Interview with Giles Dick-Read | Founder Director | Reads Coffee

June 29, 2020

It’s an ambition which his urban counterparts are unlikely to share, although Giles Dick-Read, founder director of Reads Coffee, says really it would best be described as more of a pipe dream.

It’s not the desire to double the volume of coffee they roast which would be the point of difference, but how such an increase would be facilitated. The choice of premises would have to be in line with a long-term ambition to become a ‘destination’ or tourist attraction, where people could come to watch and learn about the roasting being carried out and then sit and drink the coffee.

With that in mind, though Dick-Read jokes that sometimes he yearns for the sort of modern facilities that a unit on a trading estate would offer, in practice he would be looking for another rural site. “My dream,” he says, “would be to restore an old mill – my family were millers – and creating a roastery café. I’m keeping my eyes peeled – something will crop up.”

Dick-Read founded Reads Coffee in 1998 after working for multiple café operators such as Pret A Manger. “That accumulated knowledge makes us unique compared with those following the Shoreditch trend and going directly into coffee roasting with little or no experience,” says Dick-Read.

His business specialises in the traditional hand roasting of single estate Arabica coffee, using a twenty-five-kilo drum roaster. He likens coffee to craft beer in the range of varieties and flavours available and the way both have become gourmet brews. “We roast slowly and for a smooth flavour and if I was to liken our expresso to a beer it would be more London Pride, though we produce the ‘craft ales’ with their bright, acidic, fruity flavours, as well,” Dick- Read explains.

Reads roast to order for trade and retail clients throughout the UK, including shops, cafes, gastro pubs and restaurants. Local people often pop in to buy a bag of coffee.

The bespoke roasting element is a unique selling proposition, Dick-Read says. And it means the business doesn’t need to hold a lot of stock; it simply buys in the chosen beans as needed from various brokers for delivery two or three times a month.

Dick-Read’s initial ambition was basically “just to produce fantastic coffee,” with the focus on single-origin coffee rather than blends – rather like malt whiskies, to apply another drinks analogy. Growth since then has been “slowly

organic,” with the customer base built largely by word-of-mouth – Dick-Read is only now at the stage of being able to self-fund the marketing of the business.

He sees his mission now as more than just selling coffee: it’s helping customers to make “superb” coffee, via workshops for home users and barista training sessions for commercial customers. “Roasting coffee is just the first step towards making the drink,” says Dick-Read. “With wine, say, when you open the bottle, that’s more or less it, but with coffee, once the bag has been opened, from then on pretty much everything has the potential to go wrong.”

Such as? “It’s about how to keep the coffee fresh, how to set up the correct grind correctly, how to froth the milk, actively maintaining the equipment,” he explains.

With that in mind, Reads offer advice on what kit to buy and training on all aspects of the coffee-making process; that appeals in particular to restaurants and coffee bars, which often suffer from high staff turnover and so need ongoing training. The educational element of the offer is at the core of an ambition to start to grow more substantially over the next ten years – to make the business more valuable when Dick-Read comes to retirement age.

Despite the attractions of having a rural location, he remains conscious of the downsides. “Businesses are more reliant on staff being able to drive,” he points out. Meanwhile, public transport is sparse at best, with its cost going up and then up again. The political will to improve it appears to be focused on metropolitan districts.

“We should be trying to develop an infrastructure that works for the rural economy. Nothing annoys me more than people who are simply anti-car, anti- road, or anti-rail, anti-development, largely based on their own urban living situation”

If Dick-Read could influence political decision-making he would also encourage more businesses to set up in rural areas by automatically allowing redundant agricultural property to be used for non-agricultural purposes. “That would mean buildings of character continue to be maintained and improved, while making it easier for small businesses to find premises, which in turn would stimulate the rural economy,” he suggests. “I realise it could be open to abuse though,” he adds. “Crafty developers might try to exploit loopholes in order to then convert them to residential use.”

A further issue is the relatively small talent pool for employers. To fulfil the ambition to double the amount of coffee the company roasts would require five full-time staff plus a few part-timers (at the moment there are about six in total, most part-time).

Dick-Read tends to hire through word-of-mouth and relies often on local students and mums who want flexible working. And on his wife, Charlotte, who runs the office. While students are young and enthusiastic, the trouble is that they can’t stay. “We have a team packing at the moment but come the start of term some will be gone,” says Dick-Read.

He acknowledges though that the biggest risk to the development of the business could be himself, in the sense that he is roaster, manager and everything else in one; he needs in particular to recruit or train somebody to help with the roasting.

“But my biggest weakness is delegation,” he cedes. “Some people are natural delegators and some are not. Maybe I’m a control freak! I try to do everything myself, probably because I had to when I started the business. I’d love to be mentored on how not to have a one-man band mentality, so I don’t think always think it would better to do all the roasting myself rather than to teach someone else.”

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