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Twin Cafe: Putting cooperation & community first

If you think you know about good coffee, be prepared to do a double-take.

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Sheffield-based social enterprise Twin Cafe believes in cooperation, community and a common future built on exchange rather than profit. We chatted to co-owner Anne Davies to hear more about this value-driven coffee supplier and how they are faring as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

First things first. Tell us a bit about yourself and how Twin Café started.

Twin Café was started in 2014 by three Sheffield University students who had been on the Student Union Exchange to Estelí [in Nicaragua] that year. They came back inspired by Sheffield’s twin city and the friends they had made and started Twin Café as a way of increasing trade and communications between the two cities.

Twin Café coffee is very, very good coffee. It has an SCA [Speciality Coffee Association] quality score of 86 and is totally traceable, single origin, fairly-traded, bird-friendly, organically shade-grown at altitude, handpicked and processed arabica.

We are a small social enterprise and have found out the hard way that you need a fair bit of capital to succeed in the coffee world. Most of the money in supplying coffee is made selling coffee by the cup and that needs an espresso machine. Even second hand these start at £1,500 and are usually provided to coffee shops by the coffee supplier with a tie-in contract.

Twin Café can’t compete with well capitalised and large companies and no matter how hard Tom, Sarah and Sam worked the company couldn’t provide money for them all to live on. Finally in 2017, when Tom was the only founding member left, he had to look for better paid employment to support his new family responsibilities. He was still trying to keep Twin Café afloat when Jeff and I got in touch to volunteer, so it wasn’t long before we ended up running the company.

Shade grown coffee

Shade-grown coffee.

You pride yourselves on doing coffee differently. What makes your coffee unique?

Our logo reflects our company ethos; it’s a large cappuccino cup with a simplified skyline of Sheffield on a sunshine yellow or sky blue background and underneath it says 'people before profit'.

We buy all our coffee from the UCA Miraflor co-op just outside Sheffield’s twin city of Esteli, via the ethical company Etico, as we are too small to arrange the importing and transporting of the coffee ourselves. As a small company our business partners are very important to us and [local tea and coffee merchant] Pollards have been really helpful as they store and roast our coffee.

Etico pays a fair price. This year it was 23% above the fairtrade minimum for organic coffee, so the farmers and co-op can prosper and we then use our profits to buy more coffee. We have donated to social projects in Esteli and given some donations to organisations working with young people in Sheffield. In the last couple of years we have supported social enterprises and community organisations mainly by donating or supplying coffee at cost price.

It continues to be a challenging time for independent businesses. How has the pandemic changed the way you work?

The pandemic has meant that all the companies who sold coffee by the cup in pubs or cafes, and the businesses who bought it for staff to drink, haven’t bought any. We have lost two-thirds of our sales since the beginning of March. Likes on our Facebook page and hits on the website have increased and we have more orders for home delivery. Regather, with their fantastic veg box, have increased their orders, as have Beeches, Zeds, Just Natural and Beanies, but this hasn’t yet been able to make up for the loss - temporary, we hope - of our other customers.

We are trying to increase the number of local customers and will introduce a delivery system for Sheffield to reduce shipping costs and make buying our coffee more economical for our home customers.

The pandemic has also made communicating with Nicaragua even more difficult than it usually is, although we understand that co-op members are okay and relatively unaffected.

African Beds coffee drying

Coffee drying in beds.

Finally, what's on the horizon for Twin Cafe?

We need to up our marketing and make sure that Sheffield knows that this is very, very good coffee and competitively priced compared with other single origin coffees. Twin Café coffee costs less than 2.5p per gram in small packets and when bought in kilograms is 1.8p per gram.

It is very difficult to see how we could do things differently at the moment. We had researched the possibility of a business venture with a northern-based street paper but we will need to sit this pandemic out for a while before we put any big plans in place.

In the short term there is the possibility of a collaboration between Nottingham Trent media students producing a short video of Twin Café’s work. Our long term mission is to make the company sustainable so that the coffee is available in Sheffield for many years to come.

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