For over 100 years, the Stokes coffee brand has been well known in Lincoln and when Nick Peel, 45, hung up his ballet shoes and was offered the chance to continue the family business, it was an offer that was hard to refuse.
Since taking the reins from his father, Nick has managed to grow the business significantly, boosting turnover by 221% in 12 years, trebled staff numbers and most recently purchasing The Lawn in uphill Lincoln to play host to a new £1.5 million head office.
Originally started by his great grandfather, Robert W Stokes, the coffee roastery and cafe has been passed down through the generations. When the only remaining male heir died in the war, the business was passed to Nick’s grandmother who married and changed her surname to Peel, but the legacy lived on.
Caffeine runs through Nick’s veins, having helped out with the family business since he was a young boy working as a barista and taking deliveries from the warehouse to the shop. But Nick felt that he had another calling and followed his dream travelling the world as a professional ballet dancer.
In 2003 he realised his performing days were coming to an end and when his father announced his retirement plans, Nick made his return to the family business.
“I was never forced [to take on the business],” Nick explained. “I was always given the option and told to do what I want, but I felt a bit of a duty as it is such a long tradition. I felt that it would be nice if I would carry it on.”
Although the passion for the coffee industry may not have been ingrained on him like his love for performance, it quickly grew on him more as he re-entered the business.
Waking up to smell the coffee
In 2004, when Nick was officially handed the reins, the company had 20 staff spread between the High Bridge Cafe and the wholesale side of the business with a turnover of £630,000.
“My father’s philosophy was ‘feed yourself, feed your family and look after your employees’ and he had a nice business – but it was a lot more manageable. I suppose I was a bit more ambitious. I just wanted to develop other aspects of the business. I think it helped that the industry was changing at the same time and I was able to develop it.”
The coffee industry evolved over the last few years to become more ‘trendy’ and a ‘cool thing to be involved in’ as Nick says, so his first point of call was to expand the cafe into another part of High Bridge, creating more of a coffee bar.
“It kind of introduced Stokes to a new demographic. Historically it was always the older generation that would come in and they’d been in with their parents and grandparents, so with the new look coffee bar, we’re getting the younger people in as well. After that, we opened in The Collection.”
Whilst living in Canada, Nick had also run his own events company in-between performances, which planned everything from parties to weddings.
“The Collection was a great space and I saw potential to do things there as well as getting away from the traditional teashop, because it’s a lot more contemporary with the menu and the offering, and it
attracts a different demographic again.”
Nick also started to branch outside of the company’s comfort zone, as previously the company had always been approached by people who wanted to sell their products. But when he decided it was time to become more proactive in looking for business, Nick realised there was even more potential.
Stokes started to appear at trade shows to get the name outside of Lincoln and Lincolnshire. Now the company supplies around 600 to 700 venues across the country but they will only supply to places where they are able to send out their own service engineers in case the equipment breaks down.
Full of beans
Nick is always experimenting and doing market research on which blends of coffee people are drinking in different parts of the country, as well as roasting and blending the beans in Stokes’ own warehouse in the city centre.
“We buy all the raw beans and we’ll either blend them or roast them as they are. The speciality coffee market is really booming now. It’s a bit like wine. People want to know where the coffee has come from and how it’s grown. It has very specific characteristics. A coffee from Ethiopia will taste very different to a coffee from Columbia.
“People are getting wise to that. They want to know more of the story. So what we tend to do now is a lot more single origin coffees. We buy the beans, we create a roast profile for them, which is a recipe and then we roast it and pack it. Some customers like it ready ground, some like it in bean form and then we distribute it.”
With coffee shops popping up on every corner, Stokes keeps its edge through its heritage, tradition and knowledge of the beans.
“We’re doing the whole thing really. We hope we know what our customers want and we try and adapt to demand. We’re not a company that will just sit and say, ‘no, we have done it this way all our lives, so that’s why we’re going to continue to do it.’
“Because we’re independent we can move quickly whereas maybe the bigger chains, yes they will have customer opinion, but it won’t necessarily be geographic. Someone in London is going to want different things to someone in Newcastle. That’s proven.
“The coffees that people are drinking in London now are very lightly roasted, and we did try that up here and people didn’t like it. We keep trying new things. We will introduce something and maybe it’s just not the right time and so we’ll wait for it and then introduce it a bit later.”
As the growth of the company and its reach continues, Nick is quickly running out of space to be able to roast, store and do everything that needs to be done. When The Lawn went up for sale, it offered him the perfect opportunity to bring everything under one roof and expand at the same time.
“It’s funny because I was driving to work one morning when the sign had gone on and I was like, ‘Someone really needs to do something with that.’ I already had these ideas floating around in my head of ways that I wanted to further develop the business by offering things like training centres and engineering facilities.
“Our agents Banks Long & Co gave me a call and I had been looking at various other properties. Some of them I had actually said, ‘Oh no, I think it’s a bit too big.’”
When he walked around the site, it was an instant decision of ‘Ok, yes. This could work for what we’re going to do.’ Nick had visions of where everything that he wanted to include could go and started the process of a two year long bid to win the rights to the site.
“Obviously this is a very important building in Lincoln so it needs to be kept public and I think that the things we’re proposing to do with it will keep it in that public domain.”
The site will be made up to accommodate a new cafe, roastery, restaurant, offices and shops which can be let out to other businesses, but it will also be the new head office for Stokes. Nick is very excited about the possibilities that the new site brings and when they received the keys on August 1st, he got a team to work on it right away.
“The internal courtyard is going to be our roastery. We’re roasting over a tonne of coffee a week now so we need quite a big production facility. I thought it would be quite cool if we put the coffee roasting element in the central courtyard and open it up so that people could come and have a cup of coffee and just sit, relax and enjoy their coffee and food and watch what’s going on.
“I’ve found that people are very interested to know the story of coffee and how it gets from where it’s grown to in your cup. I started doing lots of talks to various groups of people who wanted me to come and talk about the business and the coffee. There was obviously an interest there so I thought that we needed to develop that.”
With the new site, Nick hopes to attract all types of visitors from school trips to older generations to explain both the history of the company and of coffee.
The icing on the cake though was the fact that the former ‘lunatic asylum’ includes a theatre and this is still something that is close to Nick’s heart.
“We’re going to use it for special events, so if you want to use it for a birthday party or anything like that, we can accommodate it up there. We’re also going to do themed evenings, dinners, conferences and I want the public to use it, so if there’s a local theatre group or dance school that need a rehearsal space. I would rather it be used and kept alive.
“If people want it, it’s there and can be used.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 100 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.