Meet the Independents : Bear Coffee

Four - minute read

Each month, we profile one of our favourite independent bars, cafés, restaurants or retailers for our Meet the Independents blog series. This month, we caught up with Craig Bunting, co-founder of BEAR, a small chain of independent coffee shops causing a stir across the midlands. Here he talks to us about branding in the world of independents, and reveals why experience isn’t everything when it comes to making it in hospitality…

“There is still strength in brands. They say brands are disappearing, people don’t want them anymore – that’s wrong. I’d argue with anyone who said that – there’s loads of strength in brands.”

Craig Bunting, co-founder of BEAR, a burgeoning chain of coffee shops in the midlands, is really passionate about brands.

For an independent operator, this might seem contradictory; maybe even hypocritical. But Craig explains that BEAR’s interpretation of what makes a successful brand isn’t about mass-production or monopolising the market. Instead, they believe that the future of brands lies in cultivating an approachable, less-contrived image; one that communicates brand values, not just with slogans and clever marketing, but through every element of a business; from the coffee it serves, to the way every staff member interacts with customers. “What brands have to do is personalise themselves. A brand is more powerful if there’s a face to it,” Craig says.

Staying unique

It’s clear that Craig and his business partner, Michael Thorley, have given a lot of thought to how they can work with their team to prevent BEAR from becoming just another soulless name on the high street. This welcoming yet stylish coffee house and cocktail bar opened its second store in Derby city centre in January (its flagship is in Uttoxeter), and with two more branches already in the pipeline for this financial year, their concerns aren’t totally unwarranted. So, how does an ambitious new company like BEAR achieve its goal of becoming a household name, while still maintaining its authenticity and individuality? “That has been playing on my mind for a while,” Craig admits. “Especially when we opened in Derby. I’m not known here; I grew up in Uttoxeter, so we have a story there. But we could just be another brand on this street. So how do we make people realise we are unique?”

His solution is an unorthodox one: “We try to make every decision as though we’re 16 years old and we’ve just started a rock band.” Confused? Us too, at first. But by imagining what their teenage-selves would do, Craig and his team can make every (creative) decision from a fresh, unadulterated mindset, where fun is the focus. “Yes, we have to be serious sometimes; we’ve got wages to pay, we employ 40 people – but there has to be room for fun,” he explains.

Not just a coffee shop

There’s no denying BEAR is part of the massive coffee culture revolution we seem to be in the midst of. But Craig is keen to stress that BEAR is about more than just coffee. “We’re a lifestyle brand – we’re not a coffee shop,” he says emphatically. What does he mean by this? That BEAR is less about the products it sells and more about the space it is in and what it facilitates: social interaction, a sense of community, somewhere to be.

Music has always been an important part of Craig’s life (he really did start a rock band when he was 16) and BEAR has played host to a number of live music sets, which he hopes to do more regularly. “We want to fine tune how we execute it, so we do it better and better, by getting the right kind of sound systems installed and treating the space a little bit more acoustically,” he says. “My ultimate dream would be to have a venue that could host secret shows, or where you’d find up-and-coming artists playing an intimate gig, so that BEAR grows as a relevant brand.” Staying relevant is what he believes will prevent the watering-down effect so many companies fall victim to as they expand. “No one I know would walk around with ‘Costa’ on their T shirt,” he explains. “But I like to think that in the future staff and customers might wear a labelled cap or a jumper or something, perhaps just marked with a ‘B’, that’s still recognisable as part of our BEAR brand.

The market town

Craig has big plans for BEAR and believes that as a team, they have found the secret weapon needed to achieve maximum impact with every branch they open. It is clear that Craig is immensely proud of the group that himself and Michael have recruited to help them develop and facilitate their growth strategy: “It’s our strongest asset. How many other companies do you know of that are running two stores beneath a head office six people strong?!” He speaks eagerly of Chris Price, a finance and business expert who joined BEAR’s board of directors as an investor in August 2016. Chris helped with the completion of the shop-fit and concept in Uttoxeter, and has since continued working within BEAR’s head office team, offering his expertise in developing and implementing their exciting growth plans.

Inspired by a trip to Australia where independent coffee shops and small chains are a mainstay of every town and city centre, Craig couldn’t help but wonder why market towns in the UK seemed to be so lacking in this area. So, he set about making a plan to address this gap, and this is how BEAR was born. “In Australia, the coffee culture felt quite authentic and, I thought, where’s that in Uttoxeter? You see it in London, but where’s that in the market towns? Why can’t a market town have something that’s cool and different?”

The BEAR team are currently working on opening another branch locally later this year, and looking at nearby cities and surrounding affluent market towns as potential locations going forward. Having opened both the Derby and Uttoxeter shops has allowed Craig and Michael to fine-tune the store layout and design, tweaking certain details such as the bar height and seating (a high bar creates a barrier between staff and the customer, whereas a lower bar helps improve customer engagement), and their upcoming third store will be a carefully curated mix of the first two designs.

Back to basics

For such a polished establishment, you’d be forgiven for thinking BEAR was the brainchild of an experienced hospitality professional who has climbed the ranks from barista to bar owner. But actually, the opposite is true. Craig and Michael started the business in 2014, with no experience in hospitality at all – just a dream to do something different. “And that’s our biggest strength,” he says. “In some of the blogs I read, it said I should spend time in the industry and become ‘seasoned,’ and I thought, I don’t want to do that; that’s going to take ages! So, we thought we’d just go for it. What’s life without a little risk?”

Craig did spend some time learning how to make ‘proper’ coffee at home though – but with limited success. And when BEAR Uttoxeter opened with a very small core team, efficiency wasn’t exactly its forte. “The only thing we could do was to be really friendly to our customers and distract them with chat whilst we slowly made their coffee,” he laughs.

Concentrating on the things they knew they could execute well, like making sure the shop was cleaned within an inch of its life every night, helped establish BEAR’s good reputation locally. “It meant we always had a clean shop and so our online reviews have always said ‘a clean space,’ and ‘friendly staff’ – and that’s what’s important.”

The future of the high street

Craig is also very conscious of BEAR’s impact on the local economy and how it is helping to shape the future of the local high street. Having gained plenty of first-hand experience of various local councils and town planning departments, he wonders whether the right people are being put in charge of steering our town centres towards a more prosperous future. “The high street is not dead; people just need to start thinking outside of the box a little bit more – and councils need to up their game,” he says. “People are going to start living closer to high streets because there is a push for housing in town centres. You’ve just got to accept the fact that change is going to happen.” But his experience with local organisations hasn’t all been frustrating; Craig has also discovered some like-minded, passionate people who share his vision, in particular at Marketing Derby; an organisation that promotes the city to help attract investment – and of whom he can’t speak highly enough. “They are game changers in Derby. They are so, so good – they’ve really put Derby on the map.”

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