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30 Digital Champions: The growing coffee shop chain set in police boxes and a barge

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Our Digital Champions programme is designed to find small companies across the country that recognise technology can be transformative for an operation, even if the business doesn’t revolve around digital.

Alastair MacFarlane, co-founder of coffee shop chain The Counter, told Real Business how an innovative approach site openings – storefronts are set up in police boxes – could be complemented with a speedier service.

(1) Please give us a brief introduction to the business?

We run three coffee shops from police boxes in Edinburgh, which are based in Morningside, Tollcross and Usherhall.

We were truly inspired by the food truck and takeaway scene when we were travelling in California and wanted to do something similar in Edinburgh. We’ve been running for 15 months and just love serving high quality products to the locals on a daily basis.

(2) What have the significant growth milestones been in the last few years?

We started off operating from one police box and in 15 months we tripled the size of business. Opening a new shop is a huge milestone in itself, so we feel we have hit three major pinnacles since we launched.

Every year brings something different but we have set a real benchmark now. If the next year or so can be as exciting as the last then we’ll be over the moon. It’s our job to make that happen.

We also won the “15 Seconds Of Fame” competition which saw us get advertising space on national television. Seeing our business on TV really was an amazing feeling and it certainly helped raise our profile.

(3) What inspires you as an entrepreneur, and how does that come across with your company?

As an entrepreneur passion is very important and is my biggest inspiration. We are extremely passionate about what we do. It comes across through our contact with customers and our products.

We also only partner with companies and suppliers who have the same enthusiasm for what they do as we do. We feel this always reflects in the quality of service and the product as well.

(4) What kind of obstacles are you encountering as you grow your enterprise?

Working from police boxes meant we encountered various problems. Things like setting up WiFi and having the right electrical supplies was an issue to begin with and we obviously have a few restrictions with regards to space. But that is all part of the fun and the learning experience.

Opening a conventional coffee shop would have been easy. We’ve done things a bit differently and we are all the better for it. To add, the expansion to three locations has been fairly stressful for my partner and me, however, it has made the journey extremely exciting and fast-paced.

(5) For a company that isn’t technology based, how has a digital approach helped you to carve out a bigger market and acquire new customers?

When you see a traditional business in an unusual setting, people automatically expect you to be behind with the times and not be up to date with the latest technology. That certainly isn’t the case with us and we have truly recognised its importance. Being up to date with technology gives us a certain professionalism that customers don’t expect from a police box coffee shop.

Technology is vital in creating a seamless service. For example at the beginning we struggled to find an affordable option that would enable us to accept card payments. After lots of searching, we found mobile payments system iZettle – which has made life far easier for our customers and helped create a service that competes with the best.

Not only has it made our lives easier, it has also made our business look more professional especially in such a crowded space.

(6) How is technology helping you to overcome hurdles, and what are the challenges of implementation?

On a basic level, social media has helped us gain new customers and raise our profile. Using tablets allows us to upload photos on site, which is handy as social media is all about timing.

As mentioned, we thought the lack of WiFi would have been a real issue due to our location, but mobile WiFi has completely solved that problem. It really has been a lifesaver.

(7) Do you employ any kind of flexible working, and how does technology fit into this?

We don’t use flexible working tools per se, but we do use electrical/online calendars so staff can see where shifts are available at each of the police boxes. Our staff work across all three shops so this makes communication a lot easier for all.

I am intrigued to see how technology changes the future of work. It seems that remote working is becoming more and more popular, however, I can’t see it having a huge impact on our business nor is it something we are really looking to implement.

(8) What kind of technology tools can you not work without?

iZettle. Its reporting system allows us to track our sales in real time and gives us access to analytics that were seemingly impossible for small businesses like us to afford.

The speedy and seamless card transactions mean the queues move quickly, and with more and more people paying by card these days, it is vital that we make that option available to our customers.

Also, having mobile WiFi is something we rely on massively, as being in a police box restricts us from having hard wired internet systems.

(9) What kind of technology would help you better compete with larger rivals?

Electronic loyalty cards are brilliant for small business. Adding to the customer experience is imperative not only for retaining clientele but for attracting new ones. It’s often the small things that make the biggest difference, and getting the intricacies right massively helps small merchants compete with bigger names on the high street.

(10) Where do you want to take your business in the future?

We have experienced exceptional growth in the last 15 months and are very settled at the moment. We love our police boxes but they don’t give us a lot of storage or preparation space, so we’ve bought a canal barge!

When a commercial mooring on the Union Canal came on the market we leapt at the opportunity. Our production kitchen, office and another takeaway coffee spot are heading onto the water.

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