Hull entrepreneur who left behind the daily grind to grow his own coffee business
COFFEE BREAK: James Wilkins at The Blending Room in west Hull
By Hull Daily Mail | Posted: 3 Aug 2017
James Wilkins founded The Blending Room eight years ago, together with his partner, Katie Winwright.
Beginning with a stall at Beverley Market – a stall that continues to run to this day – The Blending Room now has its own industrial unit in west Hull and James is on first name terms with business owners big and small throughout the region.
Which, considering few people seem to know his second name, is probably for the best.
He said: “I am a huge advocate of markets. They not only give you the platform to get out there and sell, but more importantly to engage with your customers and interact with them.
“On my first day at Beverley Market I made £137.50 and that was enough to make me want to go back and do it all again.
“People got to know me, and would come back and recommend me to other people.
“Without that 8ft by 4ft market stall I wouldn’t have the business I have today.
“That is how the business was founded, and I still love doing it, although most people just know me as ‘James the coffee man’.
“ I don’t think anyone actually knows I have a surname.”
James was first introduced to the art of coffee while he was an undergraduate at the University of Hull. The geography student took a part-time job at a Hull-based independent coffee shop in 2000 – a move he admits was at the time as much about meeting girls as it was about topping up his student loan.
But while he was there, he began to realise there was more to selling coffee than grinding beans, and a series of promotions led him to progress from barista to the manager of two outlets, giving him a grounding in running a business, from sourcing products to managing cash flow and people.
Nevertheless, after seven years in the business he left to go travelling.
He said: “I spent quite a lot of time in Australia and Thailand. You could say Australia helped to spark an interest in ‘better coffee’. Australia probably has one of the most advanced coffee industries in the world.”
Then, on his return to Hull, he began carving out a career with a leading accountancy firm. It was while he was there, often clocking up more than 60 hours a week, that he began to wonder if there was an alternative.
He said: “I started looking for something I could sell, and decided on coffee. My dad had his own roasting business, so after working Monday to Friday I would spend Saturdays on the market.
"After the market, I would get in my red Renault Clio, drive to Newmarket, switch on the roaster and spend Sunday roasting coffee. At about 2am I’d drive back to Hull, catch a few hours sleep and then start the process again. Looking back, I am not quite sure how I survived.”
James continued to make the journey to Newmarket each week until 2002, when he moved the equipment to Hull.
He has since invested in his own machinery, which might not seem significant until you realise the average roaster costs more than the deposit for a house in the market town where he first set up his stall.
He said: “When you mention coffee, people tend to think of low-paid, low-skilled jobs and think the only options if offers is to be a barista. But it is a broad sector.
“You could be working in logistics, finance, quality control, trading, tasting – it is so diverse, and it is also a fun industry to work in.
“Now, I get to meet some amazing people and see them doing great things with my products. Joe at Hull’s Trinity Market is a great barista, for example, and he presents my coffee in the most amazing way, which is just great.”
If few of his customers know his surname, then even fewer know Katie's. Katie also began her journey into coffee as a barista, and is now a regular on the local markets and retail scene. I managed to catch her on the phone as she was busy behind the scenes at The Blending Room's HQ, when she admitted - presumably half jokingly, considering her rapport with customers - that she was "the silent one".
Although James undoubtedly trumpets the personal touch and atmosphere independent coffee bars offer their customers, he does not shun the likes of the huge coffee shop chains.
He said: “If you start to do that there is a real danger you will turn into a coffee snob, and that is just boring.
“Places like Starbucks and Costa have helped develop a wider appetite for coffee. They might not be to everybody's taste, but they do bring footfall into a city."
Following my first introduction to James – at Thieving Harry’s, which of course stocks his coffee – I began noticing The Blending Room beans were everywhere, from Caffeinated in Trinity Market and Traveller’s Rest in Beverley to Hull’s new boutique hotel, Hideout.
Its prominence on the local scene is such that I devised a new game, namely ‘spot the Blending Room logo’. Try it; you will quickly run out of fingers and toes.
James said: “If you are passionate and enthusiastic about something, people will feed off that.
“For the first five years of the business I was doing as many markets as I could, meeting as many people as I could, but I have never gone out and actively sold anything.
“All of my business now comes from word of mouth. What tends to happen is a business will recommend me to someone else.
“It has not been easy – up until a few weeks ago I had not had a day off in months, but I love doing it. I have invested my profits back into the business, which means I am now in a position to take someone on and pay them a real wage, which is fantastic.”