Ian Steel: Taking his best shot

Sitting in the late autumn sunshine in the imposing and impressive courtyard of Lancaster Castle, Ian Steel shares a socially distanced brew and talks coffee and coronavirus.

The 62-year-old ‘Keeper of the Flame’ at Atkinsons Coffee Roasters explains how he and his family kept that flame burning when the pandemic threatened to extinguish it for good.

Atkinsons, a supplier to hospitality businesses across the North, was set to hit the £2m turnover mark this year but things changed dramatically and very quickly. Ian says: “When lockdown was announced on March 23, 90 per cent of our income disappeared overnight.”

The 10 per cent that remained was internet sales through its website. Over the next weeks and months that was to dramatically increase by up to 600 per cent.

Pouring another cup, filled with his favourite strong, speciality Ethiopian coffee, Ian explains: “We pivoted during lockdown to become an online business.”

It was a direction the award-winning business planned to take in the future and work had started to boost its online presence. The perilous situation meant it became a project very much for the here and now.

The business furloughed 31 staff, keeping on a core team to roast, package and ship out the growing online sales.

Today Atkinsons takes as much, if not more, online than it does in its High Street shop, selling its speciality coffees to customers across the country.

We have nurtured and developed important one-to-one relationships with farmers and growers

Online customers are spending £35 on average on their purchases compared to the £12 typically spent in-store.

Ian says: “In some ways the website was plodding along. The pandemic gave it the kick up the backside that it needed.

“Things suddenly went stratospheric online, which was something of a relief. On one week in August total revenues were actually 17 per cent up on sales compared to last year. We thought ‘wow’!”

The future is now very much online. Ian says: “We’re going to continue to build the digital side, no more physical expansion. We have got enough on our plate.”

As well as its ‘roastery’, which sits at the very heart of the business, Atkinsons operates four cafes – three in Lancaster, including a new outlet for visitors to the city’s historic castle, and one in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Despite the pivot to online, Ian still has high hopes for the castle venture, part of the Duchy’s significant investment in the historic building, once the pandemic passes. The aim remains to make it the best speciality café in a major heritage attraction in the country.

He and his family took over the business 15 years ago. His wife Sue and their children Caspar and Maitland are all heavily involved in the venture.

Taking over Atkinsons, which can trace its history in the city back to 1837 when the young Quaker Thomas Atkinson opened his tea shop, was a massive career change for Ian.

He had worked in the high-pressure TV and film advertising industry for two decades, much of it at the helm of his own award-winning digital animation company.

Online customers are spending £35 on average on their purchases compared to the £12 typically spent in-store

Today, despite the recent challenges, Ian has “no regrets at all” at making the switch from successful creative to becoming ‘Keeper of the Flame’, his title in the business.

Creativity is still part of his role, developing and driving the brand forward, he adds. Coffee and the business are real labours of love.

The purchase came out of the blue, when Ian and Sue took a trip to Lancaster, a city they had left 20 years earlier, and found Atkinsons was still going strong. They popped in and asked the owner if he would consider selling.

The couple ploughed everything they had into the venture, including selling their dream home and in the first decade saw annual turnover grow by an impressive 1,000 per cent, as they set about creating a ‘Coffee Quarter’ in the city.

That included the restoration of the Lower Priory Hall, converting the 1930s building into a popular tea and coffee visitors’ centre and café.

Atkinsons’ first café venture, The Music Room, can be found in an impressive Georgian pavilion in the city’s Sun Square.

Ian has travelled the globe in pursuit of perfect cup of coffee, with visits to Ethiopia, El Salvador, Colombia, Cuba, Kenya and Sumatra. The company imports from 20 countries, with its latest beans coming from Costa Rica.

He describes Atkinson’s speciality coffees as a “premium product” and sees them becoming even more high-end in the future, as our tastes become increasingly sophisticated.

Although, when pressed, he admits that “a milky coffee” is still the favourite when it comes to most Lancastrians’ tastebuds.

Ian also sees transparency becoming increasingly important in the industry, with people eager to know more about where their products have come from and the details and circumstances surrounding their journey from producer to consumer.

He explains: “Our business model is direct trade. We have nurtured and developed important one-to-one relationships with farmers and growers. That is something that is really important.”

He is also an advocate of a green recovery out of the pandemic. Atkinsons now creates specialist mushroom compost from the by-products of its roasting activities. Oyster mushrooms are growing in the cellar. “It’s a pet project of mine”, Ian says thoughtfully. “Though it could be the future.”

  • To read this feature in full and access further Lancashire business news, advice and analysis subscribe to Lancashire Business View magazine or join the LBV Hub from just £2.50 per month. Click here to subscribe now.