Out shopping at the weekend in Chester and need a coffee stop? Soundsphere talk to Mark Higgins, owner of Hopper Coffee in Chester about his passion for coffee and what’s on his work playlist.
S] How did you get into the hospitality industry?
M] I started filling fridges and collecting glasses at 15 in a local nightclub (which is now a bar and restaurant), and I’ve just worked in the hospitality industry since then. From working as a bar supervisor to working in pubs, I then went away to Australia and New Zealand to work for about 18 months. When I came back and went into the pub trade, I realised I wanted to start up something of my own, so it took me about 15 and a half years.
S] How helpful did you find the transition from working in large bars to running your own coffee shop?
M] I found it really helpful, people often go on about independent versus chain within the food industry, but working within chains you get a high level of access to back of house runnings. You learn about keeping wages in hand, keeping cost down, ordering stock, stock takes, managing at that level, so when you take that to independent places and you put the two together, it’s not a huge shock. It’s more of the ‘behind the behind the scenes’, so when you’re looking at things like company registration, taxes, VAT that’s the bit that’s a bit more intense.
S] Where has your passion from coffee come from?
M] With the food industry coffee is always there, it’s in bars and restaurants but it’s mostly forgotten. I think in the UK it’s coming back strong, through more independent and high street coffee shops, but particularly in Australia and New Zealand the focus there is not just on coffee but there’s a focus on all foods. So if you want a pizza you got to a pizza place, you want a burger you go to a burger place, and that’s the same with coffee shops. What they do is they focus in on it and make it the best they can possibly make it. I think we are slowly getting there, if you look at Chester, you’ve got a lot of independent places like pizza restaurants, so they’re the kind of focused operations that I think work really well.
S] How did your early career prepare you for running your own business?
M] I think it changes the way you focus your day, you’ve got to be proper organised. But in other ways it takes the stress off, you know what your consistency will be as you’re checking every level of quality control which you’re in charge of. It limits your days off, I get one day off a week, I take my Sundays and holidays are far and few between. Again because it is just me, I know all the people, I know my regulars really well. It does put a personal side back into it.
S] Can you tell me the best things about having this place? What are some of the day-to-day challenges of running a business?
M] I think the best part of it is especially with a city like Chester, it’s big enough to have stuff going on, but it’s small enough to find out about it. So the coffee shop is a perfect place to find out what’s going on, you meet people that are doing things and pushing things forward. You hear about new projects, we have new magazines, the new Storyhouse is opening, you always know what’s going on and you can get involved. People are attracted to that, so everybody ends up in coffee shops and bars, and they talk about what’s going on and they help each other.
The hardest thing as far as business is concerned, is anywhere, not just in Chester, commercial property costs money, and we’ve found somewhere affordable but it’s not on the main street. Again, because I’m on my own I have to arrange the social media and advertising, that’s another thing you’ve really got to focus on. Getting yourself known is the hard part.
S] What are the best things about Chester for you?
M] I think the best thing is the people in it. I think the average age seems to be going down, we’ve got a lot more students in, we draw live music and we use the facilities that are around. I think that we’re almost coming out of a bit of a nostalgic focus on the things that were, and now we’re looking at the things that can be and the possibilities around the city. The new Storyhouse is great and I think what’s going on at the Live Rooms and music events like Chester Live and Brook Street Festival is really good. I think it’s almost like an anti-historical timeline, there’s things in Chester that need to be protected and there’s things that need to be pushed forward. There’s a new magazine Tortoise out and the quality of it is unbelievable, it’s by young people, photographers, writers, artists and musicians. It’s there and when it’s all brought together and showcased then that’s when Chester really shows off.
S] What is some of your favourite music?
M] Music does affect the way you work, so for me, I’ve got a few playlists that I fall back on. One of them is that golden Manchester era, kind of late 80s/early 90s, Stone Roses, New Order, The Smiths, that kind of time when Manchester was dominating music. A lot of the late 60s/early 70s stuff is great for the coffee shop, but I always think if I had to listen to anything for the rest of my life it would be the first Stone Roses album.
Interview: Dom Smith | Transcription: Tori Erskine