Full name: Jeremy Torz
DOB: “The swinging 60s! 1963…”
Twitter Handle: @Unionroasted
Fun Fact: “I’m a real dog person and currently own 2 German Shorthaired Pointers, Casper & Louie. I can often be found in the middle of a field blowing a whistle & trying to develop their hunting, pointing and retrieving instincts to greater or usually lesser success.”
As far UK food and drink, you guys really need no introduction, but let’s do one any way. Your story has been well told already, it’s the early 90s – the UK coffee scene is basically non-existent and you guys are over in San Francisco, where you discover a ‘proper’ coffee shop. You decide to bring high quality coffee back to the UK and a few years later, you build a thriving wholesale business. But where do you guys first meet, and what are you doing in the USA in the first place? Could you tell us about your backstory and a little about how the journey up to today has been?
Steven and I first met in the mid – late 80’s and will be celebrating 30 years together this year. We are life partners as well as well as business partners. Our business first started in 1995, so we’ve survived 22 years there as well.
Our American adventure came about when we were in our original careers. Steven, as a Medical Research scientist, had the opportunity to work on a placement in a lab south of San Francisco – which at the time was famous for Biotech as opposed to Silicon. We rapidly discovered great outlets for all sort of food and drink including coffee, and as foodies ourselves spent great times exploring the vibrant food and cultures that California offered. The coffee that we were exposed to, alongside the embryonic speciality coffee culture captured our attention and we began to think about working together in a similar way when our time in the US came to an end.
Once we’d decided that coffee was our interest, we spent as much time as we could hooking up with anyone that could teach us something. Our six month stay quickly turned into four years, during which we spent all our time exploring cafes, roasteries, importers offices and cupping labs when not at work. We returned to the UK and rented a small wooden workshop on the outskirts of London, sold everything we had and bought a small roaster, locked ourselves away with sacks of green that we’d found mostly through mainland European brokers (to get the quality we wanted) and spent a further 6-9 months perfecting our roasts.
We started by targeting chefs in the upper end of the restaurant business as the café scene that we know today didn’t exist back then. In the 1990’s, you couldn’t even buy paper take out cups in the UK and nobody drank take-away coffee! However, things soon started to change and along with supplying some of the UK’s best restaurants, we hooked up with the Seattle Coffee Company – a UK start up that became our biggest customer. Three years later we were taken over by Starbucks which marked the end of our first adventure. Our small roaster, having merged with Seattle Coffee Co a year before to help us grow, was subsumed inside Starbucks’ UK business.
Steven and I spent a very interesting further two years with Starbucks, before leaving to regain our independence in 2000 with the ideas that would soon become Union Hand Roasted Coffee. By sourcing premium quality coffees sustainably and importing ourselves, we gradually built Union up and I think it’s fair to say that today we are the UK’s largest speciality coffee roaster. Nonetheless, our commitments to working responsibly and to build producers opportunities, as well as consumers interest in coffee, is unabated and we still feel that we have more work to do as the UK coffee scene continues to evolve.
Could you help us understand how Union’s success/business model works? As I understand it, you managed to bypass the brokers and pass on more of the profits to the farmers. You also use this deep knowledge of coffee markets to source the best stuff, roasting small batches of delicious and very unusual coffee that nobody in the UK had seen the likes of before. Did I miss anything?
In 2000 after leaving our former business, we decided to visit farmers for the first time and to get a better understanding as to how our prized coffees reached us. That year marked a low point for coffee prices and we saw how communities were devastated by the commodity trade. It’s true that schemes like Fairtrade and others do help communities, but you can only act charitably for a while; you must build the ability for producers to stand on their own.
People around the world don’t want charity, they want opportunity and the chance to take pride in what they do. Union Direct Trade is about changing the balance of power between buyers and sellers. We’ve always spent a lot of time in producer countries, learning about the challenges and needs that they have and working out how to respond to them. We work to help them understand the cost of production and to build development strategies, and then return yearly to evaluate and help them to progress.
Some of our sourcing relationships go back over ten to twelve years. In Rwanda for example, you can see real change on the ground compared to when we first started visiting. In our experience, quality of coffee and the consumer’s enjoyment and respect for the coffee they are drinking builds a much deeper bond. We’ve always only looked to work with partners that respect that motive and for many of our customers, the way in which we source our coffee coupled with quality, builds respect from customers, baristas and business owners alike.
Any crossovers between optometry, immunology and coffee? I mean, you guys basically jumped from scientific careers with no coffee industry background and built an amazing coffee business over the course of a few years!
I think our joint strengths and trainings have stood us in very good stead. Steven’s experience in science and research has enabled him to look very carefully at our supply chain and to be insightful as to the questions we want to ask. His reading and reviewing of different sourcing model and codes of conduct – in a clear-thinking manner – has helped us to develop our own holistic model and toolkit for coffee sourcing, regardless of the community we are working with.
For my part, my former career was part medical, part technical. Having the ability to turn jargon into English and to communicate was something I always enjoyed. Finding ways in which to explain the magic of speciality coffee and make the mystical understandable and engaging is what motivates me.
What’s the best coffee and/or coffee drinking experience you’ve both had?
