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Coffee became a big part of co-founder Hols’ life when she moved to Sydney, Australia at the age of 9! By the age of 10 she was well accustomed to a flat white and Aussie style brunch which was a very established standard down under at the turn of the millennium. The passion had been ignited…
At the age of 18, Hols was able to spend time in Kenya volunteering for the charity African Promise – whilst this experience was typical of many school leavers at the time, it was the beginning of our understanding of the experiences of rural farming communities in producing countries and very much built the foundations of our impact led approach.
North Star founders Hols and Krag (Holly and Alex Kragiopoulos!) met at university in Newcastle in 2009. Hols studied Human Geography specialising in Sustainable Development and Krag studied History with a particular focus on East Africa.
Their respective studies took them to East Africa (Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania) in the summer between their second and third year to collect research for their final year dissertation. Specifically, Hols was researching the impact of Fairtrade on the social and economic development of smallholder coffee farming communities in Kenya. They spent a month in the region of Nyeri interviewing producers about their experience of the coffee market and certification. Whilst they were both avid consumers of coffee at this point, this trip was the first time their eyes had been opened to the intricacies of the coffee supply chain and the opportunity it posed for development if trading took place responsibly with the producer being the focus of the transaction…
Having graduated from university, Hols and Krag were set on a career in ethical procurement specifically within coffee. For Hols, this resulted in an incredible opportunity to help establish what is now one of the most successful specialty coffee importers in Europe, Falcon Specialty. In her role for Falcon, Hols completed numerous buying trips and completed her Q Grader qualification , working alongside some of Europe’s best established and much loved coffee roasteries assisting with blend development and developing the ethical procurement policy.
Meanwhile, Krag was working as a chocolatier trying to find a way into the sourcing and roasting side of the coffee supply chain until the idea came to him (through a group of friends) to set up his own roastery in his home city of Leeds where, at that point, there was not one in existence. And so North Star was born…
North Star Coffee Roasters (or micro roasters as it was known in those early days!) was established out of an industrial unit in Meanwood, Leeds with a 5kg roaster we tracked down in an old donkey shed from a pensioner turned coffee enthusiast in Wales! We managed to secure the purchase of this machine (fondly known as Roxanne…she was red) and brought her back to Leeds where Krag spent the next 6 months learning how to roast. He did so through trial and error, taking his test roasts to Hols for her to taste and going back to re-jig the profiles (written manually in pencil on a piece of paper) based on her feedback.
When he finally had a selection he was proud of, he took to the coffee shops of the city to introduce himself and to try and get some sales in…not an easy task given that there was no existing supplier of specialty grade coffee in Leeds – he literally had to carve out a market for himself by throwing open the doors of the roastery to host public cuppings (tastings) and coffee evenings to try and show people what North Star was about. Being 22 at the time, he was often approaching businesses that had been established for longer than he had been alive. It was no easy task but we had a couple of wins in the early days, one of which was having our first ever version of Czar St (our seasonal blend) featured in the industry magazine Caffeine as coffee of the month despite our very home made logo/branding! This was confirmation that the coffee was as good as we could hope for, it was time to grow this business.
Following nearly two years of hard graft thankfully generating some customers (!), the business had finally grown to a point where it needed Hols to come on board to help out. With a fond farewell, Hols left her job at Falcon to work alongside Krag to help roast, pack, and deliver the coffee. 2015 was a pretty formative year in our journey so far as we finally hit a point where our faithful Roxanne could no longer keep up with the demand we were facing – it was time to upgrade.
We ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise £20k to fund the purchase of a 15kg Giesen coffee roaster which was gratefully funded by some of the loyal following we had gradually built up. This new machine liberated our operation literally cutting the time spent roasting in half leaving us with more time to work on the business. Now we had some money to spend on it, we were also able to review our branding and have a new logo developed by the wonderful Jon Simmons who we still work with to this day. North Star, in our eyes, was officially born at this point and this incredible year was topped off when we took the prize for the coffee category at the Young British Foodie awards too 🙂
Oh…and the legendary Ollie Sears also joined us to help manage our growing customer base!
Three years in and our following and customer base had grown and we were becoming more and more aware of the importance of training and equipment in guaranteeing consistency in the way our coffee was prepared. We also knew we had a pretty unique set of skills that we wanted to share in an effective way – when we were approached by the landlords of Leeds Dock to consider moving our premises there we jumped at the opportunity to set up an inclusive Roastery and training space in an accessible part of the city.
We completed our training with the SCA to attain our AST licenses which would enable us to not only teach people about coffee but to ensure that what we were teaching was a globally accredited and industry recognised curriculum. This was a pivotal point for North Star allowing us to develop a comprehensive guide to training and a set of minimum supply terms to ensure we could maintain the quality of the customer experience with our coffee. To this day, we still teach barista and sensory skills to hundreds of students a year from all over the world. This experience has solidified our QC program too ensuring we have the most up to date protocols and equipment in place to assess the coffees we buy and roast in the strictest possible manner.
Another reason for moving our premises to Leeds Dock was the appeal of another coffee shop vendor moving in next door so that we could supply them with our coffee and provide a shop window into Roastery life giving a behind the scenes view of what goes into a cup of coffee. This plan however fell through leaving us with only one option…we do it ourselves!
This was a hugely daunting prospect given the fact we had spent the previous 4 years advising others on how to open new sites, we knew all eyes were on us! The Roastery team were unable to dedicate time to working in the shop which meant hiring a whole new team to run this space and to carry the brand we had built up – as you can imagine, this was a tough task and trying to get recruitment right having never done it ourselves before was difficult! We had also decided from day one that the food offering was going to be just as good as the coffee, for this reason we partnered up with established bakers Noisette who consulted on our food menu and trained our staff to reproduce some of their best loved bakes. To this day, we are yet to find a better combo than a single origin Colombian batch brew and a Noisette Banana and Walnut Fluffin!
The coffee shop opened its doors at the Docks in July 2017 and has gradually taken what was a ghost town to be a community hub in the heart of the city creating a space for the local residents and office workers to come together over great coffee, delicious food and a super friendly team 🙂
The opening of the coffee shop in 2017 had a dramatic impact on our brand visibility and the Roastery customer base got bigger. So big in fact we quickly realised we were going to have to move again to be able to continue servicing our current and future wholesale customers. After a 6 month search, we found the perfect premises in Armley – a 4000sqft space in an old mill with a 40ft high ceiling! It presented us with the opportunity to build dream offices and a training space from recycled shipping containers – but perhaps most importantly it pushed us to upgrade our roasting machinery again resulting in the purchase of a 35kg Loring machine that has not only dramatically improved the coffee we roast but it does so using 92,000lbs less carbon each year!
2019 was not only an important year for us because of the move, we also released our new environmentally friendly packaging which has really improved our impact. It was also the year that Vicky and Marcus joined the team to make us a gang of 6 working hard to source, roast and pack your coffee in the best manner we possibly can.