Grab an Edinburgh or Glasgow city map, stick a pin in at random, and if it doesn’t land near a speciality coffee shop, consider yourself unlucky. But often overlooked is the growing crop of indies pushing quality coffee in the wilds. We spoke to three cafe owners about serving speciality in the sticks …
Feature from the Scottish Independent Coffee Guide No 3 – buy your copy here.
Mike Haggerton, Habitat Cafe, Aberfeldy
‘When we relocated from London to the Highlands in 2012, good coffee was sparse in Scotland and speciality almost unheard of outside the cities,’ says Mike.
‘My wife Jan and I spent 18 months looking for a location, and when we found Aberfeldy it immediately felt right. However, launching Habitat wasn’t easy. There were numerous complaints to the council when we applied for planning permission and local business owners scoffed at us for opening a cafe without having done so before.
‘Being a newcomer in a small Highland town was never going to be plain sailing but as the community saw how hard we were working things became easier.
‘There were some steep learning curves in adjusting to rural life. After a few months of opening bright and early for the morning rush, I found that it doesn’t exist here and I couldn’t create it. Eventually I accepted that to survive in the Highlands you need to adapt – the Highlands won’t adapt to you.
‘The influx of visitors to Aberfeldy is extremely seasonal too, and following the first year it became apparent that I would have to plan and budget around summer takings that were almost ten times that of winter.
‘I’ve worked hard to put together a comprehensive brew bar at Habitat, but that doesn’t mean we pander to a hipster crowd. I may have a beard and filament bulbs above the counter but a lot of our loyal locals are over 50. Some city shops have boasted of ‘educating’ their customers but our approach has always been to ‘interest’. We combine a bit of brewing theatre with our own excitement to charm and delight our customers with great tasting coffee.
‘The best part about running a rural coffee shop? During my 10 minute commute to work I pass a hauntingly beautiful castle, frequently see clouds in the valley below, and dodge a handful of deer crossing our track. As a former London dweller, I think of those benefits daily.’
Jonny and Ali Aspden, The Coffee Apothecary, Udny
‘It wasn’t our intention to bring speciality to rural Aberdeenshire when we opened a coffee shop in Udny’s former post office in 2014,’ admits Jonny.
‘We knew we wanted to make coffee – as well as everything else at the cafe – to the best possible standard, but we had no idea how to brew and serve speciality and our location meant that there was no one around to teach us. I would hate to now drink the coffee we served in the first few weeks; it was only through hours of research and determination that we learnt the trade.
‘The brewing kit such as V60 and Chemex confused some of the locals at first but we’ve managed to make filter less daunting. It’s great to see people’s interest in speciality develop: they often start with a latte, maybe go to a cafetiere next as it’s familiar and then ask someone else what they’re drinking. Then they’re converted.
‘Unlike the coffee shops in the cities we don’t have hundreds of potential customers walking past every day, but word of mouth is amazing and the amount of people who go out of their way to make a trip is humbling. We also have more time to get to know our customers and, instead of people rushing to get to work, we can have a chat and catch up with our regulars who have become friends.
‘There are downsides to our location: staffing is a battle. We’ve wanted to expand The Apothecary’s food offering and opening hours into the evening for a long time, but hiring the right people for the role is tricky. Finding individuals who are willing to work full time in hospitality is harder in a rural area. What’s more, it takes time to train someone to craft coffee to our high standards.
‘On a more positive note, it’s been great to see speciality expand from the cities. While we had no one to seek advice from when we were starting out, we’ve recently been able to answer questions and help out new coffee shops opening outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh.’
Jamie Fletcher, Caora Dhubh Coffee Company, Isle of Skye
‘I thought converting the locals to speciality coffee was going to be the biggest challenge,’ laughs Jamie, ‘but it turns out that transporting a three group La Marzocco from Udny to the Isle of Skye in the back of my car was much harder.’
‘When Caora Dhubh opened in 2017 the whole village turned out to support the cafe. The odd person thought I was a chancer for charging £2.50 for a takeaway coffee at first, but I was amazed at how quickly everyone got behind the concept.
‘We’ve got a good crop of regulars now. There are students fresh from uni who are used to the speciality standards of the cities, but there are also some loyal followers like the retired forestry commissioner and local shopkeeper, who swear by the good stuff. Skye is a big island and we’ve even got a couple of guys who travel over an hour from the north for a takeaway.
‘Getting the coffee to the cafe can be a minefield. It’s expensive to transport beans roasted in Edinburgh to Skye quickly. Other factors can also impact the delivery of the beans and we’ve had weekends where we’ve had to close because we don’t have any coffee. There’s no one to service our machine locally either, and if we want to get an engineer out to the island it costs a fortune.
‘But being part of the community far outweighs the niggles. The site for the coffee shop is a locally-managed project so our rent goes straight back into the village. We’ve got great links with other businesses on the island too: some of the local B&Bs and pubs give their guests vouchers for the cafe and a local lady takes our coffee grounds and distributes them to gardeners. You don’t get that sense of community in big cities.’