Women Who: Entrepreneur Sophie Highfield of Café Blend
After pursuing her dream to travel the world, Sophie Highfield returned to Birmingham in the heart of the recession in 2009.
Faced with a lack of employment opportunities, she decided to start her own business. With inspiration from her travels, passions and love for coffee, flavours and adventure, Café Blend was born. Sophie passionately shares her journey and what it is like to run her own coffee bar in the heart of Birmingham and Manchester.
What was your inspiration for Café Blend?
I love cultures, languages, patterns of behaviour; travelling and I love nothing more than to watch the world passing by, whilst sitting in a coffee shop anywhere in the world. After I completed university in Leeds in 2006, I returned to Birmingham to save some money to buy my one-way ticket out of the UK. My intention was to leave and never come back – I was going to write sociological novels about travelling like a female Bill Bryson (except I lack his sense of humour). I was going to be free, I was going to experience life as much as I could and see as much as I could; I thought my life was going to start when I left, and to be honest I was quite a sad and lonely person by that point.
I was very lucky that whilst I was at living in Leeds I had a job in a Mitchells & Butlers Scream pub that enabled me to quickly get a full time waitressing job at All Bar One in Birmingham. It did not take long before I was offered the management role and I took it. Over time I got quite involved in my work and I loved everything about the job, until two years later when a team member has said ‘I thought you were leaving’.
I had done numerous travels alone in the two years I managed All Bar One, through China, Egypt and the Caribbean and I think I had forgotten the reason for why I was doing this job in the first place. That afternoon in the summer of 2008, I went out and bought a one-way ticket to the USA with a plan to end up in Australia where my friend lives and she was going to sponsor me for citizenship.
I travelled across the States, New Zealand and Australia and then when I returned to Birmingham in 2009, it was hard to find work due to the economic climate. I decided I would set up my own coffee business and it would be the living embodiment of a place that would serve as a living memory of my travels. I remembered that I had written down everywhere I had been and looked through that book for inspiration. I discovered I had visited two hundred and eighty-nine coffee shops in the USA alone and I had tried an equal amount of coffees typical to that particular state, or country once I reached New Zealand.
Tell us more about creating the Café Blend brand?
Café Blend was to be a blend of my travels, passions and love for coffee, flavours and adventure. It was going to be a place you could truly relax and enjoy a moment with your friends. Life is far too short and sometimes you forget the smaller details and experiences that make life worth living – wherever you are.
I wanted to offer something different from other coffee shops, Café Blend is truly unique and we focus on our recipes and coffee martinis, we have live music and serve alcohol and became the first coffee shop in Birmingham to open until late. We wanted to give a different type of service because we do not believe you should be hanging around at the end of a counter for your coffee and instead we will bring it to you; this came from the fact that I always travelled alone and it is difficult to save a seat when you are having to order and then wait in line for your coffee.
I call Café Blend a coffee bar rather than a coffee shop because we also offer various hot chocolates, teas, wines, beers as well as our popular coffee cocktails. The Café Blend brand is all these things, it is unique and some of the recipes are my own creations; Café Blend is basically a representation of me and everyday it serves as a reminder of the places I have been, the people I have met along the way and the feeling of freedom and adventure. When someone orders a coffee cocktail from Café Blend it has to be served to perfection because that person is not just drinking a coffee, they are drinking a memory.
What is your unique selling point that sets you apart?
We are the only coffee company in the UK with my concept, which is born out of my travels and experiences. It will be very difficult for another company to adopt my approach because it is so much about my passions and recipes, which are reflected in our branding. We offer bespoke coffee recipes and coffee martinis that cannot be had anywhere else in the country. We do sell a fabulous espresso but we also give our guests the opportunity to be adventurous and experimental. Café Blend is to be enjoyed by all and whether you fancy a glass of wine in the evening, a takeaway cappuccino in the morning or feeling in the mood to try something new and different, you can get it all at Café Blend.
