In the UK, London is generally considered the hub of specialty coffee. Home to the highest number of specialty coffee shops, its residents have been using terms like “pour over”, “Chemex”, and “burr grinder” for years.
But over in the east of the country, in a city more known for its churches than its light roasts, the signs of a flourishing specialty coffee scene have begun to appear. Leading the way is José de León Guzmán, a humble Guatemalan with a Michelin-star background who has blessed Norwich with Kofra, a small chain of trailblazing specialty coffee shops.
First launched seven years ago on a quiet street corner, Kofra (which takes its name from the Spanish word cofradía meaning “brotherhood”) has extended its reach across four different neighbourhoods, lighting up each one with its distinctive yellow branding, exquisite coffee, and friendly community atmosphere.
But how did it all begin? What’s behind the branding? And, of all places, why Norwich? Find out in the first edition of Roaster of the Week.
José de León Guzmán had a tough upbringing. Shining shoes from the age of nine and working in a kitchen from eleven, his childhood was unlike most of the people he spends his day-to-day life with in his adopted home of Norwich. But it’s something he says he’s grateful for.
“I had a really difficult background back in Guatemala,” José tells me. “I was working in kitchens from a very young age. Yet it’s something I always say I’m fortunate to have had because without it I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Among other things, it helped him form an emotional attachment to cooking from an early age and taught him the importance of using the highest quality ingredients available.
Some time after leaving Guatemala to find work in kitchens abroad, he found himself working in a Michelin-star restaurant in Switzerland. It was here that he would have an experience that changed the course of his life.
“When I was in Switzerland, a friend of mine gave me a bag of Guatemalan coffee and it was then that I realised how good it could be.
“Until recently, Guatemala would save all its best coffees for export, leaving the rest for domestic consumption. So I never realised it could be so good until that day.
“To be honest, I felt a mix of pride and shame: pride that my country could produce something so special, but shame that I hadn’t known about it until that point.
“From then on, I started to delve more into coffee and basically became obsessed with it.”
Around the same time, José met a girl whom he followed to Norwich shortly after she moved there. While the relationship didn’t work out, he decided to settle and started dreaming about what his own perfect coffee shop would look like.
Caffènation and the leap of faith
Opening a specialty coffee shop with no previous experience is a challenge at the best of times, impossible at the worst – even for a natural businessman like José. At the very least, it demands exposure to other businesses in the specialty coffee scene to see what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t.
Realising this, José decided to embark on a knowledge-gathering tour around Europe’s coffee shops. It was during this trip that he stumbled across Caffènation, a specialty roastery-coffee shop based in Antwerp, Belgium.
“I loved their coffees, their style, their approach,” he says. “Nine years ago, the specialty coffee scene felt very exclusive – it was like a tight-knit friendship group. What struck me about Caffènation was that when I sent them an email, they responded immediately with a long reply.”
The owners of Caffènation soon agreed to visit José in Norwich and hear of his plans to open a coffee shop. He also went to Antwerp to see how they operated, an eye-opening experience that laid the grounds for the launch of Kofra’s first location at 16 Onley Street.
With Caffènation’s guidance, and a focus on high-quality coffee and distinctive branding, it hit the ground running.
“I realised the best way to position myself against the competition was to get super high-end coffee – more acidic and light roasted,” José says. “I also had to focus on branding.
“Branding was the invitation. Once they got their foot in the door, it was all about the coffee. But first, they needed to see themselves reflected in the coffee shop.”
To reflect the bright, community aspect of Kofra, as well as its Guatemalan roots, José opted for a striking yellow colour and an image of a monkey, an animal often found roaming Guatemala’s coffee farms.
“I wanted to include the bright, happy colours of Guatemala,” he tells me. “Yellow is a very happy colour that transmits what I wanted to represent. It has been the canvas on which we’ve been writing the story of Kofra.”
Your friendly neighbourhood coffee shop
It wasn’t long before word of Kofra spread around Norwich, attracting the attention of some of the city’s most well-known figures.
Among them was a director at the Sainsbury Centre, an art gallery and museum located on the University of East Anglia campus. The director told José that she wanted somewhere she could take clients to enjoy a good cup of coffee and asked him if he’d consider opening a location at the centre.
“When she asked me, I was like ‘hell yeah’,” José says. “We were advised not to do it by people who said it would never work in that spot. But we made it a success and it’s been one of the proudest things I’ve done in my life.”
Not long after, a city developer approached him and offered a location at a very reasonable price slap bang in the city centre. But José had realised something: Kofra wasn’t designed for city centres – it was a neighbourhood coffee shop.
“There are A, B, and C, locations – I love C locations,” José says. “The underdog. Not the main street, but the side street, the little place on the corner. Kofra is for small neighbourhood spaces, where we can go and become the hub of communities, which isn’t possible in city centres.”
However, even José couldn’t have anticipated the importance that their role as community anchors would serve during the pandemic. Shortly after the UK government announced a national lockdown, Kofra decided it would open for three days a week, serving takeaway coffees only. The response was overwhelming.
“We had so many customers,” he says. “People would stop me in the street and send me emails saying, ‘Thank you man, it keeps me going’. So I decided to open two more locations.”
The future of Kofra
One of the challenges coffee shops face when they expand is how to prevent quality and identity from becoming diluted. For a brand like Kofra, whose entire model is based on quality and identity, this is all the more salient.
José tells me that expanding Kofra was the plan from the start and therefore something he’s put a lot of time and energy into considering.
“We have two more openings this year and we’re going to implement a very well-thought out expansion outside Norwich,” he says. “We have to build step by step. A couple more shops for the time being, and then we’ll see what happens.”
They’ve also introduced new offerings alongside their coffee, including alcohol, snacks, and merchandise. However, José’s Michelin-star background means that everything – whether coffee or dry-aged beef – must adhere to a certain set of standards.
“Working in high-end restaurants taught me about the importance of having a regimented structure and the highest quality products you can find,” he says. “I realised early on that the most sophisticated thing you can do is find the highest quality ingredients and present them well to the customer.
“Then, you’ve just got to let the product speak for itself.”
Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories, through all the highs, lows, and in-betweens. Next week, we speak to Canada’s pioneering roasters, Detour Coffee.