Harris and Hoole
With a brand new coffee shop now open in Guildford, the owners of Harris + Hoole defend their decision to collaborate with Tesco, writes Catherine Whyte
You’d have to be a total recluse not to have read the brew-ha-ha (sorry) earlier this year, surrounding Tesco’s backing of a new national chain of specialist coffee houses, Harris + Hoole.
Dissent gobbled up column inches and comment threads, all centred around the claim that H+H – which opened a shop in Guildford on July 5 – is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, representing the latest, unwanted incursion by the gargantuan chain into the high street. And, for that matter, into our wallets too.
However, in Richmond, where the Tolley family, the brothers-and-sister team behind H+H, has been serving superior coffee since they opened their first shop back in 2005, coffee lovers may feel differently.
It’s in the Richmond branch of Taylor Street Baristas that I catch up with Laura Tolley, one pillar of the Tolley triumvirate, to talk about the recent furore. Laura, who lives in Kew, handles the creative side of the nine Taylor St stores, while Nick handles the business end and Andrew is the coffee geek. The familial blend works well.
“We’d entertained the thought of doing a larger chain,” she says. “Nick knew someone with a contact high up in Tesco. We refused to let them buy Taylor St, as it’s unscalable, but we loved the idea of starting something new.”
Given the widespread disquiet surrounding multinationals, wasn’t it an unfortunate time to partner up with Tesco?
“We always knew that there was going to be a backlash, so we were open about Tesco’s involvement right from the start,” says a phlegmatic Laura.
Not that this candour could prevent a stream of critical articles in the national press.
“I was surprised that all the papers just jumped on the bandwagon and didn’t even try to develop the story at all. No one cottoned on to the fact that we’d be bringing a better quality product to the high street.
“At the end of the day, we just want to get people who like coffee.
“Tesco has nothing to do with the running of H+H. It just provides the money [Tesco owns 49% of the shares, the Tolleys 51%].We are the ones who decide what goes into the cafes and choose the layout and design. We are the ones who do the training.”
And what does she say to the criticism that H+H’s community feel is a sham, manufactured by some high-profile branding company?
“I was there for the whole branding process,” insists Laura. “We’d come up with a whole bunch of ideas and these guys came up with the name Harris + Hoole. We just thought: ‘Yeah, that’s really great.’
“To be honest, it’s wonderful to have the money to spend on a really great branding company. But we set out our terms right from the beginning and we’ve been able to stick to them. It’s really important to us that the H+H branches retain a community feel. We don’t want them to be clones like Starbucks.”
Indeed, the Twickenham branch is graced by some lovely old 1930s tiles – hidden from view by the previous occupants.
Leaving the Tesco debacle to one side for a moment, the other major battleground is the coffee itself. This is the main area in which H+H aims to outflank its high street rivals.
Needless to say, the Tolleys are passionate about their coffee. Hailing from Australia, after all, they are familiar with a far more elevated coffee culture than us Brits.
And there’s no doubting the quality of Taylor St’s coffee. The barista training programme runs over a period of six months and is, according to Laura – although I cannot substantiate the claim – one of the best training programmes in the world.
Certainly the coffee I’ve had at H+H has been faultless. But I worry that, as H+H expands across the country, it won’t be able to maintain those standards.
“Yes. It’s a concern, certainly,” concedes Laura. “So we’ve created a four-day training programme that’s more diluted than the one at Taylor St, but still rigorous, and which concentrates solely on coffee.
“Other chains spend a fraction of that time on their training.”
But what about the impact of chains in general upon independents? As a family business themselves, do the creators of Taylor St not regard H+H as representing a conflict of interest?
“Quite frankly, raising the standard of coffee on the high street is going to be good for independents in the long run,” says Laura.
“Tesco’s involvement really doesn’t worry us at all. When people begin to value their coffee, and understand that there is a difference between good coffee and bad, they are much more likely to go and actively search out the best.”