In The News: Ally Svenson - All the perks of a coffee renaissance

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The Independent Online
THE FACT THAT you can ask without embarrassment for a No Fun Vanilla with wings is probably down to this woman: Ally Svenson, 31, co-founder and managing director of the Seattle Coffee Company, writes Glenda Cooper.

Eighteen months ago there were six Seattle coffee shops in Britain: now there are 56. Svenson herself tells it as a romantic dream: moving here from Seattle she pined for her daily latte and despaired of ever finding anything other than insipid cappuccinos: "I would go into cafes in Soho and try to explain to them how to make a latte or beg them to add another shot," she says. "It was a bit of a selfish venture opening up the first place in Covent Garden."

In reality it was more prosaic: a year's hard work went into researching the coffee market as well as clever marketing, exploiting the name Seattle, the coffee capital of the world.

Ally and her husband Scott, her high school sweetheart, moved to London in 1990. She was employed by the US publishing company Comag as head of the import sales department, introducing American magazines to the European market "which was good practice".

After four years Svenson quit her job. She did careful research and set up her sources right down to the cups; they still have to be imported from America. The first bar was opened in Covent Garden in April 1995.

"Seattle Coffee were the first on the scene," says Nigel Passingham, executive director of the Real Coffee Association, who says a renaissance in coffee drinking has happened as people try different coffees abroad and want the same at home. "The name helped as well because people thought the coffee came from the style capital of coffee. They [the Svensons] spotted that kind of opening and ... brought in a more American feel."

However, when the first branch was opened it was "at the beginning of the hottest summer in history and we opened in a listed building where air conditioning was not allowed". Despite this Svenson said that "within 24 hours" it was working. "But then if you can't do something in the middle of Covent Garden you shouldn't be doing it," she adds.

The Covent Garden shop catered mostly to tourists. The next two, however, were aimed at the domestic market. One was in the Canary Wharf office development in Docklands, east London, the other in a bookstore in Cambridge. Both were a success and the company is now the largest speciality coffee chain in the UK. At the beginning of 1997 Seattle's turnover was pounds 3.5m, today it is pounds 21m, and the company hopes to have 120 branches open by the end of 1998.

Ally was the creative impetus behind the launch, describing it as "driven by passion" while her husband dealt with the finances, eventually quitting his job as chief executive of the largest public healthcare company in Britain to run Seattle Coffee day to day. Their first child was born in June 1996, three days before their fourth store opened, and Svenson's second pregnancy means that she works three to four days a week.

The coffee business has become a booming industry of the Nineties, according to the Real Coffee Association, but does Svenson ever wonder whether people will get fed up paying high prices for her coffee?

"No, it's an affordable luxury," she says. "And people care for the quality. I think it's like olive oil in supermarkets. Now that people have found a preference from a choice of one or other oil you can't tell them to go back to just one."

THE FIRST TASTE

Coffee is said to have been discovered 1,000 years ago by a Yemeni goatherd who ate some of the beans and found he was alert for longer. He took his discovery to monks, who created a drink.

ON THE HOUSE

The first coffee house opened in Oxford in 1650, and in London in 1652. They were known as "penny universities" because the coffee cost 1d. The last coffee bar craze was in the 1950s.

TALKING SHOP

Lloyd's of London, Commercial Union, and the Stock Exchange all started life as coffee houses, where men gathered to discuss business.

REAL THING

Consumption of roast and ground coffee has gone up 110 per cent in the last 15 years compared to only 3-4 per cent for instant brands; 3.6m people in the UK drink between one and three cups of "real" coffee a day.

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