That’s a tough question to ask the kid who lives in the candy shop! The most magical moments have come from completing the circle when we’ve taken some coffee that we’ve roasted back to the community that grew and produced it. To drink coffee amongst the community with their beans, from one of our packs with the name of their village on it – mind blowing!
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the coffee business?
It can be extremely varied depending on what’s going on. Today Steven is up in Wolverhampton giving a talk on Union Direct Trade to business and sustainability students. My day is taken up bouncing between an operations meeting, catching up with customers who are visiting the roaster for tastings or training and phone calls with our partners in Ethiopia – who should be shipping our next harvest of Yayu Wild Forest coffee any day now.
Most days include cupping, either new origin samples or our daily production batches – nothing gets out of here without being extensively slurped by Steven, me or our Quality Manager Rudy and his assistant Cameron.
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
It happened recently – receiving the Queens Award for Enterprise 2017 for Sustainable Development. It’s an amazing validation that what we are doing is more than just a feel-good factor, that it’s also a key part of our mission and success. Steven and I will be attending a reception at Buckingham Palace later this year and look forward to meeting HM The Queen, representing Union Hand Roasted Coffee and meeting other inspiring and ground breaking businesses owners.
Where do you get your ideas?
Are you kidding! We are in the coffee business – at 3am naturally, when the caffeine buzz is fading and still lying awake in bed thinking of how the coffee world is changing.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
Back in 2007 we redesigned our packaging and gained listings with supermarkets. We thought we needed to push brand recognition with a magazine advertising campaign. We were seduced by agencies, overspent on production and placement and when the investment failed to come in rapidly we got caught in a cashflow hole. We had to scale back a number of projects and it took us a good year or two to get over the effects of it.
We realised that promoting quality niche coffee was very different from other consumer products, and that as a small business we had to be more innovative than the big guys and build strong connections with customers slowly and organically.
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific culinary influences?
Ben Cohen & Gerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream were early inspirations for us around business ethics and their determination to make damn good tasting and feel-good food. A saying of theirs ‘business has the responsibility to give back to the community’ was on a bumper sticker that travelled with us for years.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
The most fantastic aspect of our work has to be the interactions and work we do with coffee producers at origin. Sourcing coffee takes us far off the beaten track and into some amazing communities. The travel can be hard going, and making things happen can be full of challenges but the results are worth it. Many of our community relationships go back many years and to see how these villages and people benefit in real terms over the years is wonderful.
Least favourite aspect – not really sure, I enjoy working on all aspects of our business so I guess I’m pretty lucky.
What advice would you give to aspiring food & drink entrepreneurs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Don’t be tempted to do too much too soon. Do something well and build upon it. Also don’t undervalue your product or service – include a real world cost of your time as soon you’ll need to employ someone to do some part of it and the margins you leave won’t allow for it
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Jeremy: Testing eyes and fitting contact lenses probably! Although the call of food and drink is big for me and with a love of spirits may even have ended up in the distilling world. Steven’s is running an equestrian yard or business – horses and eventing are a passion that he’s recently returned to after many years of dreaming.
If you could get anyone to try your coffee (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the coffees would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
Clark Kent, (not his true alter ego Superman. The world is made up of ordinary Joes and Josephine’s and I’d rather believe something told to me by a regular guy than someone whose been paid vast amounts of money to sell me something. Certainly no George Clooney here, let’s just keep it real and honest!!
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for Union? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
We’d love to see Union Hand Roasted Coffee as the UK’s leading roaster and supplier of speciality coffee – both to the trade as well as in the home. Our online business is still very small and we’d love to grow that.
We’d also like Union to continue to be recognised and respected by coffee drinkers and those interested in brands that change the social and environmental landscape. Perhaps a model coffee farm where we could show how great quality can reward people and the environment in which the coffee is growing.
We’ve also talked and dreamt about one day starting a Union Foundation for education and social change in coffee producing communities – helping the next generation of coffee producers adapt to things such as climate change. Just a small list!
Where next for you and the business?
We are continuing to build our capability as the market grows. Much growth in the UK coffee market is being driven by lots of small independent cafes opening who we love working with – they know what they want and how to do it. The tipping point where most coffee drinkers come to demand better coffee will come, however, by getting this out through larger partners and we are developing Union so that we can offer all the care and support that they need in bringing a great cup to a wider audience.
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you could swap lives for the day with any fictional character (and you’d be guaranteed to return to your life after 24 hours), who would you choose, and why?
The Flash – he can run extremely fast meaning that getting from meeting to meeting, or even country to country would be much easier. It would be the perfect way to get through a busy day.
If you had to become some kind of vegetable related superhero, which would you become, and what would your superpower be?
A carrot related superhero with the ability to see in the dark. Although the ideal superpower would be the ability to become invisible.
You have acquired a pet T-Rex and are morally obliged to look after it. It is 13 ft. tall at the hips, eats half a ton of raw meat a day, and likes taking long walks. What would you call it and what would you do to keep it entertained and housed?
Barney, after one of the most famous dinosaurs. We’d hope he’d fit in the garden – we’d certainly keep him away from the roastery, no one needs a caffeinated dinosaur!