Quality coffee that soon caught on

When you find out why Jeremy Torz abandoned a good career as an optician to go and work in a coffee shop, you might remark – as his bank manager did – that he was insane.

When 44 year-old Nottingham-bred Jeremy Torz tells you why he abandoned a good career as an optician to go and work in a coffee shop, you might remark as his bank manager did that he was insane.

In 1992, living in San Francisco with his partner, Stephen Macatonia, the pair "discovered this fantastic coffee shop where we were blown away by the coffee". In Peet's you could find "senior Apple executives mingling with builders, airline pilots and Baptist ministers", all drawn by "the coffee's depth of flavour, clarity and richness". Convinced it could catch on in the UK, Torz "walked in and applied for a job on the counters" and set about learning all about the trade.

Rather than open a caf, though, the duo decided to go into the wholesale side. Returning to the UK in 1994, they sold their homes and cars, moved back in with their parents, and bought a large, wooden shack near Epping Forest, which they kitted out with a £20,000 coffee roasting machine.

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They then sourced beans from brokers in Hamburg and Rotterdam after one London importer told them there wasn't enough demand for specialty coffee' in the UK. Roasting then packing the beans for delivery, Torz recalls it was nothing but "blood, sweat and tears" for six months, "roasting coffee from five in the morning till ten at night, packing until two o'clock in the morning, then going back out at six to make deliveries".

Torz targeted high-end customers he would call them from the shed and say: "We're doing something different and we'd like to come and see you". His approach "I'm not a salesman but I'm nuts about my coffee" won over clients from the River Caf to Harvey Nichols.

But their big break came in March 1995 when the Seattle Coffee Company opened in Covent Garden. An American couple, Ally and Scott Svenson, wanted to bring the West coast American coffee experience to Britain. Torz loved their idea but hated their coffee. "It was terrible. They were using one of the Italian multinational brands. We said, hey, you're going about this all wrong'. And they said, if you think you know what we should be doing then give us a sample'."

Torz did, and soon he and his partner became the store's core supplier. Within 18 months Seattle had opened 35 stores, and Torz and Macatonia had a £1m turnover. In mid-1997 they merged with Seattle, but just a year later, Starbucks came to the UK and bought the group out. Torz and Macatonia's share of the £50m Starbucks buyout enabled them to take time off to think about what to do next. "When all you've known is 24/7 adrenalin, you just collapse."

Which is exactly what they did for three months, until the smell of coffee was, once again, too strong to resist. The two now head a new business, Union Hand Roasted, which turns over £3m a year and sources coffee straight from farmers in countries from Guatemala to Kenya.

Buying direct means they can guarantee a better price for the producer, whilst also ensuring quality. "We want to stimulate people to make good coffee. If you want something good from people, you treat them with respect and dignity. We want that to be the model of the buying relationship."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.