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‘Modern Coffee’ Group Watchhouse Makes a Play for London Domination

The stylish cafe outfit is planning six openings in the next year, going in hard on London’s speciality chain contenders

Four white coffee cone filters sit on white digital scales in an arc
Coffee brewers ready to do their duty at Watchhouse’s Maltby Street roastery
Watchhouse [Official Photo]

“Modern coffee” group Watchhouse is planning six openings in the next twelve months, as it makes a play for a London speciality-chain market. Cafes in Bishopsgate, Seven Dials, Marylebone and Covent Garden will follow the opening 70 St. Mary’s Axe — the City building best known as “the can of ham” — this April, which sports a large outside terrace for outdoor sipping. It will also open a cafe in Bath late 2021.

The group started life as a collection of cafes that served decent, if not spectacular coffee from Ozone in neatly designed spaces, alongside a considered if familiar food menu. But a £2.1 million funding raise led by Edition Capital in October 2019 — and an eye for growth in a London speciality coffee scene that has recently lost some of its largest and best-known brands — has seen it both rapidly expand and thoroughly bolster its backbone, opening a roastery on Maltby Street, taking an Aesop-esque approach to design, and acquiring game-changing group Fernandez and Wells’ cafes, as well as the Commercial Street cafe formerly occupied by Brooklyn Coffee. It converted Fernandez and Well’s Somerset House cafe, but relinquished the cafe/wine bars on Duke Street in Mayfair, Exhibition Road in South Kensington, and Denmark Street which defined the state of London cafe culture at their peak.

Horne said:

I’ve been incredibly proud of the resilience and long-term mindset of the WatchHouse team throughout the challenges of Covid-19. To have been able to use this time to take all of our coffee roasting and food production fully in-house has been game changing and sets us up to scale the WatchHouse estate with even greater consistency. We look forward to bringing the Modern Coffee experience to many more communities in London and beyond, as well as continuing to drive our WatchHouse.YourHouse. subscriptions at scale. This rapid expansion is a huge testament to the best-in-class WatchHouse team.

It’s expanding into a space vacated by Taylor Street Baristas and Department of Coffee and Social Affairs (DCSA). Coffeesmiths, the parent company of DCSA which acquired Taylor Street’s brand when it was forced to sell its cafe operations to another company, Black Sheep, collapsed in 2020 after an unsustainable run of business acquisitions that led to tens of cafes shutting down and hundreds of staff losing jobs in the middle of a pandemic, at its eponymous chain, Taylor Street’s central operations, and Tap, the celebrated trio of cafes in Fitzrovia and Soho that were a hotbed of London coffee in the early 2010s.

More established groups like Workshop Coffee, Alchemy, Ozone, and lately Cornwall’s Origin Coffee have maintained small estates, unlike DCSA and Taylor Street. It’s that mid-size space that Watchhouse is filling, with a clearly defined brand and aesthetic and roastery ballast that recalls the early development of Blue Bottle and Stumptown in the U.S., both of which, but particularly Blue Bottle, established clearly defined brands, built profile through speciality competitions and high growth, and later sold to retail juggernauts Nestlé and JAB respectively for hundreds of millions of dollars in a U.S. market that was, and is more mature than that of the U.K. London and the U.K. doesn’t really yet have a high growth, speciality coffee but-make-it-lifestyle proposition that is anchored by a clearly defined brand but whose design is supple to the locations it inhabits, and Watchhouse appears to be looking to capture that market and not let go.