James Sweeting’s coffee business began life in a small, weather-beaten backyard shed. Today, he’s one of Britain’s biggest private label manufacturers. By Eamonn Duff
Chances are, you’ve never heard of James Sweeting until now.
It’s highly likely, however, that you’ve tasted his crisps. You’ve almost definitely drank his coffee too. Sweeting was one of three farmers who, in 2004, branched out and launched their own crisp company. Fast forward to March this year and that tasty side project, Pipers Crisps, had conquered 37 countries worldwide and earned the trio a £20 million acquisition deal with food giant Pepsico. But snacks aside, Sweeting’s real labour of love is coffee. As CEO of Lincoln & York, one of the UK’s leading private label coffee manufacturers, he sells the equivalent of 1.5 million cups every day. In an industry dominated by big names, the Lincolnshire based firm flies quietly under the radar, supplying some of Britain’s best known sandwich bar and coffee shop chains. “We’re on every high street in the country,” said Sweeting of a company that achieved revenues of £34.55m in 2018 and is on course to double that by 2023. “It’s incredible when you stop and think how much the industry has developed over the last two decades. We have unwittingly landed ourselves on the biggest coffee boom since probably
the 17th century.”
Behind this highly successful, largely invisible brand lies the sort of enduring friendship and colourful backstory that’s the perfect platform for a feel good British film. Sweeting left school in 1988 and with “no desire whatsoever” to attend university, he hatched a plan to leave behind his native Yorkshire and become a high-flying stockbroker in London. However, as he would later discover when he got there, circumstances had conspired to defeat his dream: he had no contacts in the capital and with the great stock market crash of 1987 having struck the year before, nobody was taking on trainees. Significantly, he’d also realised his maths was “nowhere near good enough”. Then, one day, he chanced upon an advert for a trainee coffee buyer, a taster at Lyons Tetley. “I thought that’s a way into trading, so I applied. I got the job in ’89,” he said.
During a five year stint in that particular role, the fledgling coffee buyer crossed paths with a fellow Northerner and novice coffee seller named Simon Herring. They traded beans, became firm friends and after investing in a modest little coffee roaster, they eventually took a huge leap of faith and branched out with a small business – based in Simon’s weather-beaten garden shed. “That was 25 years ago,” said Sweeting, who added: “When we started out, Costa was a family business – it now has 4,000 sites. Starbucks wasn’t even in the UK and Café Nero didn’t exist.”
He added: “The only espresso coffee you ever found was in a proper family Italian restaurant…which in London there may have been more of, but up here [North Lincolnshire]…there was one Italian restaurant in Scunthorpe, one in Hull and one in Grimsby…that’s the golden triangle,” he chuckled.
Sweeting said that, in those early days, selling coffee seemed harder than pushing water uphill. “My first year with Simon was horrendous,” he said. “I remember thinking, what have I done? I’d given up a great job in London. I’d been reasonably well paid. I’d travelled a lot. And then suddenly, there I was, holding my little bag of samples, stepping into a café in a shopping centre in Hull, trying to explain to this guy what overseas region this coffee was from, what hillside it had grown on, and so on. He just stood there,” laughed Sweeting. “He just stood there and said ‘look mate…just **** off’. And at that moment, I thought, this can’t get any worse. I figured this isn’t going to work.” However, just as the business appeared to be edging towards an inescapable conclusion, hope arrived in the form of a talented young sales girl from Grimsby who could never take no for an answer. “Simon met this girl and she was brilliant at selling. If she couldn’t get in through the door, she’d go in through the window. She was unreal,”
In the months that followed, the trio developed a client base consisting of local shops, hair salons, golf clubs and garages – essentially anyone prepared to buy their coffee. Then came the “brainwave” of extending their footprint. “We realised we were good enough to play on a national level if we wanted to…and that it was a case of going down to London and visiting all the senior decision makers. So that’s exactly what we did. We jumped in the car and we saw people.” As each meeting passed, Sweeting and Herring crafted and fine-tuned the perfect sales pitch: ‘What on earth are you doing roasting yourselves?’ they’d ask.
‘Let us do it. We are going to do it better than you, we’re going to do it cheaper than you – because that’s where our knowledge and expertise is’.
“Gradually,” said Sweeting, “it struck a chord.”
Lincoln & York has enjoyed many milestone moments over the past 25 years but Sweeting still points to one of those initial first London deals, in 1996, as arguably his fondest. “We visited a business that traded in the arches at Vauxhall…two old Italians who ran a coffee and nut business, very well as
it turned out.”
He adds: “We persuaded them to come with us and I remember their first order being faxed through…and that first order took us from losing money to making money. I knew from then on, it was always going to be a viable business.”
Today, Lincoln & York supplies coffee to over 250 customers within the out-of-home market and is behind hundreds of individual blends across Europe. It operates from a 6,000m2 state-of-the-art facility, located between the two home cities it was named after. That base is also currently being redeveloped to include a new visitor centre and ‘coffee tasting experience’, which is due to open early next year. It’s a far cry from the rickety garden shed in which two young coffee nuts started a pop up roastery 25 years ago. With Herring having also been one of the three farmers who spearheaded the Pipers Crisps project, it’s fair to say the two men have enjoyed quite the rollercoaster ride together.
“It’s not easy – you’ve got to give each other space,” said Sweeting of a partnership that’s spanned three decades. “Simon looked after the crisp business for a long time, leaving me to run the coffee business. And I think had we not done that, we probably would have killed each other!”
He added: “It always helps to have two heads. Certainly in those earlier days, we were able to bounce ideas off each other a lot. That was crucial at a time when we really didn’t know much about business.”
Does Sweeting ever reflect on that period 25 years ago, when the business was on the brink of folding. “I don’t – and I’m not sure he [Simon] does either,” he replied. “We were both in a similar boat back then. We were skint, we needed it to work and for me personally, one of my biggest motivations was fear of failure. I think I was more worried about that than anything else. And if I’m completely honest with you, I still am. It’s what drives me every day.”