When it comes to running a successful business, community is everything. This became clear to Robyn Morley, director at Blind Owl Coffee in Bristol. As a finalist for the 2023 Circular Economy Grant, Robyn explains how she drastically reduced the carbon footprint of her business during the Covid-19 pandemic by delivering coffee by bike.
The pandemic struck Bristol only seven months after Blind Owl Coffee opened to the public. Robyn was forced to rely on her entrepreneurial dexterity and the local community to keep her coffee business afloat.
Yet, what one person may see as a challenge or an obstacle, another sees the possibility of innovation and opportunity.
Robyn reveals how troubling times can lead to the most innovative business ideas, as well as how Blind Owl Coffee has become a helping hand for the Bristol community.
Making a coffee business the centre of the community
Bristol has become the playground for young, enthusiastic entrepreneurs looking to develop the next big thing since Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Tesla.
Notably, recent data suggests the Southwest of England raised over £918m in equity investment in 2022. Furthermore, Bristol-based tech companies accounted for nearly 36% of the city’s total high-value business growth. What’s more, the city was named the second-best city in the country for tech and software recruitment.
Yet, for Robyn and her business, the idea was never to be the next big thing in coffee. Instead, she wanted to provide those in her community with a place to meet friends for a cup of coffee or pitch their next business idea.
She explains the name of the business comes from the guitarist, ‘Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson, as a subtle praise to a love of music. Additionally, it acknowledges that Alan’s extreme near-sightedness never impaired his musical skills.
“Coffee, like music, is a sensory experience,” Robyn explains. “We wanted to start a brand that facilitated conversation, collaboration, and community. It was always about making connections, and what better way to connect than over an excellent brew?”
The pandemic forced Blind Owl, like many other businesses, to close temporarily and rely on the promise of online sales. As a result, the brand had to adapt its customer type, product range, and delivery system.
“We’ve always tried to keep our supply chain as local as possible when it comes to products, services, and how we deliver,” she says. For instance, Blind Owl Coffee is a strong supporter of Emmaus Bristol, a charity organisation that supports the unhoused. Emmaus Bristol helps to shelter and upskill these individuals through various social enterprises.
Blind Owl Coffee offers a selection of special hand-roasted coffees in custom-printed bags featuring the Emmaus logo. For every bag sold, whether it be in-store, online, or through Blind Owl’s extensive wholesale network, £1.50 is donated directly to Emmaus Bristol.
Robyn says the pandemic encouraged her to think on her feet and become more reliant on local merchants. This resulted in Blind Owl Coffee collaborating with local organisations, bakeries, breweries, and a cycle courier company to weather the storm.
Lockdowns limited customer interaction. However, the brand adapted by making home deliveries and sharing quick coffees and chats with customers on their doorsteps. “Doorstep coffees and cracking a few jokes with our customers while doing daily deliveries became a daily occurrence,” Robyn happily recalls.
Delivering coffee by bicycle: An eco-friendly solution
Earlier this year, Bristol was listed as one of the UK’s most cycle-friendly cities, according to a survey by SAGA Insurance. Both during and after the pandemic, Robyn has used this bicycle-friendly status to her business’s advantage.
“We started delivering online orders via bicycle during the pandemic,” she explains. “Our small team was working around the clock to get orders out as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
As business returned to normal, the demand for bicycle delivery increased. “We started by doing things ourselves, but soon realised that we needed to partner or collaborate with a local cycle courier company to help us send out our orders.”
Blind Owl Coffee began working with the Bristol Cycling Cooperative, which recently became Zedify Couriers. Robyn sees this as an opportunity to connect with her community and foster lasting relationships with other local small businesses.
“Bicycle deliveries can help us manoeuvre around the city more efficiently,” she adds. “Ultimately, it also helps contribute towards the reduction of carbon emissions. This has helped us offset fossil fuels and alleviate traffic pollution and noise around the city while allowing us to partner with local businesses. What’s not to love?”
What to consider when delivering coffee by bicycle
Nothing comes easy in business. Robyn says entrepreneurs need to be patient with the process. The teething problems of starting a business and doing bicycle deliveries have meant the team has come across substantial challenges in the past. This includes flat tires, typical British weather, missing orders, and even staff retention.
Robyn says those looking to implement coffee deliveries by bicycle need to be clear about their goals. This includes the level of service agreements and the area which they want to cover.
She stresses the importance of being specific about the details. “There are so many things I wish I knew sooner, so I think new business owners should think about it all beforehand. For instance, you need to consider when the courier will collect orders and how quickly they’ll be delivered. Also, what days of the week will deliveries take place?
“Additionally, you need to think about how to keep orders safe when servicing residential clients who are not home during the day. For instance, would you need waterproof packaging?”
Coffee is often about a shared experience. Beyond this, it is a shared experience with a community that can help entrepreneurs and business owners collaborate to support ingenuity and create forward-looking opportunities.
Get to know the finalists of the MTPak Coffee Circular Economy Grant. Read our exclusive interview with Brian Kenny from Silverskin Coffee Roasters about the brand’s innovative coffee packaging that consumers can’t get enough of.
Images from Blind Owl Coffee.