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An Innovative Group Insight Program from UK Roaster Assembly

Assembly Coffee London

Cupping photo courtesy of Assembly Coffee London.

Throughout day-to-day coffee shop operations, questions such as “How can we, as representatives of a highly specialized segment of the industry, better collectively communicate value to our consumers?” can easily and understandably get lost in favor of more pressing tasks.

London, England-based wholesale roastery Assembly Coffee has taken several such questions upon itself, mobilizing its clients in the coffee service industry to help create a network of coffee professionals for deep insights into consumer perceptions, value communication and numerous other important factors contributing to the collective knowledge base at specialty coffee’s top end.

One specific “Insights” initiative Assembly has created is called “The Learning Curve Project,” where data and anecdotal insights from its retail partners are sifted to create an ongoing series of group insight reports.

The first project involved input from each of Assembly’s café partners throughout each stage in creating an Assembly espresso blend. Partners first came to consensus on four guiding principles for the blend, such as “to preserve the values of independent cafes, the blend must present a sweet and clean cup.” In the next phase, partners participated in a series of cuppings using Assembly’s in-house cupping form, designed specifically to gauge feedback from a potentially wide pool of tasters. The feedback resulted in a blend composed of coffees from three individual estates and mills in Brazil, Colombia and Kenya.

Assembly’s second Learning Curve project explored the concept of “better ways to convey the inherent value of higher quality coffee.” It was a collaboration of at least nine coffee professionals representing nine independent coffee companies, each helping define consumer types in order to create context for perceptions of value.

A third group project, The Colour Project, explored consumer-facing flavor description — particularly, “developing a way to express the attributes which make specific coffees unique, in a format which is accessible for the widest possible audience.”

These reports are augmented in Assembly’s toolbox with individual essays from the company’s coffee leaders on a range of topics of interest to upscale independent cafés, as well as insightful interviews with some people at the forefront of that space.

With additional collaborations forthcoming, we reached out to Assembly’s Michael Cleland for more on the Learning Curve Project, why it came to be and where it may be headed.

What was the impetus for this kind of analysis and outreach? It’s not something you typically see from a coffee roaster.

Well we want to offer something not typically seen from a coffee company but something which is ultimately valuable to the people we are working with.

Analysis and outreach are intrinsic aspects of our approach to wholesale roasting. The inspiration or impetus for that approach, however, came from a market survey of London cafes we undertook last year. We were interested in discovering whether there was something cafes valued which was not typically offered by other roasters.

The result was a coffee company which, while coffee will always come first and there will never be a compromise, is unique in collectively identifying and responding to the evolving needs of independent cafes.

At the end of the day I think we all have the same objective, which is to promote better coffee, so it makes sense to me that we work together to do that. Individually is one thing, but collectively we have more diverse ideas and depth of insight. The idea, very simply, is to identify pertinent issues and respond collectively to create better solutions.

The Learning Curve project is one example of that aspect of the brand. Disparate perceptions of value between guests and industry was identified as a problem and the project was the first stage in responding to that.

How has feedback from retail partners been thus far?

In terms of feedback on the Learning Curve, it has been pivotal in illustrating to people that there is value in working together. In whatever small way we are all more informed in our daily operations because of a something we all contributed to and that is the message we want to convey.

The first project we undertook as a group was creating an espresso blend with the brief of ‘best serving the needs of the industry by referring to our daily interactions as insight.’ Since then we’ve been incrementally moving towards projects which are much more data-led and quantifiable.

Will there be more group-based insights coming from Assembly?

In terms of the group insight side of the company, our role as the roaster is to act as an intermediary that aggregates and redistributes information. One of the reasons I love this industry is for its progression and dynamism, so as long as I am lucky enough to work with people who are committed to moving it forward I anticipate there will always be something to write about.

This is pretty high-minded stuff and I would imagine some others within the industry would shy away from making this kind of conversation public for fear of losing some competitive advantage. What are your thoughts on that?

Our competitive advantage isn’t really that we possess the information we create, it’s that the group does, and it’s the level of input the wholesale partners have into which conversations we’re having in the first place.

Our basic premise is, ‘the more you put into this relationship the more you get out of it.’ Currently, for example, we are working with point-of-sale apps to gather quantitative market data. This is obviously confidential information so in this case the results will be redistributed among those who are participating and not made public.

In your mind, what are currently some of the upscale coffee retail industry’s most pressing challenges?

I think, as in any specialised industry, there is always going to be a disparity (although it may differ from city to city) between the inherent value of something which is created and how that value is perceived by consumers who don’t necessarily have the same level of interest and therefore knowledge. That is certainly a challenge which is compounded by the increased overheads required to create higher quality coffee.

Another pressing challenge I see is the lack of resources we have as individual businesses. Human resource, marketing, public relations, finance departments etc., all exist in chains and are something we have to compete against if we want to encourage consumers to embrace better coffee.

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