A new state-of-the-art roaster that communicates with its designers in San Francisco is the latest addition to the growing Atkinsons Coffee empire.
This June, the China Street based business is set to open a 440 seat cafe in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, “the likes of which the city has never seen”.
It’s a huge project, one being relished by boss Ian Steel’s sons Maitland, and Caspar, who will be managing it.
The new £90,000 “smart” roaster takes pride of place in the Steel family’s recently built nerve centre, sandwiched between The Hall and the original Atkinsons Shop.
It can roast up to 350 tonnes of coffee beans per year, more than three times the previous capacity.
The new space is light and airy and smells divine – if you have a nose for coffee – forming a central hub connecting the two business frontages.
“The coffee comes in green, and we’re looking at maybe 100 60kg sacks per month,” Ian said.
“It’s about the human connection to this hi-tech equipment.
“An artisan background with a techno future, and of course we still need to do the small batches.
“We’re working with better farms, which are taking more measurements and providing more data on the coffee. I could have done a much cheaper option, but this has now become the heart and soul of the business, and if we’re going to call it the coffee quarter, we need to be true to our word.”
Since Ian and Sue Steel took over J Atkinson & Co in 2003, the business has been transformed, or perhaps reformed, into a thriving and unique brand, coining the idea of Lancaster’s Coffee Quarter, and bringing a quality offering to many of the north of England’s hospitality businesses.
“We had this weird period where we weren’t working and were both at home, and we decided we wanted to do something together.
“We were sitting in front of a syphon of coffee, and it all came from there.
“We went to the shop and said to the owner that if he ever wanted to sell up, we’d be interested in buying.
“It turned out he did, and it moved very quickly from there.”
The family opened The Music Room in Sun Square in 2010, followed by The Hall in 2012, two cafes that bring a cosmopolitan feel to the city.
Last week, Ian was tutoring award-winning barista Caspar on the art of roasting with a 1930s roaster in the shop (see our website for a video).
He explained that the business was the last remaining connection to Lancaster’s historic port, and in terms of global connections, the links are still very much alive.
“Visiting Ethiopia was one of the most euphoric experiences of my life,” Ian said.
“It was the birthplace of coffee, and is where the legend of Kaldy and the dancing goats comes from.”
According to the legend, the ninth century goatherder Kaldi discovered the coffee plant after noticing the energizing effect the plant had on his flock. The story goes that he took the plant to the village elders and they ridiculed him, throwing the beans into a fire, which produced that singular smell...
“In 2005, maybe 2006, I went to El Salvador, which has a long coffee tradition, and I’ve also visited Colombia, Cuba, Kenya and Sumatra, all unique in their own coffee culture.
“Our model is direct trade. We have one to one relationships with farmers and growers.”
The former TV advert producer, now aged 58, has an obvious eye for cosmetics and the “look” of something.
The shop” literally takes you back to Victorian Lancaster, while The Hall has a distinct vibe of its own.
“Once we stripped it out we went over to Portland in Oregon, USA to have a look how they do it, and took a lot of ideas from there,” Ian explained.
“Portland is renowned in America for its coffee culture, and we did some of what they do to imbibe The Hall with some of that attitude.”
That attitude is also set for an unveiling in Manchester.
The grade II listed Mackie Mayor building in Swan Street is set to become Manchester Market Hall, with Atkinsons running the huge central hall.
The new Northern Quarter development will follow a similar model to Altrincham Market, with a central communal seating area surrounded by a selection of artisan food and drink outlets, and more seating for diners on a mezzanine floor above them, according to the Manchester Evening News.
Caspar, 25, who lives in Manchester, but flits regularly back to Lancaster, said: “It’s one of those things where sometimes you get given an opportunity, and I couldn’t say no to this.
“I always wanted to open one or two coffee shops in Manchester, but I didn’t think it would happen quite so soon!
“We’re at the design stage at the moment.” Caspar said he spent six months studying human geography at university, but decided cafe, and coffee, culture was his calling.
“I think all four of us, that’s my mum and dad and brother Maitland, we have the same vision.
“We’re interested in quality, and we enjoy it. We don’t like bad coffee and we’re trying to create a culture.
“It’s not just a cup of coffee, it’s a brand.”
Ian said: “We’ve built it to be the best it can be.
“It’s the best showroom we can possibly have, and we have made ourselves distinct from the chains, which adds value to the whole experience.
“It will help to tell the story of the farmers, and where the coffee comes from.
“Essentially Atkinsons and The Hall go to Manchester.
This is about building the brand and sticking to it.
“Manchester won’t have seen anything like it really.”