Norfolk Network stories

Freshly roasted for success: the story of Strangers Coffee

Lauren Razavi

Strangers Coffee House started as a six-table cafe in the heart of Norwich. Now, armed with a string of national accolades and an industrial-grade roasting machine, this laid-back coffee brand is preparing to take on the world.

Eight years ago, a former mortgage broker named Alex Sargeant and an aspiring landscape gardener named Sam Maddocks decided to start a cafe together. Neither of them had run a business before and they knew almost nothing about coffee. Today, their brand Strangers Coffee House has taken over the speciality coffee scene in Norwich – and is preparing to go global.

The UK coffee shop market has grown to become one of the country’s most successful sectors, achieving an impressive £8.9 billion turnover in 2016. With Britons drinking around two billion coffees away from their homes each year, it’s little surprise that coffee shops are expected to outnumber pubs in the UK by 2030. Today, there’s already one coffee shop for every 3,000 people in the country.

Even in a booming industry, it’s not easy to kickstart a coffee business. Achieving decent profit margins while serving up top quality brews is a formidable challenge, not to mention the stress and responsibility that comes with building and managing teams that interact with customers on a daily basis. For Strangers, these challenges came in the midst of a much larger one: the global financial crisis that began in 2008.

“We set up in a recession, so money was pretty hard to come at the time. The shops were quiet, there was hardly anyone walking around and the Norwich Lanes area was really downbeat,” Alex told the audience at his recent sell-out event with Norfolk Network. “Basically, we took over a bankrupt sandwich business. We paid £600 to the administrators for the equipment and fixtures that were there and just got going.”

Alex and Sam, who are also brothers-in-law, borrowed that modest sum of startup capital from their parents. Because the business was making no money when they took over, Alex worked full-time as a salesman for another company while they tried to get it off the ground. It wasn’t until 2009 that he was able to start working on the business full-time. When he finally did, though, the duo were really able to get things moving.

“Our ethos was simple: to be the best that we could,” Alex says. “But the first problems we had to solve is that we knew only a bit about business and next to nothing about coffee.”

“Our ethos was simple: to be the best that we could”

From there, they pursued a gut-driven strategy to get the word out about their brand. The coffee they served at the time was low quality and “made edible only by lots of milk and syrup”, so the first step was to up their game in this area. Alex thought, “I don’t like this product, so how do I make a product that I do like?” This is how he found his passion for all things coffee, and soon he found himself competing – and winning titles – in the national barista and latte art championships. Not bad for someone who had never even made a coffee before starting the business.

Over the next few years, Strangers grew in popularity, and Alex and Sam turned their attention towards expanding the company’s operations. This led Sam’s brother Will to join the Strangers team as a partner, strengthening the skill set and dynamics of the family-run business.

By summer 2015, Alex and the Maddocks brothers had opened their second Norwich site: Strangers Roastery on Dove Street. Investing in a £30,000 industrial-grade drum roaster allowed them to begin sourcing and roasting green beans from farmers directly in locations as diverse as Germany, Guatemala and Ethiopia. With only a couple of streets between the roastery and the original shop on Pottergate, the Norwich Lanes are now filled with the fruity fragrance of coffee beans roasting.

“We work directly with farmers where possible, or work with importers who work directly with those farmers. We want to sustainably invest in farms so they can grow their futures,” Alex explains. “This gives us consistency in quality and reassurance that the farmer will be there in the future. Otherwise we risk that all the fantastic speciality-grade coffees get taken to other places and we’re just left with poor quality beans.”

The roastery allowed Strangers to transition from being just another hip cafe to becoming a distributor of speciality coffee. Now more than 20 cafes and restaurants around the city stock beans from Strangers, and local bars are even crafting Strangers-inspired cocktails as staple features on their menus. So what’s the secret behind Strangers’ ability to win over so many customers – in Norwich and beyond?

“Well, we really don’t try to sell something to somebody,” Alex grins. “It’s all about taste, and we look for connections: if you’ve got similar taste to me then you’re going to like and buy my coffee. If you don’t, then you don’t, and there’s plenty of other suppliers out there who will – I’ve got no bad feelings about that.”

The most recent news from Strangers HQ shows the business continuing its journey from strength to strength. Over the summer, Strangers opened a concession at St George’s Works – home of Norfolk Network and a community of ambitious local and national businesses – and will soon be opening their first site in London too. Strangers also received two prizes for their “Fine City Blend” at the Great Taste Awards this year.

Strangers may only have added a few extra physical tables since it launched a decade ago, but the growth of the business extends beyond its humble coffee shop. The transformation from a modest sandwich shop to a buzzing brand means that people around the world could soon become a lot more familiar with Strangers.

Event photos: Joe Lenton Photography