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Hard Pressed

We speak to Pete Southern of Clockwork Espresso to discuss the business end of the humble coffee tamper

Interview by Thomas SUMNER

How’s the coffee scene developing in the North East? Who do we need to check out? 
It’s really taking off, which is great to see. The obvious one to mention is Flat Caps Coffee, run by Joe Meagher – one of the first names to serve really excellent coffee in Newcastle. BLK Coffee in Heaton is fantastic, and there are lots of other places popping up all over the North East – Holmeside Coffee in Sunderland, and my favourite brunch spot was Flat White Kitchen in Durham, although they’ve just opened a new location at Whitechurch which is also excellent. 

Tell us about PUSH. 
PUSH is the world’s most precise coffee tamper. Coffee Tampers are used for compressing coffee grounds before brewing espresso in an espresso machine. Most of them are essentially a disc of metal on a stick, meaning the user has to be very careful to compress the grounds sufficiently, while also keeping the bed perfectly even and level. This is a difficult skill to master, and even the most experienced baristas often make mistakes. PUSH guarantees a perfectly level and consistent tamp for any user, while also significantly reducing the risk of injury to baristas. I started working in coffee in Melbourne in 2009. When I came back to the UK I bought a mobile coffee trailer at an auction, and ran it while at University and then for several years afterwards. After university I went to work for a company which made some very innovative DNA testing machines. While working there, I convinced the boss to buy a commercial espresso machine for the office and then found myself training my colleagues on how to use it. This was quite difficult, because while they were all highly intelligent, they had no desire to put in the level of practice required to be able to consistently make excellent coffee. This meant that they struggled to get the hang of tamping correctly, and complained that their coffee never tasted as good as when I made it. I decided I’d have a go at making a tamper which made it easier for them to get it right every time. I had an incredible amount of incredible tools and machinery to help me do that, but it still took almost a year of development, and around 50 prototypes to get it right. 

Clockwork Espresso is currently a one product company, right?
If I’m honest, I was completely unprepared for the sudden surge in demand we had at the start, and it took us a long time to ramp up production in order to meet the constantly increasing demand for the product. For the first 18 months, we couldn’t make it fast enough, so pretty much all of our time was spent on trying to scale up, while maintaining the incredibly high quality standards we set from the start. In the short term, we’re about to launch some new sizes to cater for the less common machines and the home market. After that, we’ve got some more products which we’re working on, but unfortunately I can’t say much about them just yet – except that they’re still within coffee. 

Your tamper was used by the winning barista in the UK championships a few years back. How did this exposure effect the business and how did you learn from it? 
Yeah, that’s right. Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood was the UK champion in 2015, so he represented the UK in the World Championships that year in Seattle. I flew out to watch him compete, and that was the first time the world properly saw PUSH. I knew it would have a positive effect, but I completely underestimated how much of an effect it would have. When he was competing, I was sitting in the audience and when he picked up the prototype of PUSH to use it, there was an audible “what is that?” which was echoed in the comments on the livestream. I posted a link to our website in the comments, and within seconds it crashed. Over the next few days, weeks and months, we had thousands of visitors to our simple three page website. We allowed people to enter their email address to register their interest, and then when we publicly launched the pre-order for the product almost exactly a year later, we had customers in 23 countries within three weeks. It was amazing to have such a positive reception from this one event, but it would have been great to be more prepared to actually produce and sell the product. I remember at the expo which was hosting the WBC, I met several people who were trying to force cash into my hand to buy one of the handful of prototypes I had with me. 

I’m sure we’re all getting a little bored of Brexit, however what measures are you having to take just-in-case and why? 
Yeah, I think most business owners just want to know what they’re dealing with so they can get on with running their business. Exports account for over 90% of our sales, so not knowing what terms we (and our customers) will have to work with is pretty frustrating. As a contingency plan, I’ve registered for Estonian e-residency which will allow me to set up an Estonian business, and run it from anywhere in the world, without ever having to have a physical presence there. This will mean that we can do business with Europe, and the rest of the world, as a European business if we need to. There will be some obstacles to overcome in terms of either moving manufacturing from UK to Europe entirely, or setting up a second production facility on the continent if required. It’s not a bulletproof plan, but it’s the best we can come up with for now. 

What’s the next step for Clockwork Espresso? 
We’ve got some exciting stuff coming up later this year – new products, partnerships with some incredible companies and lots more. We’re about to open our first funding round soon, so if there are any angel investors reading this who like the sound of us, get in touch.