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Fathers Day

My father and I have worked together since as long as I can remember. Although truthfully, the early days were hardly to be described as work at all. 

My earliest memories are from when I was very small indeed. Being taken to work, and then sitting on a wooden stool, watching everything going on in the shop, smelling the coffee roasting downstairs, or being ground at the counter, the sound of the roaster humming, the grinders protesting, and the sharp chonk as beans were scooped and weighed in the brass scales- these are the things that made an impression and can still be heard today albeit in different places.

Whether my father hoped I would be so impressed that a career in coffee would follow, he never let on, or even pushed me in that direction. But as he had already found when starting with my grandfather, once the coffee gets into your soul there it stays.

For me, it wasn’t just about coffee, for the shop was a hub for all sorts of interesting characters both within the business, those somehow attached to it, and those who were our customers. My dad was at the centre of this, and it became quickly clear to me how people liked and respected him. Never someone to knowingly show off, blow his own trumpet, he had and still has a gentleness about him. So, I found it very easy to fall under the spell of H R Higgins (Coffee-man) Ltd, and happily did any job that I was given. I found nothing boring at all, well maybe filing the standing orders wasn’t at the top of the list, but even while doing that I could watch the postal orders being weighed and wrapped and listen to the conversations going on at the counter.

At 16 years of age, during the long school summer holidays, I was given a green overall to wear for the first time, and actually got paid (in cash). I did a variety of jobs but wasn’t let loose on the counter until two years later when straight from school, like my father before me, I began full-time. 

This proved to be a nerve-wracking experience, which today I find quite mystifying. Perhaps some of our customers were more demanding back then. Immediately identified as ‘the new boy’ one of two tried to avoid being served by me, and one actually told me I was wrapping his parcel incorrectly. It took a very long time until I felt as comfortable as my dad was. I never dared tell anyone I was Mr Higgins junior, preferring to remain anonymous, lest someone thought I was making it up, or boasting, or scared that I didn’t know the answers to some questions. 

One of the very first jobs I was given to do by my dad, and one which I suspect he was happy to pass on, was cashing up the tills, and going to the bank each day. We didn’t take cards in those days so it was all cash or cheques. All the payments for postal orders were cheques as well. I spent a lot of time checking to see they had been signed, dated correctly, and that the words and figures matched. 

My dad at that time in 1982 was busily looking for a roastery for us to expand our business. The little 28lb Whitmee in the basement could barely keep up. We couldn’t stop roasting during the day, someone always had to take over during our roaster John’s lunch break. Apart from him, my dad, my aunt Audrey, and one other staff member could also roast, but they all had plenty to do so it was logical that the new person, i.e., me, should learn to roast. 

I already knew more of less what went on in this machine with its flying belts, occasionally rattling parts, and hot pipes which, as a child I was always warned away from. However, to be in charge of this operation was something else. I knew there had been fires before. My dad had told me how my granddad had come in on a weekend, started the roaster, lit the gas and then gone down to the post office at the end of the street. He must have thought, ‘well I’ll only be gone a couple of minutes.” All very well, but having left the key in the shop, had to climb through the small window above the door. I remember this window well, and I guess the only reason you would consider entering this way was if you thought the building may burn down.

Despite this, I was eager to learn this skill, which lay at the very heart of our business. I have described this in some detail in another blog (link), but this was the time that I got to spend most of each day with my dad, actually working together. I can’t remember how many weeks we spent learning before I was allowed to fly solo, but as there were almost 20 different coffees to roast, each behaving slightly differently to one another, it must have been quite a while. 

The trickiest roasts to master were those where the beans had a lower density or were slightly drier. As the gas flame was set in the centre of the drum it came into direct contact with them, which made it easy to scorch them. A gas tap on the side was the only control and I learnt when to reduce this and by how much by repeated roasting. My dad was always a patient teacher, never getting worked up or panicked, which gave me a lot of confidence and lead to a calm atmosphere. He told me how therapeutic he found roasting. “If I ever want to think a problem over, I will go and roast some coffee, and then my thoughts seem to come together somehow”.  I found this to be true, but not until I was quite a bit more experienced, and I felt in control of the roasting and not under its control.

One coffee that I learned to roast which will still sell today is Kenya Estate. Kenyan coffee has always been one of the highest quality coffees we sell, even during my grandfather’s time. When I was young it had a very high acidity so if I felt a bit sleepy in the morning at the shop, I would grind some and take a good sniff. This had almost the same effect as drinking it.  

Over the years we have bought this coffee from various farms owing to availability and quality. In recent years this quality has improved so that rather than just being very acidic and citrus in flavour we associate the taste with strawberries and cream. There is still acidity, but it doesn’t linger so long on the tongue as I remember, having a gentler strawberry sensation with a rich mouthfeel, hence the cream.

In 1984 we opened our first separate roastery in Waltham Abbey and from then on, I saw a lot less of my dad. As the office and all the admin moved away along with the mail order preparation the former packing room at the back of the shop lay empty and the shop seemed rather quiet downstairs, although we still roasted coffee there. I was mainly at the shop, on the counter and roasting, and cashing up each day. Then in 2004 I took over as managing director and my father spent more time at home as my mother was unwell for many years.

In recent years, after my mother’s death, my father has in his eighties spent even more time working than in his sixties or seventies. Now regularly seen at Duke St and doing what he can do best, talking to customers and sharing his endless stories, knowledge, and spreading a sense of goodwill, and we love presenting the masterclasses together. 

When I first started my dad had already been working full-time in the business for almost 30 years. Now I am in my fortieth year of working, and therefore my dad is in his seventieth. We’ve often had different ideas but never fallen out, and as Father’s Day approaches, I think myself very lucky to spend so much time together, and long may it continue.

If you happen upon my Dad in Duke Street please say hallo and you may be lucky enough to hear some of his stories in our coffee room first hand over a cup of Kenya Estate perhaps. 

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