Big Interview: Doctor Espresso

Big Interview: Doctor Espresso

Doctor Espresso is an operator that does things a little differently from your average coffee shop business. For a start, its machines are all vintage – dating back to the 1950s – and they are all maintained in-house by Dr Espresso himself, Russell Kerr, who owns and runs the business with his wife, Vanessa Lancellotti. Furthermore, unlike many, they don’t favour pure arabica blends and have recently opted to introduce a mix of arabica and robusta beans to make their customers’ regular cup.

The move away from pure arabica has been driven mainly by the fact that vintage lever espresso machines work best with a 40/60 robusta/arabica blend. But with ever-increasing business costs, from the national minimum/living wage to the price of ingredients, everything is scrutinised.

“The price of fruit and veg is rising by as much as 20% in some cases, pushing up the cost of our juices and smoothies. But the public still wants to pay the same. So we need to be careful and deliver a quality product at an affordable price,” says Kerr.

“We were buying wood-fired roasted coffee, which was a great coffee and retailed wholesale at substantial amount per kilo. When we started the business we were getting through 10 kilos per week and after two years, one shop was getting through 50-60 kilos per week. But when I asked for a bulk discount and didn’t get it, I started looking around for a better deal. Within the week I had found a generic blend for 30% less per kilo, which would have saved us £30,000 plus per year! Interestingly enough, few customers noticed the difference.”

While adding robusta reduces costs further, the move hasn’t been taken without consideration to product quality and customer preference.

“I think that adding some robusta to the blend actually gives the coffee a bit of an edge and makes it more stable and easier to use – plus you get crema more easily. With the lever machines you can easily go to 50/50 arabica/robusta, which means you can use a more affordable blend. At one festival, we served a 50/50 blend and people said it was probably the best coffee that they’d had all day.”

Kerr continues: “And this year we’re introducing another coffee, after trialling it with our regular customers, which will save us an extra 10% per kilo. Customers have actually told us that they actually prefer it.

“In theory we could sell it for less, but with rising operating costs, we need to find a way to stay inside our operating financial plan.”

All maintenance costs are in-house, so Kerr is also able to save here too. An electronics engineer “in a previous life” Kerr began repairing machines by pure chance, after he was asked to repair someone’s old espresso machine. One thing led to another and he ended up buying a machine, which he stripped down and repaired expecting to sell it for £150 and was offered 10 times the amount. And so a business was born.

The move into coffee shops also came about by chance, when one of his service and maintenance contract customers with a site outside Putney Bridge station sold the lease for £60,000 to someone opening a shoe repair business, which lasted two years. “As a gesture of goodwill, I made him a deal he could not refuse for the lease.”

This gave Kerr and Lancellotti a “cheap” set up and they opened their first coffee shop – with a Gaggia Americana 1956/7, the last working commercial machine of its kind in the UK taking pride of place on the counter top. It’s proved incredibly popular with customers but also with baristas too, who love using the vintage equipment.

“We use all three of its heads and it serves 400-500 coffees a day. Our baristas have to warm up before using it each morning, otherwise they’ll suffer from tendonitis or frozen shoulder. It’s literally like having a full work out,” Kerr laughs.

The Putney Bridge shop is styled fully vintage throughout. Even the ceiling lights are 1950s, as Kerr has become a collector of varied antiques besides his impressive array of vintage coffee machines, with everything from ancient cameras, old typewriters and NCR tills, cocktail accessories and more on display. His museum, which he has created within their Fulham High Road shop, attracts interest from film companies through to the team from Salvage Hunters, as well as visiting Italians on holiday in London.

Over the last three years, Doctor Espresso has built up a huge social media following: 10,000+ followers on Facebook – 3,500 of those on Kerr’s personal page. “Baristas follow me,” he explains. “And a lot of my followers are Italian. When they’re on holiday here in London they’ll come in to see the machines and to drink our coffee – which they say is better tasting than the coffee they have back home!” Doctor Espresso does sell machines to museums and collectors worldwide, and also the odd private individual.

Within the design of the coffee shops, account must be taken of this vintage equipment, with anything modern hidden beneath the counter top, which is built higher at 1.2m to make operation of the coffee machines safer.

“These machines were known as jaw breakers in the old days, because of the spring of the lever. If your hand slipped, that’s what would happen. With the counter higher, it means our baristas can’t stand in a position where the lever can come up and hit them in the face.”

Alongside the shops, Kerr continues with his service and maintenance business. Bar Italia in Soho and My Place Soho (which both use 1960s Gaggia Oriones) and Pied a Terre in Fitzrovia are among his clients. And with all Doctor Espresso’s maintenance in-house, means their service bill across the three shops on all equipment is substantially decreased.

With plans to develop a Doctor Espresso coffee brand this year, which will be an arabica/robusta 60/40 blend, and to build up the maintenance and service side of the business, there are no proposals for any new coffee shops. Instead the couple will focus on doing what they already do but even better.

“We’ve not had any outside investment and have managed all of the business development ourselves. And while I can’t, hand on heart, say we make the best-ever coffee, we do make great coffee with machines that create a bit of theatre and give customers a chance to experience a taste from another era.”

And with more and more competition on the high street, having a distinct and unique offer gives Doctor Espresso a great advantage – as well as keeping vintage machines working to serve delicious coffee day-in, day-out.



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