The Big Interview: Caravan
Caravan is a restaurant, bar and coffee roastery business founded by three New Zealanders in 2010 to deliver a "well-travelled" food experience in an all-day-dining restaurant / café concept in London.
Fast-forward eight years and the Caravan Company comprises of Caravan Restaurants with four, soon-to-be five, premises and Caravan Coffee Roasters, which sources, roasts and supplies speciality coffee to the wholesale market. Add to this the imminent opening of the Caravan flagship at the Lamb Works – a 8,500sq ft Victorian warehouse (currently being extensively redeveloped) in North Road Islington – which will create a hub, to bring together a café, roastery, coffee school, bakery, staff space, quality control and head offices for both the restaurant and roastery businesses, and there’s no doubt that Caravan is on a roll in 2018.
"In 2010 we launched what was a bona fide restaurant coupled with coffee roasting, offering something that was very unique. Even today there is no-one doing exactly what we’re doing – a restaurant and coffee roasting all under one roof – offering what is a very fluid and flexible all-day dining space, where we can take control of the coffee side of the business as well as the whole customer experience," explains co-founder and creative director Laura Harper-Hinton.
With her two other co-founders, Chris Ammerman commercial director and Miles Kirby chef-director, the three have successful steered Caravan into a new and exciting next stage of the business.
There has been a natural progression to the growth at Caravan: from their first restaurant and roasting site in Exmouth Market, which was initially set-up to provide their own coffee but soon began receiving orders for wholesale sales, which then led them into the 2012 opening of Caravan Kings Cross, a 5,000sq ft site in an old granary building.
"Kings Cross allowed us to break down the boundaries of speciality coffee," explains Laura. "Back then, speciality coffee had gone off-piste and was heading down an inaccessible route, with a bit of snobbery thrown in and far too much technical language. At Caravan we’ve always tried to talk about quality and provenance, with the customer experience being the cornerstone and at the forefront of what we do – making coffee accessible in a friendly way, without being prescriptive about what people should drink. Kings Cross allowed us to have that dialogue."
If Kings Cross increased Caravan’s dialogue, the Lamb Works (originally home to the Metropolitan Cattle Market from 1855-1939) is set to become a conversational theatre, where every aspect of Caravan’s offering can be discovered, interacted with and enjoyed.
With 2018 set to be such a busy and exciting year, it was no surprise to learn that the founders brought on board some external help last year, Active Partners, which has put in development funding alongside some strategic support. "We self-funded everything until March 2017, when we recognised that taking on such big, new projects we needed to streamline our risk, so we took on Active Partners as a minority shareholder. They’ve been fantastic, putting in development funding to allow us to open Great Portland Street and our new roastery. Having an investor/director has also given us a great sounding board and a fresh set of eyes on the business."
The Lamb Works with its two huge roasters onsite – including the US-manufactured Loring roaster, which Laura describes as "incredible" for its eco-friendliness and high efficiencies and their more usual Probat – will also include a drinks R&D area. They already produce homemade sodas and ferments, including kombucha and ginger beer, and have plans to add their own kaffir. While a bakery onsite will produce sour dough bread, alongside a croissanterie. Upstairs there will be a staff 'break out' room, for training, fun days and events – complete with beer and cold press on tap for them to enjoy.
They are, as Laura puts it, upping the ante when it comes to staff. "We like to think we’re pretty good on succession planning and team development, but it's a challenge to find good people. Staff should always be at the top of your business plan because they’re the most important thing. We’re not in a position to be a huge payer, but we can be extremely competitive and creating a really nice work place where they have a sense of individuality is key. Someone might start here as a runner but may end up as a manager."
The coffee school will be a training facility for existing staff, and also for consumers and wholesale customers, who will be able to join workshops being launched towards the end of the year.
Along with its two new sites in London, the Lamb Works and a Caravan Restaurant in Great Portland Street, Caravan is also looking at potential international opportunities in New York, LA and Asia. "We’re not about to launch on a programme of aggressive expansion, it’s not what we’re about, but we are keeping an open mind on where to open in the future," says Laura.
She concludes: "We are focused on maintaining high standards across the board. Fantastic customer service, a great product and service always with a smile. That’s what success will look like for us in 2018."