Today we are in beautiful Aberdeen, Scotland chatting with Ian Cukrowski, the owner of successful MacBeans roastery and specialty store. Enjoy our interview with him below:
V. Please tell us, how does the independent coffee scene and feel in Scotland differ from that of Seattle, for example?
C. From what I saw on my trip to the SSCA this year I would say main difference between independent coffee shops in Scotland and Seattle and Vancouver is that we are still not offering as many single origins and we have yet to embrace the ‘Chemex’ hand filter method. Most still use espresso based coffee.
V. I hear you have a wonderful story about your path to coffee. Let’s hear it!
C. I was born in Dunfermline, Fife (birthplace of Andrew Carnegie!) in a predominately tea drinking home where coffee was hardly ever drunk and if ever so, it would be the instant variety. However, as a child I do remember being taken to an Italian owned cafe in town where I was fascinated by the noise and smell coming from their Espresso machine. I moved to Dundee in 1976 to study Biology, and it was there that I first discovered the “Braithwaites,” a very old family run coffee roasting store which also sold high grades of loose tea leaves. Visiting this shop to take home tea for my parents became a regular occurrence. Little did I know 20 years later this was to be my inspiration to start MacBeans. After college I moved to Aberdeen to work as a Laboratory technician for the local authority. Four years later I moved into the Oil industry where I started to work on the North Sea oil platforms. It was while working on a platform off the coast that I started to drink coffee, as the Dutch “don’t do tea!” The last job I had with the oil industry was working on the Occidental owned Piper Alpha platform. For two years I worked there on a 2 week on/2 week off rotation as a ‘Production Chemist’ carrying out analysis of the Oil, Gas and water.
It was on the 6th July 1988 and whilst I was on my 2 weeks at home the platform exploded, killing 167 of the 228 men, including Alan Miller, my “Back to Back” (the guy who did my job when I was at home). This was the moment that changed my life forever! I kept working in the oil industry for a few months as the bills still needed paying, but I knew I had to get out. One day approximately 2 months after the explosion I was travelling back to Aberdeen by train after visiting my parents in Dunfermline. I stopped off at Dundee to visit “Braithwaites” to buy some tea & coffee. I then caught the next train to Aberdeen. 5 mins out of Dundee, as the train was in a tunnel, a light went on in my head! Why couldn’t I buy this quality of tea & coffee in Aberdeen? Maybe this could be my way out of the oil business. On my return to Aberdeen I told this story to Colin Millum, a good friend, who after some thought and a “few drinks” while we celebrated the New Year of 1989, announced that he wanted to join me in this venture and so the MacBeans story was born.
It took us 5 months to come up with the name and learn more about the business we planned to enter. We bought a small 3lb roaster & some beans to practice roasting on which we then sold from a small stall at Highland Games shows throughout the summer. We found a small unit to rent, then using reclaimed wood from an old theatre we opened our first store at 3 Little Belmont Street on Thursday 13th, October 1989. After a poor trading first year, our accountant suggested that he thought the business wasn’t going to survive and we should get out before incurring further debts. I disagreed, and after coming to an agreement I bought Colin’s share out and have been sole owner since. Colin and I are still friends, but without his enthusiasm and talents I could never have started, so he will always be part of the story.
V. Your store building is beautiful. What is its story and why is it special to you and your customers?
C. After 5 years trading in the original store, the building almost directly across the street came up for sale. Feeling I was limited with the small unit and with business steadily growing, I decided that rather than commit to another 5 year rental agreement I would sell my home and sink everything into buying 2 Little Belmont Street. The building is one of the oldest in Aberdeen. It is a granite built, 3 stories C – listed town house dating from 1787. The exterior perfectly suits the ‘old style’ of the interior. Selling my home made me homeless and with the top 2 floors unsuitable for business use, I stripped everything out and built a small apartment for myself to live in. I now rent this part of the building out.
V. Please tell us what difficulties you faced when creating your business and what tips you could give to those just starting now?
