UK Coffee Week – over-ambitious, or a thoroughly admirable business and charity project?

The organiser of the first UK Coffee Week, a shortly-forthcoming but as yet remarkably under-promoted awareness event, says the project could possibly achieve its extremely ambitious aim, to raise one million pounds for fresh-water projects in Africa.

The project is due to take place from 4-10 April, and ties in with the London Coffee Festival, set for the last three days of the same week. The two ventures are organised by Allegra Strategies, the research organisation which publishes annual figures on the size of the coffee-bar trade, and will benefit Project Waterfall, a charity set up by Allegra which will in turn work with the larger Water Aid charity.

The sheer scale of the project has aroused mixed emotions in the beverage trade, partly because of the ambitious total, and partly because of the nature of the fund-raising – the idea is that consumers will be invited to pay an extra 5p for a cup of coffee, and that coffee houses will return the extra revenue to the charity. The charity has also suggested that ‘thousands’ of British coffee houses will be taking part – they will, but the vast majority of them so far are branches of the big high-street chains.

“I simply thought one day – just imagine, lots of people, giving a small amount each, makes a great sum, and that was the basis of the 5p per cup idea,” explains Jeffrey Young, the managing director of Allegra (pictured above). “I now realise just why it’s so hard to get a charity off the ground and working. It’s madness – at times it has been extremely frustrating and exasperating.”

The national consumer interest in coffee has as yet only been measured by UK’s first regional event, a weekend in Bath last year which attracted the quite astonishing figure of 7,350 visitors and returned a profit of several thousand pounds which was distributed to local charities. However, the beverage trade is divided on the exact amount of national enthusiasm for coffee, and indeed the national consumption – last year, the high-street coffee chain Starbucks made the remarkable claim that 20 million British consumers visit coffee houses in a week, a claim which even many in the coffee trade thought exaggerated.

“The market certainly is in millions,” says Jeffrey Young. “McDonalds say they have two million customers a day, and Marks and Spencer have twenty million visitors a week, of which a large number go into their coffee shops. I would estimate that 75 per cent of the over-25s who visit the Bluewater shopping centre have a cup of coffee. Look at all the branches of Costa doing so many hundreds of coffees a day – we are talking big numbers, staggering amounts of consumption, and of figures which are in line with the audience numbers for a major TV series.

“I do believe that nobody has really realised how important coffee shops are as a social medium, and I believe UK Coffee Week could reasonably reach five million British consumers.”

The vision of a 5p levy on cups of coffee throughout the country has provoked some questioning – smaller coffee shops may have problems doing the accounting, and there will be delays in queues while baristas explain why they are asking for extra cash. The bigger chain coffee-houses have planned their own publicity and automated their tills to cope.

Possibly the single biggest question mark over Project Waterfall has been the target – a million pounds in a week. It has been suggested that this might just have been too ambitious a figure, given that remarkable things can be done in certain countries for sums which, to the average wage-earning Briton, are relatively low. There is already a widely admired scheme by which a coffee-trade wholesaler, Peros of High Wycombe, sponsors ’playpumps’, operational water wells built as children’s roundabouts, and has already put in several dozen at around £4,000 each. (The coffee shop chain Esquires runs a similar project).

“In hindsight, maybe I could have been more conservative,” responded Jeffrey Young candidly. “I do have an ex-colleague who works in Ethiopia, and yes, he says: ‘you have no idea what a thousand pounds can do out here’.

“But I do see that Macmillans raise £8 million in one annual coffee morning, and that’s inspiring.

“And it can be done. For chain cafes of several hundred branches, if you take a low estimate of 600 coffees per day per store, that can add up to quarter of a million coffees a day for even one brand, and multiplied by six and a half days a week, that can be one and a half million beverages from one chain of shops.”

That, he suggests, could amount to £80-£100,000 raised by each of the biggest high-street players.

The most recent information is the first funds raised will support a project in Tanzania, managed by the Water Aid charity. This is hoped to bring clean drinking water to up to 7,000 people in the Chini Ward of the Mbulu District, and involves 12 ‘water points’ at a cost of about £60,000.

Allegra will also run the London Coffee Festival, which runs on the last three days of the UK Coffee Week, and which will be centred in the newly ‘cool’ area of Brick Lane. The festival event has some big names in there – Starbucks, Costa, Lavazza, and several of the makers of high-quality espresso machines.

The intention is to inspire London ‘foodies’ to realise just how much there is to know and enjoy about coffee, and to give visitors the chance to work espresso machines and the like for themselves.

Jeffrey Young is hoping that the project, for which all admission fees go to the water charity, will open consumers’ eyes to the prospects of great coffee.

“A realistic objective would be to inspire them to say: ‘I thought I liked coffee, but I never knew about all this!’ “

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UK Coffee Week is between 4th-10th April.
The London Coffee Festival will be held at The Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, from April 8-10, 2011. Opening hours:
Friday 8th April: Trade Day 10:00am-4:00pm followed by Public Launch 5:00pm-10:00pm
Saturday 9th April and Sunday 10th April: the weekend days will be separated into 3 sessions
Brunch 10:00am-1:00pm, Lunch 1:00pm-4:00pm and Teatime 4:00pm-7:00pm.
Tickets are available from http://www.londoncoffeefestival.com for £8.50, discounted to £6 for orders of 5 or more tickets.
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Readers in the coffee trade might wish to see the detailed candid interview with Jeffrey Young published online by Coffee House magazine.
http://www.coffee-house.org.uk/CH2FullstoryCoffeeWeek.html

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