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Sunday, 23 November 2014

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Costa queen of Cumbria

First impressions can be misleading. Take Kay Berry. The dark jacket suggests a businesswoman – no misunderstanding there.

Costa coffee woman photo
Kay Berry and partner Craig Nelson outside their Costa coffee shop in Penrith

The glossy hair and carefully tailored accessories imply a woman who takes pride in her appearance.

So far so good. But what about her drink?

Kay is sipping from a white china cup which she refills from a pot of Earl Grey tea, with a slice of lemon.

Here’s where things take a surprising turn.

Because the lady who loves tea has just opened her seventh Cumbrian coffee shop.

“I’m not a very good advocate!” she laughs. “I don’t drink coffee, except to product test.”

Not to worry – Cumbrians are slurping plenty of her lattes, cappuccinos and Americanos.

Kay, 44, owns the Costa franchise for Cumbria and North Lancashire.

Last week she opened her ninth branch. They are, in order of opening, Fleetwood, Whitehaven, Workington, Bowness-on-Windermere, Keswick, Ambleside, Morecambe, Barrow and, six days ago, Penrith.

Even in these far-flung towns the UK’s passion for Italian-style coffee is growing.

Last year, British coffee shop sales grew by 10 per cent to £2.1 billion. This is twice the level of 2005.

One recent survey claimed Britons spend an average £15,600 in coffee shops over a lifetime.

The big two chains are Starbucks and Costa.

Costa has almost twice as many UK outlets as its rival: nearly 1,400 compared with about 750.

While large parts of our economy struggle, coffee shops are thriving.

The takeaway coffee has become part of the national uniform, clasped in its cardboard carrier and slurped by a workforce seeking a pre-office boost.

Then there’s the casual consumption: the coffee shop gathering of friends who might once have met in a pub, now chatting over coffee and newspapers. (But please return them to the rack before you leave.)

“There’s a definite change of culture,” says Kay. “In Europe you’ll see pavement cafés where people can do a bit of people watching. The weather here makes that difficult.

“But there’s still a switch to drinking coffee out of the home and making it more of a social event.”

Kay’s first job was in sales and marketing at Sainsbury’s. She then worked as a manager in the Civil Service, in Carlisle and London.

Seven years ago she applied to become a Costa franchise holder.

“I just got to the point where I wanted to do something different, to be in charge of my own destiny. I’d always wanted to do something along the restaurant or catering line.”

Kay approached Costa with a proposal for which towns she felt could accommodate a branch and how she would make it work.

She admits she knew nothing about the coffee trade. But Kay was confident that her business experience could transfer to the world of caffeine-based beverages.

Her first branch was Fleetwood in October 2005. This was just a few miles from the town she grew up, Blackpool.

Two months later Kay opened branches in Whitehaven and Workington.

“It was manic,” she recalls. “In the early days there was a lot of learning. There are things we could probably have done better when we look back now.

“We’ve just opened in Penrith and that was so smooth and organised.”

About one-third of Costa branches, including Kay’s, are run by ‘franchise partners’ rather than by the company itself.

These branches tend to be in towns rather than cities.

Costa takes a fee from its partners. Kay won’t reveal any figures but she insists it’s a fair deal.

A major strength of coffee shop chains such as Costa and Starbucks is what some people might regard as a weakness.

There are no surprises. From Inverness to Penzance, the products and the tastes are exactly the same.

“It’s all about consistency,” says Kay. “It’s a national business and it has a brand standard for service, cleanliness, quality of the coffee. It’s very much about adhering to that standard.”

The products and the recipes are dictated by Costa but Kay says: “We’re not just a corporate entity.

“We’re a family business.

“I run this with my partner Craig Nelson.

“We adapt to our environment.

“A lot of stores have youth groups and church groups meeting in them. The staff know the customers’ names and their favourite product.”

Even so, the rise of chains worries those who fear for independent coffee shops.

Chains have 5,000 shops in the UK. There are 6,000 independents.

Kay says Whitehaven is an example of how the two can live in harmony.

“There are a lot of independent coffee shops alongside us in Whitehaven.

“We offer something very specific.

“If you want to have a full cooked lunch you’re not going to come to Costa.

“We sit alongside them and offer something complementary.

“And Costa’s gone a long way to raising the quality of coffee. There’s a real art.”

Some critics of chains have criticised their Americanisation of British culture.

This applies particularly to Starbucks, where ordering a cup of coffee can involve the kind of inquisition usually reserved for a courtroom witness box.

How big?

What kind of milk?

What’s your mother-in-law’s shoe size?

Now UK Starbucks’ branches are following the US policy of asking customers their name.

This attempt to be intimate strikes many people as being deeply impersonal.

Kay is reluctant to be drawn on comparisons between Costa and Starbucks. But she makes a face and says she can’t imagine the “What’s your name?” policy being warmly received on her patch.

The patch may expand further.

“I’ve got my eye on Ulverston. Beyond that, we’ll see.

“I spend a lot of time in the car as it is. Ten would be a nice round number.”

She now has more than 100 staff, which brings good points and challenges. That’s a lot of people coming to you with problems, for which Kay says a good sense of humour can be useful.

More branches allows more opportunity for promotion.

She’s proud to say that two staff who have just become branch managers started on the bottom rung.

The company she formed for the Costa franchise is called Purple World.

Purple is the Costa brand’s colour.

Kay describes it as “a very positive colour” and says a positive approach is essential to running a business.

“If you keep going, eventually it will come right.”

That seems to be the case in and out of work.

Kay lives at Wetheral with Craig, a Purple World director. He also has a business trimming cows’ feet for farmers.

Kay’s son Henry is about to sit GCSEs.

His mother relaxes, in breaks from her 70-hour working week, by walking her black labrador Treacle.

And by sitting quietly with a refreshing, and surprising, cup of tea.

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