Response to ‘The Difficult Middle’ @Jimseven

As has more than frequently happened over the past few years the eloquent Mr James Hoffmann of Square Mile Coffee Roasters has stimulated my mind. His recent blog post entitled ‘The Difficult Middle’ struck a chord while at the same time prompting me to respond with a perspective from ‘the other side’.

As you will undoubtedly know my family business is Pumphreys Coffee.  What you may not know is that Pumphreys Coffee has been around Newcastle in various forms since 1750, a brief history of which can be found here. 

The coffee industry as changed dramatically over the 11 years I’ve been involved in a full time capacity at Pumphreys. The transition that we as an ‘Institution’ have had to make just to stay in business has been nothing short of dramatic.


It was the idea that a business should be treated like a living organism, and nurtured and taught.


The premise that a business is a living organism is as much true for the start up as it is for the institution. A business must be flexible enough to survive and yet static enough as to be able to market themselves effectively. We have had a lot of years to learn but it doesn’t mean what we know will help us in the future. Scary indeed James.

I too over the last couple of years have been thinking a lot about longevity. 

There will be a major change at Pumphreys Coffee in the coming months that will undoubtedly have an effect on the business. I’m sure this has happened in every family business with a history of more than one generation and I’m sure we certainly won’t be the last. The business having been split between two brothers their families will once again go back to one family. “What’s the problem with that?” I here you say. Well there isn’t a problem at all but there will have to be large changes in the way the business operates to be able to make that transition.  For the last 30 years there have been lots of people around to take the ultimate responsibility with roles being spread around various family members. Over the coming months/ years that will be down to one, yours truly. With this in mind I have been contemplating the future and what the business will have to look like. This has also led me to think about automation. 


At times I feel like we are not in control of our business at Pumphreys. That seems a little shocking I know but stay with me. We have been supplying the region with fresh coffee for so long now that we actually have 90 year olds buying coffee from our Grainger Market stall who have only drunk Pumphreys Coffee all their lives. This is the other end of the spectrum to James. When you have customers who have experienced every product your company has produced in living memory you become incredibly beholden to them and to the history of the company. To change their coffee too dramatically will be a cut to their core. I have met people who had worked for us for 30 years and retired 30 years ago. Our history, methods and products are ingrained in the psyche of our customers and previous staff. I don’t want to lose that knowledge but I also don’t have most of it. I intend to claw as much back as possible before it is lost to time.


There are two things at Pumphreys that really differentiate us from the rest of the industry. 

We roast on ‘open flame’ coffee roasters and we have been in business for 263 years.

These are the two things that I/we value most as a company. I currently roast all our coffee on our two Whitmee roasters and head up our training. In reality these are two things that I can’t be doing in the future. I need to take a more global view of the company while still maintaining the standards we have created over our history and safeguarding the knowledge we have gained. This is something that I owe to everyone who has ever been involved in Pumphreys and for everyone who has ever been a customer. 

I have a lot of respect for McDonald’s ‘Restaurants’ and the franchise founder Ray Kroc. The one thing they have done very well is create a very consistent experience and product across thousands of operations. Almost all the coffee shops I have visited in my lifetime, ‘third wave’ or not haven’t got the ability to do that from day to day. Can we learn something from automation and modelling like a franchise prototype? Dam right we can. 

Very few businesses start out to last for 200 years.

Onwards and upwards, with an eye on the past and a hand in the fire!


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