So, according to a certain global coffee publication, I own and operate a Top 5 Coffee Truck of the World. I pinch myself daily.
My name is Anthony Duckworth. I’m a 45-year-old Aussie surfer living in London. I’m Owner of Dear Coco Street Coffee and International Marketing Director for one of the world’s largest brands. I have an amazing home life with my wife and 3 daughters. I’m a well-oiled machine of following dreams and doing things I love. I have zero stress in my life… and I truly mean zero (touch wood). My corporate career financially provides everything the family needs and our street coffee business provides the gravy. I’m a hardworking, grateful guy like many of you.
Our coffee business is a love letter to our 7-year-old daughter, Coco. It oozes love, passion and storytelling. Day in day out, we give our heart and soul on the street, one specialty cup at a time.
Our success has been earned. We’ve outperformed every metric we set ourselves. We’ve become famous in the local area and known to global coffee community. We’ve helped elevate the London street coffee scene. It’s one of those beautiful success stories since launching in May 2021… right in the middle of a global pandemic.
So, knowing this, why would a guy who seemingly has it all figured out risk it all to expand into brick & mortar? Greed, ego? Maybe both.
Why, after working so damn hard for 6 years to financially rebuild after relocating from Sydney to London? Why, after losing our life savings solving significant U.K visa & settlement complications? Why, after taking a backward step in my corporate career, and having to bartend secretly at night to pay our London bills? Why, after investing our hard-earned life savings to build a coffee truck dream that existed only in my head? Why, after working 7 days a week for 7 straight months to launch the coffee truck, nearly breaking myself in the process? Why?
These are the questions I asked myself on repeat as I tossed and turned at night from February 2023, right up until yesterday.
For coffee truck owners, expansion into brick & mortar is a well-trodden path. I wonder why. Do we conquer the street and need a new challenge? Does the magic truck dust encourage roots to grow? Perhaps the appeal of a front door and walls to keep the cold out is appealing?
The reality of street coffee is harsh. There are fewer tougher jobs in coffee than a coffee truck, let alone a coffee truck in a cold climate country like the U.K.
To the local community, our coffee truck is a glorious mirage along the River Thames, West London. The Piaggio Apè is striking in its beauty and credibility. The Linea Mini dances next to the Mythos 1. The Roasting Party coffee sings with The Estate Dairy milk. River walking customers glee with delight, asking themselves how an Aussie-inspired speciality coffee truck landed right here, of all places? We talk, we laugh, we’re a destination of happiness.
But under the hood the invisible reality is quite different. My morning routine is so disciplined it’d make David Goggins shudder. At the house I load the truck at 6.00am. Rain, hail or shine – it happens, nothing stops me. I have a maniacal focus on delivering on the promises I’ve made. I feel obsessed to provide for the family after 6 years of financial struggle.
It’s 6.45am. I set off for the river, cleaning whatever has settled on the truck’s windshield overnight. I pull up along Strand on the Green at 7.00am. It’s fucking freezing, and windy. I sit in the tiny truck cabin willing myself to step outside and start the set-up. I’m the coffee version of a Bering Sea crab fisherman willing themselves to step out on deck. It’s fucking freezing, and windy (mentioned twice for impact).
I step outside, put the truck on the wheel ramp and plug it in. I’m praying the equipment hasn’t frozen solid overnight. Our Barista arrives at 7.30am and we hug it out. This is a battlefield and we’re on it together. We set up the truck, dial in and take a deep breath – we’re live. I get my owner’s perk flat white, spend 20 minutes chatting to customers and head off to Belgravia, Central London to start my day as Marketing Director for a global brand. I get to defrost, our Barista doesn’t.
Back at the truck, our Barista is freezing. Her feet have gone numb, her hands are aching. The wind blows cold air down her neck while destroying her tulip pour. She’s there for 8 hours with zero respite. She stomps her feet to keep the blood moving. She prays for a latte order so she can steam the largest jug for the longest time to warm her right hand. This, ladies and gentlemen is COFFEE’S. HARDEST. BARISTA. JOB.
For 2 years we turn up, day after day. The Winter routine makes way for Spring. The Spring routine makes way for Summer. Autumn comes along and customers ask when we’re closing for Winter. “We don’t!” we say. “You guys are mad!” they say. Nothing stops Dear Coco. We’re on the offensive to grow and the defensive to maintain. We can’t stop, we can’t lose our foothold.
It’s February 2023, the coffee truck is winning. For 2 years we’ve seen unstoppable, consistent growth. Our
Instagram presence passes 10K (an obscene followership for a tiny coffee truck, with one location, in under 2 years). We have the best team, the balance is perfect, it’s all gravy.
Then, BOOM! 15 minutes down the road my favourite specialty coffee spot announces its permanent closure. Within days the café staff are laid off, newspaper is taped to the windows, equipment stripped out, it’s dead as disco. The owner just didn’t have it in her anymore. It happens. Running a coffee business, any business, is a grind.
I pick up the phone to some local contacts asking for the landlady’s number. She’s just lost her tenant of 4 years; I want to speak to her. I want to get to her before the property hits the market – Blank Street will gobble this one up. I track her down and invite her to chat about her empty shop. I strategically bring the brains and beauty of our family, my wife Emma. I also ask our 7-year-old Coco (the namesake of Dear Coco) to don her prettiest dress for emotional impact.
