How one couple are transforming Scotland's cold brew scene.
Jill Wotherspoon, Head of Marketing
Absolute Roasters is one of Scotland’s most captivating coffee success stories. Established just two weeks before the first lockdown, selling home-made cold brew coffee in an industrial estate in Glasgow, they have now signed the lease on a former fine-dining outlet in the heart of the city’s vibrant west end. I visited the owners at their busy interim pop-up, eager to learn more about this young couple’s success story.
When I arrive at their temporary retail premises in Partick, Sean Williams and Megan McFarlane have just locked up shop after a busy day’s work. They welcome me into a café space that, like so many right now, is used for storage rather than seating: a single table at the doorway for service. We settle in for a (socially distanced) chat.
You would be hard-pushed to meet a more down-to-earth, laid back and welcoming couple. It’s immediately clear that these guys genuinely love what they do. I am beguiled by their story, of how the set out in business, the challenges they have overcome, and where they intend to get to. Behind the couple’s modesty is an undeniably impressive store of talent, hard work and tenacity.
It all began with the couple driving through Europe, en route to pick up Sean’s car, temporarily abandoned in Estonia after completing the Mongol rally. As they drove through Stockholm, a Piaggio Ape drove past and Megan recalled how her father had bought one fifteen years prior with the dream of setting up a mobile service in the business district of Inverness. They contemplated how cool it would be to resurrect this dream back home in Glasgow. It became the topic of conversation for the rest of the trip. “We discussed whether we could make it work, what the plan would be, and what we’d call the business” explained Megan.
On return to Scotland, Sean and his father set about the restoration process. It would take six months of hard graft before the truck could be shipped down to Glasgow. The intention was to obtain a license to trade at festivals and events across the country. In the meantime, the couple had secured a small industrial unit in Firhill, Glasgow, where they would prepare their cold brew and from where they could sample their wares. But that was February 2020.
Two weeks after launching their business, the first lockdown came along. The doors were closed then both Megan and Sean were struck down with COVID. Sean’s recovery took the best part of two months. When restrictions were eased in May, the dream of taking the truck on the road remained on hold as the council deprioritised street trading licences. “At that point we had to consider whether to chuck in the whole idea or take it in a new direction. We chose to find our feet and power through it.” explains Sean. The pair continued to trade from their industrial unit: an unlikely setting, but one that would nurture something of a cult underground following. “It was a proper garage operation” Megan says with a smile.
During this time, they also rocked up with a keg of cold brew at the Dockyard social, an assertive move that would lead to a semi-permanent pod at this popular street food event. This was the ideal platform from which to experiment with coffee flavour pairings such as banana, bitter orange and pistachio, and to develop cold brew cocktails, earning a reputation for coffee innovation.
In November, with still no sign of a street trading license in sight, a short-term retail lease became available at the edge of Glasgow’s leafy West End. It was all-hands-on-deck to transform the unit into a takeaway coffee shop with a difference. This time they invested in some serious kit – upgrading the second-hand espresso machine in the truck to the impressive Synesso S200 on the bench; and integrating nitrogen canisters and bar taps to give their cold brew offering an extra dimension. Speciality retail coffees from the likes of Blak Nektar adorned the shelves. Almost instantly, queues formed along the street and the word was out.
But before they had a chance to enjoy their early success, having traded for just 2 months in their new home and with four weeks’ notice, the landlord unexpectedly reclaimed the unit for his own expansion plans. Even in recalling this unfortunate turn of events, there is no animosity in Sean and Megan’s account. Their resilience had simply kicked in once again. A few weeks after closing up shop, the tenacious duo started over with a pop-up lease in an established café in nearby Partick.
Megan explains the speed at which they had to get everything ready. “It wasn’t until the night before we opened that I could even make the announcement of our new address on social media”. Many loyal customers were quick to travel a little further for the Absolute experience, while new customers were delighted to welcome the duo to their neighbourhood. 450 coffees a day from a small doorway during a spate of inclement weather would certainly confirm this. In a way, this fluidity of location may have helped the brand gain a broader customer awareness ahead of their next big step.
Having catapulted themselves from a duo with a truck to a team of seven in a retail premises within the space of a year, Megan and Sean had no qualms in making their next leap. Their latest, and hopefully longer-term home, is a fantastically well kitted out former fine-dining restaurant on nearby Hyndland Street.
In this new guise, Absolute will continue to lead with cold brew innovation, making the most of the premises’ alcohol license. With Class 3 status, they’ll also ramp up the sit-in food offering with an Antipodean approach to brunching, headed up by an in-house chef. But as you might expect from this less-than-average couple, it won’t be any old brunch on offer here. They plan to focus on Scottish ingredients with a Scandinavian twist, experimenting with pickles and making the most of locally available produce, like the humble potato and other root vegetables.
