Based in Stirling, HBW Coffee is a speciality coffee shop offering coffee, donuts, and vegan and vegetarian food. Their owner, Conor, has worked tirelessly to design a food and drinks menu that meets the needs of his customers. In this interview, I chat with Conor about his role as owner of HBW Coffee, what his typical day at work looks like, and how he designed the HBW food and drink offering. I hope you enjoy our chat.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your role at HBW Coffee?
There’s not a lot to know! I’m the owner and manager of HBW. Baker, chef, barista, kitchen porter. English and film graduate, and wanna-be writer.
Why did you decide to start HBW Coffee?
I studied here in Stirling at the Uni, then did a semester in the States where I travelled a bunch and found myself in indy coffee shops all over. I studied English and Film, and in my final year I got a wee job packing bags up at Glen Lyon in Aberfedly. While doing my dissertation I was slowly becoming quite possessed with the idea of owning a coffee business and bugged Jamie and Fiona for ages with unrelenting questions. I think I spent more time on a business plan than I did my dissertation. They were very kind and supportive of me; I really had no idea what I was doing. Anyway, there weren’t many specialty coffee shops here at the time, only one really called Sable and Flea if I remember rightly, and I figured there was a gap in the market. While working as a sort-of freelance barista I was checking out shops that I admired and slowly piecing together what I (thought I) wanted to do. The shop in the plan and the one I sit in now are wildly, very different places.
I see that you offer donuts and vegan / vegetarian food, which I can imagine takes quite a bit of time to prepare. What are the first tasks you work on before the cafe opens in the morning?
At the moment I’m in between half four and half five in the morning, depending on the workload of the day. The donuts take time and can’t be rushed, but while they’re doing their thing I can be prepping fillings and the brunch items. I’m still keeping a lot of it quite basic, because it’s just me doing that stuff. We did a huge refit of the shop this year so I want to make sure I’ve got things standardised before I get too many staff. I’m looking forward to building the team and expanding the offering! The donuts take about four hours start-to-finish (ish), and we make a beans on toast dish that the regulars go mad for, and those beans are on for about three hours too at the moment. I’ve started doing a bit more baking, but truth is I’m pretty maxed out and probably won’t change that up until the team grows.
How did you come up with your food offering? Why did you decide to focus on donuts, vegan food, and coffee?
Slowly ha! To tell the truth, I think I got into all this much too early. I should have probably got some experience being a chef somewhere first. I don’t think I had ever planned to cook so much, it was always going to be a coffee shop first. I’ve learned a lot from sources online and from friends and coworkers. We’re at a place now where we’ve got a dependable wee repertoire, and a loyal bunch of regulars. The plan was always to do plant-based food, but I only got the confidence to really lean into it and slap a big vegan sticker on it early last year when I met Alex, who you’ll know from Manifesto Coffee in Perth.
I think it was always a confidence thing. The thing is it’s not a vegan shop, because we still offer regular milk for drinks, and there’s usually a gluten free brownie in the cabinet that’s not vegan. This still seems kind of controversial to some, but realistically, we want to serve good vegan food and make it accessible. I think what’s cool is that we have plenty of meat-eating regulars that come very regularly because we serve the drink they want - and they stick around for the brunch and the donuts etc. Hell, we’ve even watched as regulars have ditched dairy in their coffee all together, opting for, plant milk or just drinking it black because they’ve come to prefer it. That wouldn’t have happened I don’t think if we didn’t have it in the first place.
Vegetarianism and veganism is a political thing that’s becoming much more talked about, and so obviously people want to share it; but that doesn’t mean others necessarily want to take part. I think accessibility is the key with that, giving folk the opportunity to come to you with their questions and giving you the opportunity to talk. The donuts came later, again, a slow burn teaching myself a new skill and seeing another wee gap in the market. It’s been fun to learn (if a little frustrating at times) and has been received pretty well too, which is cool. They’re vegan too, but really no one cares cause they’re deep fried and filled with sugar.
What do you spend the most time doing on the average day at work?
Preparing. We’re only open for a five hour window at the moment and I’m still in for about 12 hours a day to make sure I can do it all over the next day. As time goes on and the team grows, I won’t have to pull such mad hours.
During what periods are you busiest? Does this change on weekends?
Like I say, we’re only open for a five hour gap, so lately you can count the lulls easier than the rushes; it’s fairly steady. The weekends are busiest without fail, but comparatively, just fewer lulls, so a little more steady.
What do you enjoy most about running HBW Coffee?
It totally depends on the day you ask me I think. Today I’m thinking about working on a vegan breakfast muffin and I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of it. I love the challenge of veganising popular foods and putting them out when I’m sure they’re going to slap. I think I enjoy surprising folk that vegan food can be as good if not better than the alternative. It’s food at the end of the day, just made using different ingredients.
What is your go-to coffee order in a cafe?
Depending on barista knowledge I’ll usually go for a long black or a filter coffee.
What is your favourite method of brewing coffee?
I love the versatility of espresso, but the clarity of a well made batch filter coffee. The way I’d pick would usually be based on the coffees on offer.
If you had to sum up the Scottish speciality coffee industry in one (or a few) words, what words would you choose and why?
Awesome. It’s small enough that folk actually know each other. There’s a camaraderie in that that reminds us that we’re all in it to up the game of Scottish specialty coffee, and the wider hospitality sector in Scotland. And with that, there’s a level of accountability; we have to play fairly or we absolutely will lose custom. In small business, it’s quite easy to get a bit lost and lonely when you’re “competing,” but your peers will keep you sane, reminding you that we’re all together trying to carve out a bigger slice from the fat cats that are playing monopoly. We just need to focus on our own shops and figure out what works best for us, and slowly that wee local ecosystem will get stronger, where some customers come to you for their coffee, but come to me for their donuts. It’s a win-win.
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