For 2 hours we speak to the landlady about Dear Coco. I tell the story of our ambition to expand into brick & mortar, and this site is the only one we want. The landlady is particularly attached to her little shop, so winning her heart and commercial mind is key. In truth, I had no plans to expand Dear Coco at the time. But I was overly connected to that location given I was a customer for 4 years, and I lived around the corner. It’s a great spot for specialty coffee.
Coco’s pretty dress works. We agree terms, shake hands and fetch the solicitors to make it happen. I hired a shiny big city solicitor. The landlady hired a less-shiny suburban one.
Then the cracks appear.
Our side moved quick, their side didn’t. Our side practiced proper commercial law, their side didn’t. Our side worked to balance risk where risk was unavoidable, their side… you guessed it – didn’t. To make things more complicated, given the outgoing tenant was forfeiting her lease, she needed to contribute to the process. This added a third solicitor into the mix. 3 is rarely better than 2.
Apparently, to agree a standard commercial lease of this complexity takes about 6 weeks. So, as incoming
tenants we planned for the process to last 6 weeks, give or take. We secure a builder. We line up suppliers. We design the interiors. We hire staff. We plan everything down to the last detail, while avoiding investing money until the lease is signed. We’re moving at speed so when we sign the lease, we hit go on everything. Overnight £50,000 would leave our family savings account in pursuit of this new dream of having a front door and walls that keep the cold out.
It’s official, I’m now putting the family in financial harms way (again) after rebuilding following our move to London, then launching a street coffee business. What the f*ck am I thinking!
Then, the second BOOM. The outgoing tenant vanishes off the face of the earth. We can’t progress the lease process without her. This rich kid of an industry tycoon deemed the foreclosure of her lease and the
responsibilities that come with it, an inconvenience. She vanishes, burying her head in a bucket of chilled rosé. All 3 lawyers try to track her down, she ignores everyone.
6 weeks turns into 19 weeks. The barista team I hired to commence 13 weeks ago need financial support. So I open the coffee truck on Mondays and Tuesdays to create more shifts to keep them going. But I’m not licenced to operate along the river on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I knock on doors finding suitable private land to trade. All I need is to make £220 a day in sales to break-even. We achieve this, but I make no money despite all this additional work. But the priority is paying our Baristas while Little Miss Rich-Kid chills more rosé (I’m still bitter).
I go onto work for 75 days straight – no days off. This commercial real estate thing is a mugs game.
19 weeks into the lease process and I’m having a quiet coffee with the sun on my face – I’m properly knackered. My phone rings, its an industry friend I trust. “Anthony, I’ve just heard there’s a new speciality coffee shop opening directly across the road from your new shop. They’ve moved fast, its opening in 4 weeks”. I tell myself competition is good, competition is inevitable. But something feels off.
As I sip my coffee, I open Google Maps and take a screenshot of the local area. I circle the existing (credible) coffee shops in green. I circle in red the 3 new coffee shops that have opened since I started the lease process in February. One new competitor was directly around the corner from “our” shop. One competitor intercepted a major pedestrian flow from Chiswick High Road. The other intercepted foot traffic from Bedford Park. Our shop was now flanked by new (and established) coffee shops, to the point it made the area over-saturated with cafes.
In the 19 weeks we had spent on the lease negotiations, the competitive landscape had changed. Our
assessment was the area simply did not need another specialty coffee shop – no matter how good we knew we could be. But pure gut feel wasn’t enough to sabotage this dream, so I strapped on my propeller hat and crunched some numbers. My assessment was these 3 new competitors with their intercepting positions would reduce Dear Coco’s shop revenue by 15-20%. Based on a variety of data points, I was forecasting our shop to generate £6,000 per week in sales, at a net profit of ~15%. As owners, the only money we’d make from this shop is the net profit.
You don’t need a propeller hat to realise that if revenue goes down by 15-20% due to market over-saturation, and our net profit is 15% – all of a sudden the business is not profitable, and we’re working for free. Not only are we working for free, but our £50,000 initial investment can’t be replenished. Any unexpected dip in sales or maintenance issue starts to cause real issues. I’m then relying on profits generated from the coffee truck to prop up the shop. At that point, the gravy turns to turpentine.
So we’re out! We made the difficult decision not to sign the lease we had spent 19 weeks begging for.
The following day was like cancelling a wedding the week before. I called our 2 gorgeous staff members to break the news – this made me cry. I informed the three solicitors – this did not make me cry. I informed our coffee roastery, our builder, our electrician, our suppliers, or ceramics lady, our awning crew, our designer, and our kids.
It was the right commercial decision, but damn it was hard. I was emotionally invested in the potential of a front door and walls to keep the cold out. The competitive landscape had changed in 19 weeks. Without Little Miss Rich-Kid’s vanishing act, we would have signed this lease and been trapped in an unwinnable situation. The rosé is on me if we bump into each other down the road.
But as the disappointment dissipates and our lovely shop team find new roles, it’s time for reflection.
Here’s what I learned over 19 weeks of going from street coffee truck to brick & mortar…and back again.
- Common sense isn’t common.
- Be humble. You can’t beat everyone.
- It ain’t done until its done. Invest accordingly.
- True character is shown in moments of chaos.
- If the deal isn’t right, its wrong. Be decisive.
- In deals, don’t let your heart dominate your head. Both have a role at different times.
- No one likes spoiled rich kids, no one. But sometimes their indifference can play a role.
- It’s not how big it is, it’s what you do with it. Our tiny coffee truck makes our family more money than a brick & mortar café, with half the revenue.
Allow me to share an open look inside our business. Below is our street coffee 2022 financials versus our Year 1 shop forecast, to help demonstrate what I mean: