the award. Lucyanna is holding the award. I’m the good looking one (I wish.. second from the left).

Stay tuned. As another project comes to an end, over the next month I’ll be spending quite a bit of time working at The Wren. Be sure to subscribe to hear about how I get on and what it’s like growing an active coffee shop.

If you want to support The Wren but can’t make it down to buy a coffee, then please donate £2.5 and buy a virtual coffee! It may not contain caffeine, but it should still give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Be sure to follow us on Facebook & Twitter.

*A lot of great people made significant contributions to the Wren, a big shout out to:
Brendan & Beck Sexton, Matthew Heaton, Emily Gascoyne-Richards, Rosy Nevard, Angela & Paul Wong, Caroline Ly, Charlotte & Howard Holt, Shona & John Priestley, Bummi Siwoniku, Phil Young, Brandon & Jeremy Mitchell.
And to our staff members past and present:
Olivia Adshead, Lucyanna Perry, Drew Buerger, Christian Stuart, Michael Butchard, Adam Pugh, Comet Chukwurah, Anna-Louise Carter, Zoe Wilson, Nat Lee, Claire Dooley and Heather Wall.

  • What a great article about one of my favourite London Coffee Spots. Wonderful to find so much about the background of the The Wren, how it came to be and its philosophy, none of which I knew beforehand. Approaching it purely as a customer, it’s always been a wonderful place, with great coffee and cake and some fantastic staff. All its success is very well deserved.

    Brian.

  • Paddy Devlin

    Maybe I missed it Sam, but ultimately how much did it cost to get your coffee shop open?
    Next time over in London will have to check it out