Big Interview: Bear could be set for global expansion with Jack Wills

Big Interview: Bear could be set for global expansion with Jack Wills

Bear, the Midlands-based three-strong coffee chain, is set to open more venues at flagship UK sites and potentially internationally with fashion giant Jack Wills, following the opening of its first site in Soho, London in early spring 2019.

The partnership will see the London site open within 130 sq m of the Jack Wills Carnaby Street site with 30-covers split evenly between the ground floor and a comfortable seating area in the basement. As well as serving coffee and cocktails it will serve fresh pastries and cakes and open from 7.30am to around 9pm.

The partnership marks a shift for the three-strong operator that started as an idea in 2014 following what co-founder Craig Bunting called a “coffee and a conversation”. It was this conversation with school friend Michael Thorley that saw the idea of Bear come to life.

“Lots of things in my life have started with me and Michael having a conversation. I have always been the dreamer while Michael has been the go to guy if I want to do something,” says Bunting.

While neither of the founders have a background in hospitality, they have what Bunting calls "life experience". Thorley has travelled the world while in the marines while Bunting brought with him a strong marketing background after taking music management at University and learning about product and branding in various job roles. There were also stints of travelling for Bunting and a career in a rock band that was featured in Kerrang, met with EMI records and even had the same PR as Aerosmith. But as Bunting reveals: “like most bands it fell through” and the coffee buzz was calling to him.

“That is when I picked up on the coffee culture and the product of coffee had the same effect that playing in bands had,” he said.

“To me starting a coffee shop to me was a bit like starting a band.”

It was 18 months later that the pair opened their first site in Uttoxeter with the slogan 'not another coffee shop’ and Bunting says it was the start of a “massive adventure.”

“When I look at the date it seems ages before we opened. But that 18 months was the crucial part that differentiates us,” he says.

“We spent the time thinking what are we? What do we want to do? and what is the industry. We spent time training ourselves for a year making coffee, wasting coffee, understanding what coffee is and where it comes from.”

Six months after opening the first Uttoxeter site, Chris Price came on board as director and its first investor. His financial background working for large companies such as Claire’s Accessories, MG Rover, Goodyear and a stint in private equity, allowed the pair to take a step back from the business to focus on strategy.

“You don’t want to get to 10 sites and realise your whole operation is flawed and you have to make a whole lot of changes,” Bunting says.

It was a chance visit at its newly opened its second Coffee, Kitchen & Bar in Derby in December 2017 that brought Bear and Jack Wills together.

Jack Wills was opening a new site in the same area and Neil Beaman, the global property director, came in for a coffee. He noticed the Derby site was up for a design award and spotted the name of the designers Turnerbates, which he had also used and an introduction followed.

According to Bunting, Jack Wills were, at the time, working on the idea that coffee is the new “Rock and Roll”.

“They wanted to do something in their flagship stores in the UK and globally with coffee to create a better in-store experience,” he says.

"They wanted to work with a coffee brand which takes itself seriously and had the ability to scale and operate with a global brand.”

It took year of conversations about the concept before the deal was struck for Bear in the Jack Wills flagship Soho site.

While the site is set to open in early spring, Bunting hopes this is the “first of many.”

“We are still looking at a number of sites with them,” he confirms. "Then there is the wider conversation about globally and what does that look like." 

“There is a clear correlation between Bear and Jack Wills in terms of style and vision, and the diverse customer range that Jack Wills attracts reflects our own audience. We believe that our brands align perfectly - creating memorable in-store experiences lies at the heart of our collective core values.”

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