After Emma fell out of love with her job in travel, it was an afternoon watching a young lad and his coffee truck in Cornwall that changed the trajectory of her life.
One could be forgiven for thinking there was some cosmic timing at play here, as just as she was wondering ‘what next?’ she was presented with something new and exciting to try. Fuelled by a passion for coffee, a recognition of the importance of supporting local businesses and a tonne of caffeine, Emma opened The Peaky Grinder; a homage to her love for the little brown bean and of course Cillian Murphy (and the rest of the gang). As one chats with Emma, her dedication to her craft is palpable and so too is her desire to inspire others. The communal spirit of the industry is one that has bolstered her love for what she does and makes her eager to give back by offering advice to anyone who is thinking of following in her footsteps. I sat down with Emma to find out more about her love for coffee (as well as the TV show), her plans for the future and the endearing sense of community within the industry.
How did it all begin?
So I’m a lockdown starter. Like a lot people, just before the first lockdown I was made redundant from my job in travel. When covid started getting serious I knew pretty quickly that things weren’t going to leap back quickly and I was coming to the end of my passion for my previous job anyway. I thought to myself ‘gosh, what on earth am I going to do?’ I wasn’t benefitting from furlough so I had to get my thinking cap on pretty quickly. We went to Cornwall for a few days and I saw a lad with a coffee van and we sat there and watched the queues whilst adding up how many coffees he must be selling. I thought to myself ‘you know I really fancy having a go at that,’ and that’s how it all started, by the following February I’d bought a van! Me and my other half did a lot of research on how to convert a van and on coffee. We focused on local businesses and all my coffee is provided by a company called Shropshire Coffee because I wanted to use somebody local. We certainly did a lot of coffee tasting in the name of research! That’s how I came across NCASS as well and it’s probably been the most useful tool that I’ve ever come across.
That’s fantastic to hear! Did you pick coffee after being inspired by that truck in Cornwall or have you always had a love for coffee?
I’ve always been a bit of a coffee snob but I honestly never thought I’d end up going into this line of work so yes I must have also been inspired by that lad! I’m also approaching 50 and I just thought ‘you know what, I want to do something that I’m going to love; something I’m going to really enjoy.’ It was a lot though, I didn’t know how it worked with permanent pitches, or shows or events or festivals or anything like that so to begin with I had to speak to my local council. I had a permanent pitch for 12 months but I also did shows and events then I needed to figure out what was going to work best for me with the product that I had.
Do you focus on events now or do you still have a permanent pitch as well?
Over the last 18 months I’ve taken on anything so that I can work out what I prefer doing and what is more financially viable. The permanent pitch didn’t work as well because you’d have days were you did really well and days were you didn’t whereas if you do a music festival or a food or drink show or some kind of car or sporting event, you know you’re always going to have queues. You’re always going to be busy at those kind of events and you know you’re going to have a good day.
That makes sense, I suppose at a car or sporting event I would expect there to be somewhere that at the very least I can get a hot drink. The plus then is that you almost get to share the audience of an event like that. I’m going to put you on the spot here but what if your favourite kind of event to do?
God that’s really difficult because I’ve had loads of fun! I did Sunshine festival last August which was such hard work, I was shattered at the end of it, but I’m doing it again this year because I absolutely loved it. But I also did a local event, the Trimpley Heavy Horse Show and that was just lovely. It’s on my door step so my other half helped me and again we had queues all day! We also met some lovely people and it was such a nice atmosphere.
You’re based in Worcestershire so I’ve got to ask about the name! We’re based in Birmingham so I of course get the reference, but Worcestershire is a bit further afield that I’d expect for a Peaky Blinders reference! What was the thinking behind that?
I love the Peaky Blinders and I’ve got a lot of family in Birmingham and the Black Country so when I started selling freshly ground coffee it seemed perfect! Also I’ve got ‘bostin’ on my van so there’s an affiliation with the Black Country there. It’s really interesting though because no matter where I go people get the reference. Aussies love Peaky Blinders and I go all out with the cap and everything.
