Interview with Flat Caps Coffee’s Joe Meagher

With Newcastle’s independent coffee shop scene growing to exciting new heights, the city has seen a fantastic rise in successful speciality coffee shop start-ups. We caught up with Flat Caps Coffee founder Joe Meagher to find out a bit more on this lucrative industry within the city, and his experiences as one of these successful coffee shop start-ups.

How did Flat Caps Coffee first start out, and what was the inspiration behind the start-up? 

“It started after I was made redundant from working in a bank. Before I was actually made redundant I decided I was going to leave anyway and start my own business. The idea of the coffee shop came from simple things like the hours of running it, I knew I’d be doing it on my own so I didn’t want to open up a bar or a restaurant, that wouldn’t have really worked. Hospitality has always something I’ve been really interested in, so I settled on coffee shop, and after a bit of research and a bit training through Pumphreys Coffee Company, I found out there wasn’t any speciality coffee places in Newcastle. I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, but I decided well if there isn’t any doing that type of thing that’s what I should be doing. I found a little space and just started. I initially sold coffee and cakes which just progressed to food, and that’s how it all started.”

Have you always been interested in the speciality coffee scene?

“The business came first, I liked coffee before but my idea of a good coffee was a chain like Starbucks or Costa, whereas obviously things have progressed since then. After opening and selling really good coffee customers wanted to know more about it so I decided to learn more, then that kind of fed my interest in it. I started entering competitions and there was a lot of pressure to get things right with those, after the initial interest coffee it then became more of an obsession.”

How has your business grown since its opening in 2010?

“Slowly to start with, the location was really difficult, it was inside another shop underground. Once people started to find out I was there, then I had a solid base of customers that came in quite a lot. But I realised that I couldn’t really do that forever, it was quite a difficult environment to work in. I found I was sometimes quite irritable, I wasn’t quite happy, couldn’t take any holidays, couldn’t take any time off without closing the business. I knew from quite early on that the job of this small shop was to get a reputation, to get a name for myself as a business, and use that to get investment to open up a bigger place that would allow for staff and more freedom to run the business how I wanted to. This eventually came in the form of crowd funding, after six years of working in that small shop I did a crowd funding campaign. We raised just over £25,000, then opened up this much larger space, and haven’t looked back really!”

What makes Flat Caps Coffee different from the other independent cafes in Newcastle?

“Our two main focuses are customer service (first), followed very closely by quality. I think if you don’t have the customer service side of things the quality doesn’t really matter. The only times I’ve ever really had someone complain about the quality is when they’ve been disgruntled by something else first. This can be a number of things but usually it’s customer service. So if you get customer service right first, it actually solves a lot of problems and actually makes you a bit different from the other coffee shops in Newcastle. The one thing I’ve noticed, not just in Newcastle but in coffee in general, is that for a long time customer service was second place after coffee, and if you didn’t know about coffee you weren’t really welcome. Thankfully this is changing now.”

What are some of the main challenges you have faced whilst creating your own business?

“Getting the balances right, especially with start-ups in general it’s really hard not to overwork, and there’s a lot of incentive to do all the work yourself because you’re the most passionate about it. However, the negative effects if you don’t get that balance right can be the end of your business. Getting that balance of relinquishing a bit of control, allowing other people to do what they think is right to deliver a quality of product, and having a bit of time off while the business still runs around it – that was really hard. You need to get that balance right and that’s one thing I really struggled with, especially financially; we’re really busy now, but even still we have to get everything exactly right, otherwise at the end of the month you’re struggling to pay everything. You have to get the staff wages right, have to get how much you’re spending on the product right, how much you’re charging for it etc. It’s that juggling act of getting the balance correct, that’s the trick. Once you get your systems in place to get all of those things right, life becomes a lot easier.”

What future plans do you have for Flat Caps Coffee?

“It’s something I think about a lot. The question you get asked a lot is ‘when are you going to be opening up another one?’ I’m not sure that I’ll do that, but at the same time I’m always open to opportunities. What I’d prefer to focus on is possibly looking into other businesses in the hospitality sector within Newcastle.”