It is clear that the “Friends” style of drinking large mugs of tasteless milky coffee drinks in spacious lounges is passé. For one thing, the business model does not stack up. How can one person on a sofa, tapping away for 30 mins at a laptop, and spending perhaps only £3 justify that kind of high street floor space? And indeed, in recent years Starbucks has been struggling to maintain market share.
Ben Townsend’s model at the Espresso Room in Bloomsbury is the complete opposite. His premises is on Great Ormond St, just over the road from the hospital, and is tiny. But not too small for surgeons, sick children’s parents and local working people not to be able to cram in and have some craik. Whenever I go, I always meet some one interesting. Once it was the internationally acclaimed Gandini brothers who were putting on a free show in the children’s wards. The matiness with the utterly charming staff is all part of the experience.
The coffee, roasted by Square Mile, is probably the best in London and the reason why so many coffee afficionados make a special journey there. Ben is more than serious about the product, but also more wordly than most coffee geeks. The simple but carefully made counter fittings and seating reflect a spell in furniture making and with the Conran Shop. He then spent a period of time soaking up the Melbourne coffee scene, and on returning to the UK joined up with the London School of Coffee, the founders of which have been pivotal in establishing the independent coffee scene in London. Ben’s skill in training aspiring baristas there shows in the expertise of his own staff, all of whom deliver up the same immaculate product time after time.
The attention to detail extends to the other items on offer. The hand cut sandwiches bulging with fillings such as beef properly rare-roasted, come from Browns of Brockley. And David Pippin of Fynch makes the cakes and patisserie to complement coffee, with carefully thought up flavour combinations such as muscavado and mandarin, or rosehip and chestnut. The teas are from Tim d’Offay’s unbeatable Postcard Teas
And the future? Like all successful entrepreneurs, Ben wants to grow. He knows he has something unique, and a variety of thoughts and inspirations will direct the next move. He has recently returned from Japan, where presentation and ceremony is key. He is thinking along the lines of including coffee in broader sensory experiences, such as cocktails and perfumes.
But for now you can also find the Espresso Room popping up in enlightened venues, such as the Beauty in the Making exhibition in the Victoria House basement in Holborn this week.
The Espresso Room
31-35 Great Ormond Street
London WC1N 3HZ
Opening times: Mon – Fri 7.30 am – 5.00pm