Customer Q&A: Coffee at the Wilsons, Blanefield

When Paul and Jim Wilson opened their dream coffee house in December 2019 they had no idea how testing their first year of trading would be.

Coffee at the Wilsons is located around 10 miles North of Glasgow in the picturesque village of Blanefield at the foot of the beautiful Campsie Hills. Their artisan deli has become a local staple and has proved a vital hub for the community throughout lockdown.

We spoke to Paul Wilson about how they have not only continued to trade throughout lockdown, but they have thrived throughout it. Paul and Jim are the embodiment of ‘resilience’ and perseverance that theme’s this issue of ‘The Coffee Extract’.

“We’ve been busier than ever. As soon Boris Johnson said “lockdown”, we transformed the shop straight away.”
“We’re not going to close, we didn’t furlough staff, in fact we brought on more staff"
“It’s funny, one of our most ‘like’d’ social media posts was - This is our new hand sanitizer, it cost us £400 and it’s the best £400 we ever spent”. "

How has Covid-19 impacted your business?

To be honest, we’ve been busier than ever. As soon as Boris Johnson said “lockdown”, we transformed the shop straight away. We knew we wouldn’t have people in the seating area, our gift shop was quite big and the Delicatessen small and - because we have the takeaway licence - we knew we could remain open.

We came up the night of lockdown and changed everything in 2 hours; from a large gift shop with small deli counter to a small gift shop with large delicatessen – we swapped it all round. We then adapted the menu to takeaway. It’s great because all our produce lends itself to takeaway service; you can have your macaroni, lasagne and your sandwiches all to go.

Also, we were one of the few suppliers for miles who had flour. We had people locally contacting Shipton Mill and they were directing people to ‘Coffee at the Wilson’s’.

It’s been really, really good, and, of course, people still need coffee! Having that great blend, as soon as people could, they would come. People were out every day walking and they would come in. When people could then drive 5 miles from home they would come in too …. we’ve still had all our regulars here.

Most successful operators through this period, from an independent café perspective, have transformed their proposition from sit in cafe space to takeaway retail-led offering. What impressed me most as a local customer is how quickly you recognised that and adapted. You come in to Coffee at the Wilson’s now and see all these premium, high quality products with a strong Scottish and local provenance. You know you seemed to recognise that very early. It was so important. Coming from the coffee trade, we’re both ex-Costa Coffee managers. We were used to lots of new products coming in every day and they were there for a reason. We know when something comes in it has to serve a purpose and sell. It’s taken time, for example, we struggled for a long time to be happy with our cake range but we’re there now although it’s taken a long time. The only thing we haven’t changed throughout is our coffee! We’re there now and we’re 99.9% happy with the range we’ve got just now. What do you reckon are the changes that you brought in over the last number of months, whether it's ranging or different ways of working, that you think you will retain going forward that have actually transformed what you do fundamentally? Well it’s still the flour! They’re still coming in to get the Shipton Mill flour, it’s the quality, Prince Charles uses it (HRH Prince of Wales Flour Millers) that’s been a huge draw. Also, the bread, the last owners didn’t have a great range of bread but we’ve trialled a large range of bread since we opened and now we’re happy the range is what we want. We also expanded the sweet range too.

Then, the biggest thing for us is social media. We post two or three times a day on Instagram, on Facebook and it serves us well.

You’ve created a really strong love for this place amongst the local community and social media is key to that. You can see that on the social media. I don't like to focus on negatives but someone once came in and said it was the worst scones they’d ever tasted and the villagers just jumped on them!! We put lasgana’s on for £5 and someone commented it was too expensive and the locals jumped in our defence too. Joking aside, it is so important to get social media right. The staff, even on their days off, will post 2 or 3 posts to invite you to come down and see us. You even explored sending pre-written gift cards on behalf of your customers during lockdown? We still do it. We’re a sole supplier to a local villager who we send cards for on every occasion. There are still a lot of people who can’t get out and if we can help we will! What have you put in place, specifically, to make your service safe in the new world? So, if we start outside of the shop, we've bought planters to separate the seating to enforce social distancing; when you come in you meet a sanitizing station which is mandatory – we’ve had to throw someone out already for refusing to sanitise their hands!

Then we’ve got directional signage, showing where to queue and the flow of the shop. In the seating area, we’ve got hand sanitisers on all tables, the menus are all on the walls to ensure no one handles them, we invested in a specials board which is now up on the wall too.

When you come in you must sign in for test and protect but also you will be read the house rules (regards social distancing, sanitisation, toilet use etc.). When someone goes to the toilet they need to ask us for access where we will sanitise before and after they’ve been in. There is also a new set of doors in the main seating area which we’ve had changed to allow them to open to primarily allow good ventilation. That’s awesome and very, very thorough. It’s funny, one of our most ‘like’d’ social media posts was “This is our new hand sanitizer, it cost us £400 and it’s the best £400 we ever spent”. Is there anything from other operators, cafes or food service providers or whatever you think have been quite innovative in what they’ve done through COVID-19. Not really, we’ve been so focussed on our own place and getting it right! If you’d looked at the front counter before the cakes were in domes, then in a Perspex cube, then back into domes and then behind a big screen. We weren’t happy and needed to invest and now have a glass cube that has worked really well for us in terms of presenting the range and but also keeping it safe. Everyone is struggling with that just now, how to balance safety for your customers with an aesthetically pleasing presentation that will encourage people to buy! We only have one cake out on display and those are ‘display cakes’, they’re not for sale. We keep everything fresh in individual tupperware tubs, so if you get if you get a strawberry tart, it will go straight into a tub and sold on directly in the tub. You’ll be astounded at how expensive these changes have been. We’ve not put our prices up through COVID-19. Whether it’s the tubs for cakes or our compostable takeaway cups we want to keep it safe for everyone but also maintain the experience and present our brand the way we want. You really get a sense of your experience from speaking to you. Between us I’ve done 6 years with Costa Coffee, as well as other retail units, and Jim’s done 19 years with Costa. Before that Jim was manager with Poundstretcher, he’s also been HR with ASDA and run clothes shops. I was also Head Waiter at the High Court in Edinburgh and I’ve been a musician in the army. All of these have fed into this whole project. Whether it’s everything being done to perfection from the army or the way we present our products in terms of merchandising; it all feeds in.

What do you reckon as the short, medium and long-term outlook for coffee shops in the ‘new world’? If you work your own brand you can make it work. It’s a personal thing. We’ve looked at other businesses during lockdown and they haven’t done anything with it. People have been frightened and would rather take money for furlough and then try to re-open but have run out of funds and can’t. We’re not going to close, we didn’t furlough staff, in fact we brought on more staff!! If coffee shops work at it, and recognise you have to change your model, it can work but it will be trial and error rather than just shutting the doors! The analogy I use for COVID is that we’ve been hit by a tsunami and only now are the waves rolling back as we see the damage it’s caused however it feels like you managed to get yourselves onto a boat here! That’s true and we’ve started planning for the next wave if it happens too. We’re thinking about how we will manage things in that eventuality and we’re considering it already.

Is there any advice you can offer others going forward? Persevere and adjust. Those are the main things. Has any good come out of COVID-19? We’ve had a lot of customers who never knew we were here and it forced people to come to see us. They may have passed us daily but never realised we were here. We were also more noticeable when the roads are quieter cause they can see us Has the situation changed you at all? Not really, we’ve carried on as we’ve always done really. We’re so used to changing and thinking on our feet… this has been that. You have to go with the flow and you need to change.