And what of the future? Would they consider more new outlets? It’s not out of the question, but, in Sean’s words “only if we can do so without losing the quality of experience we have currently”. This sustainable approach to business expansion is reflected in everything Sean and Megan do, from being a living wage employer to ensuring their product choices and innovations are environmentally sound.
Aside from making their restaurant an ongoing success, Sean and Megan are also nurturing plenty of other grand plans: from expanding their cold brew wholesaling reach, to launching a new line of nitro cold brew cans, which they see developing over time to incorporate some of their unique flavour combinations. Though they couldn’t say much at the time of writing, their canned nitro cold brew technology has never before been used in the UK and, by avoiding the use of any plastic, will ensure their cans are fully recyclable whilst having no negative impact on product quality.
I ask what advice would Sean and Megan give to others contemplating the launch of a coffee business? “Just do it.” Says Sean. “Don’t think about it too much. Don’t think I’ll do that next month. You don’t actually need to have that much planned. Don’t break any regulations, of course, but do whatever you can to make that first transaction and find your way from there” Megan explains that it’s all about trial and error. “On that first day in Firhill we only got 3 visitors. The cold brew recipe was terrible and none of the customers came back. We just had to keep trying. And now people come back and tell us it’s the best coffee they have ever had”
It’s that customer satisfaction that drives the couple. Hearing positive feedback gives them a real boost. They are genuinely delighted to be doing what they love every day. And now with a trusted team around them, they no longer feel compelled to work seven days a week and can enjoy just a little well-deserved down time together. “Looking back to when we set out, we could never have imagined that a year later we would be opening our own flagship store as a team of nine. But here we are” says Megan with a sparkle of satisfaction in her eyes.
And with this modest recognition of their own hard work, tenacity and success, we bring the interview to a close.
Before I depart, I am offered a drink for my journey. I accept willingly, and saunter happily down the street, fuelled by the wonderous taste of Sicilian pistachios. The perfect end to another fantastic day working in this amazing industry. I contemplate just how important coffee entrepreneurs like Sean and Megan, and so many others, have become to our communities. Perhaps you are one of them. And I thank you for it.
Read on for recipe inspiration from Absolute Roasters.....
Leading Scotland's Cold Brew Flavour Innovation
One of the most notable things about the Absolute concept from the get-go, was that drinks are ever-evolving – just like a fresh food menu might. You only need to scroll through their Instagram page to get a flavour of their creativity. The Cherry Pop (nitro cold brew latte with sweet Italian Amarena cherries) and The Piss-tach (Nitro Cold brew with Sicilian Pistachios) are just a few that stand out.
Notice a theme? Though born in Scotland, Sean is proud to claim Italian heritage and recalls fond memories of visits to Italy as a child. It is from these memories that he finds much of his flavour inspiration – and indeed his ingredients. For example, Sean recalls the bitter orange non-alcoholic aperitif Crodino being served alongside an espresso on hot days, and that sparked an idea for a perfect cold brew pairing. Then there’s the Pistachio flat white, inspired by Sean’s love of pistachio gelatos. This may be the single best coffee I have ever tasted. The addition of pistachio cream to a Black Nektar Stowaway coffee is mind-blowing. The Sicilian pistachios from the edge of Mount Vesuvius, have been painstakingly sought out by Sean, and though pricey, have proven their worth. Customers will happily pay the 80p extra for this irresistible concoction, and this signature drink has now firmly established itself as Absolute’s best-selling coffee.
Integrating seasonal local produce is also high on Sean’s agenda. The irresistible-sounding bramble, mint & matcha iced tea was served up on the back of Scotland’s blackberry season. Next in Sean’s sights for experimentation are flavour influences from his travels in the Middle East and Central Asia. As he explains “there is no fixed process, it’s just something that happens in the course of any given day. We’ll be working away, get an idea, or a fresh new ingredient will become available, and we just experiment in between serving customers.”
What pairings didn’t work so well? “The macerated peaches paired with coffee was like drinking mud”, they laugh. But I bet the team had great fun trying it!
You'll find Absolute Roasters at 394 Dumbarton Road until they move to their new forever home at 70-72 Hyndland Street in a few weeks. Stay in the loop on their social channels:
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Head of Marketing at Matthew Algie
Jill has worked in coffee marketing for 8 years and more broadly in premium brand marketing for over 20 years. In her current role, she oversees brand, customer, and product marketing alongside digital marketing and e-commerce.
Jill has a passion for all things brand, from positioning and strategy - to design, photography and the written word. She has long been a coffee lover and prolific café consumer and is fascinated by consumer insight and the customer experience.