C. Like most businesses the biggest difficulty I faced in the beginning was cash flow. One should never underestimate how hard this can be. Whatever your initial projections are, cut them by at least 50%. Also, enthusiasm is essential for any new start, but don’t allow it to get in the way of realism. Do your homework and check your market, always expect the unexpected, be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, reduce any loans as quickly as possible and don’t spend the profits on yourself until you have enough. Get to know your customers and keep smiling.
V. Do you roast inside the store? What kind of roaster do you have? Please tell us how you got into roasting and if it was hard for you to pick up.
C. Currently we have a 5kg Joper (made in Portugal) that I bought new in 2010. It has 2 exhausts, which means I can roast and cool at the same time. The roaster is situated in the basement of the shop and operates 6 days a week. Average production is in the region of 100kgs/ day (220lbs). I could really do with a larger roaster but due to height limit the 5kg is all that can fit in the store. My first roaster was 3lb “TrenTate” open flame roaster (good for fires!), which I initially operated in my garage prior to the shop opening. Having had other industry experience in ‘processes’ I took to roasting very easily as this was just another ‘process’ for me to learn.
V. What makes you unique compared to other similar roasters in the area and others?
C. Macbeans are the only coffee roasters in Aberdeen, but our uniqueness doesn’t stop there. Scotland isn’t exactly overrun with independent coffee roasters, there are probably only around about 12. What makes us unique amongst them is the amount of origins I have personally visited. So far I have been to Kenya, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brasil and Sumatra as well as the Swiss Water Process plant in Vancouver. Our customers love to hear about my experiences in these countries and to actually buy coffee from plantations and areas I have visited.
Another thing that makes us unique is the range we sell – not only our own blends and single origins, but different varietals from the same origin. This is where having a small roaster is really beneficial as all the coffee we stock never gets a chance to go stale.
V. According to an article I have read elsewhere, you don’t want to open up a cafe. Why is it a good idea for a roaster not to be involved in it?
C. MacBeans supply quite a number of local independent shops with their coffee beans. The nearest three are situated less than a 2-minute walk away from our store. For an easier life, I think it’s preferable to stick to what you do best and try and not step on your customers’ toes! Initially we wanted to have a cafe, but the local authority-planning department rejected our plans. If it hadn’t been, we would have beaten Starbucks into this market in Aberdeen but it was, so we brushed ourselves down and took a different business path.
V. What is in the future for MacBeans?
C. There is no doubt in my mind that after 25 years of continued growth and with a great reputation, MacBeans could easily move onto a bigger market. Perhaps there’s is an investor out there somewhere who might come along and achieve this, with or without my help, but in the meantime I’m happy enough to keep going as we are – small and friendly.
V. Finally, is there something else you would like to add, to be shared with our coffee community?
C. Having experienced other industries I love being in the coffee business. From the growers to the drinkers it is full of the friendliest and most committed people anyone could wish to meet. Everyone I have met in the industry has such an immense pride in what they do in connection with this little amazing bean.
In the last 25 years in the pursuit of coffee I have travelled more than I ever thought I would, and in doing so I have also had truly awesome experiences: A hot air balloon trip across the Masai Mara at dawn in Kenya, a Formula 1 race in Brasil, Scuba diving in Colombia, seeing wild Orangutan in Sumatra, and Deep sea fishing in Costa Rica. I have been humbled by the generosity of some of the poorest communities in the world. I have been treated as an equal and entertained by some of the biggest names in the industry. I am so proud to see how this industry has grown in the time I have been associated with it and how words like sustainable, ethical and fully traceable are now synonymous with the coffee industry. Thanks to coffee, I now have friends all over the world with whom I have laughed so much and so wish I could do so again ..
Money might make the world go round, but it’s coffee that really brings it together.
[iconbox title=”MacBeans” icon=”adress_book.png”]
2 Little Belmonst St, Aberdeen, Scotland, AB10 1JG
+44 1224 624757