I love the dedication there! What would you say was the biggest challenge that you overcame of 2022 and what are some of your goals for this year?
The biggest challenge was believing in myself. I’ve only been doing this for a couple of years and you have to be brave to start your own business but sometimes when I’ve had a bad gig I start to question whether I’m doing the right thing. But I’ve had to keep believing in myself. Another thing I’m proud of is that I’m not an admin person at all and I don’t like paperwork, but I’ve been really disciplined. I’ve got all my application forms for all the shows and festivals filled in and sent off already and I’ve very proud of myself for having that discipline because you can’t run a successful business unless you’ve got your paperwork in order.
It’s so important to believe in yourself isn’t it. A lot of people started businesses in lockdown, entirely changing their career and post-lockdown might have some concerns as to whether they made the right choice or got swept up in that wave of ‘I need to rehaul my life during this time.’ But to continue believing in yourself when life ‘returned to normal’ takes a lot I think. I think that’s such a positive takeaway for you to have from 2022.
Completely and that’s really what I’m taking into 2023, that pride in myself and now I know that I can do it I’m going to do things even better this year. I also think I’m going to utilise my spare time a bit more wisely because I’ve found it strange going from a 9-5 job to suddenly having all this free time in the week. I work mostly at the weekends and I’ve got this time in the week now so I’ve decided to better utilise my time, spending it with friends and family or going to the gym; healthy mind, healthy body and all that! I am thinking about possibly getting a second van as well.
You mentioned earlier that despite covid and lockdown you had already fallen out of love with your job. What is it that you love about what you do now then and working in this industry? I can hear the passion in your voice and it’s clear how much you love what you do and that’s amazing. So what is it that appeals to you about this new career?
I worked in a travel agency before and I was in front of a screen from 9-5 every day; although I loved working in the travel industry that’s just not me. What I love about this industry is that I’m out and about and you never know what your day is going to entail. You turn up to do a show or an event or a festival and you don’t know what your day is going to be, it’s completely unpredictable. I’ve also met so many fabulous people and traders who have been going for many years and who have helped me with great advice. I love working outdoors and I love the freedom and flexibility that this new career is giving me.
It’s fantastic to hear about how helpful other traders have been, there is such a wonderful sense of community in the industry that I don’t think you find in many others. How has you NCASS membership benefitted you and your business?
I seriously couldn’t cope without you guys and to this day I am still finding new resources which is brilliant. I also got my insurance through you as well and it’s comforting knowing that you’re there on the end of phone if I’ve got a question. You guys have always been really helpful and professional.
That’s what we’re here for! You mentioned earlier that you wanted to focus on locality and that your coffee is from a local company. Why is that so important to you?
It’s because it’s about supporting each other. I think especially since lockdown, people are trying to be more local. I made sure I did all my Christmas shopping in the little shops in my local town rather than buying stuff online and I think that’s so important. I went to quite a dew different coffee places but all quite local and did a lot of tasting! I picked the one that tasted the nicest but I also wanted to make sure it was a local supporting another local. It’s very important to me. It’s also about sustainability as well. All of my products are compostable and I keep the coffee grounds and use them as compost. It’s all about thinking a little bit further.
I’ve got to ask, what’s your go-to coffee order and even though it’s not fair to ask, what is your favourite coffee to make?
There’s something so cathartic about making good coffee and I do pride myself on my coffee; I put a lot of love into every cup I make. I’m very fussy about my own coffee but my favourite is a flat white. I don’t like it too milky, so an eight ounce cup with two shots of espresso and just a little bit of smooth milk is perfect.
Oh I’m very different! I’m a mocha girl through and through give me all the syrups you can! One last question, what are your plans for the year ahead?
I am thinking about getting a second van but the most important thing first of all is getting really good staff; good baristas that really know their stuff and have the same passion as you. It’s so important because expanding is a big decision. But I’m also thinking why not stick to the one van and me at the moment and then in another couple of years do another. Why would I fix something if it’s not broken because I’m currently in a position where I’m turning down events.