What has been the hardest thing about setting up a business?
The hardest thing has been getting the concept out there and to be accepted by everyone, which it certainly has in Birmingham and now in Manchester. We have also recently been approached to get the Café Blend concept running in London, as it has never been done before; but nothing in business is an easy task and I am fully prepared for the hard work ahead.
What have been the highlights?
The highlights are so many – I love Café Blend and the fact that I can be as creative as I like and that every day it reminds me of my travels. Also, who would not appreciate the emails, tweets and lovely comments that I receive on a daily basis from guests or tourists who wish for us to open somewhere near them. It is a huge compliment and I feel honoured that people like the brand. I only really set up to create a different type of venue for people to enjoy and when they do, I am so happy.
Why did you choose to set up in Birmingham and Manchester?
I set up in Birmingham because I am a local and because at the time my life was predominantly in this city. Manchester became an obvious choice for me for the second location as it matched my business plan. I needed a city within a certain distance, that would be vibrant and where there may be an opportunity, which there was. We are to be part of the new concept for the Corn Exchange development, which is being predicted to be the “Covent Garden of the North”. The next three stores to open will also be in different cities but all part of the plan for expansion.
What’s your favourite Café Blend product?
Los Altos is my favourite of the coffee recipes that I’ve created. I tried the combination of flavours just for fun. But the result was fantastic and the team at Birmingham helped to tweak it so we could add it to our coffee menu. It is a coffee martini inspired by Murcia, Spain. It reminds me of some ten years ago now of a particular evening with my older sister drinking too much tequila. In the morning we were very much in need of orange juice and coffee from our local deli store, which seemed to the trick of curing our ailments from the evening before. So we combined each of these ingredients with some secret touches to create a wonderfully smooth texture with a paradoxical twist of sweetness and zest from the orange juice. We then coat the rim of the glass in a powder that we have mixed together with a white sugar that really lifts the entire drink. Even the most experimental of coffee drinks can be great!
Can you tell us about some of the events that Café Blend hosts?
Birmingham gets really involved in live music, as this is something I also have a huge passion for and I do on occasion perform in the Blend myself; it’s such a relaxed crowd. In the last two years, we have had bands such as Trio Rosbifs and even The Musgraves who have recently featured on the Graham Norton Show – I’m hoping that they will do a one off show for us again soon. Both Blends get involved in local events such as Artsfest, Oxjam, Style LIVE and many fundraisers.
We also host our own events such as our Coffee Martini Parties where people can get together and chat (social networking), whilst enjoying free samples of our coffee martinis. All we ask is for is some feedback from our concoctions and to find out which were the most popular recipes. Manchester and Birmingham will be hosting the “Summer of Jazz” where we will create coffee cool brews inspired by New Orleans with some live music on some Sundays. I also host events at both Blends for my women’s networking company Ladies That Latte.
What do you do in your spare time?
I have very little spare time – to be honest I enjoy working, but when I am not working, despite the fact my mind is always on Café Blend – I like to spend time with my boyfriend and my pet ferret Rufus, at home with a good movie and a bottle of wine. I also enjoy long distance running, pole fitness, playing on my guitar and writing songs. I would love to be able to do some more travelling in the future also and sit in a few more coffee shops.
How do you balance your business and personal life?
I struggle with this balance between business and personal life because so much of Café Blend has become integrated with who I am. I think in the last year it has been easier to create a balance as I became more confident about my business. Ultimately, it goes back to how you use your spare time! I always preach that Café Blend is supposed to allow others to remember that there is more to life than just work; I think for the moment it is hard to take my own advice.
What are your future plans for Café Blend?
My plan is for Café Blend to become a national chain with the view to take it international. I am also looking forward to my coffee recipe book being published; it has a slight twist to it, which should make it a great read. I have other plans too which are very exciting developments.
How does it feel to be nominated for the Best Emerging Midlands Brand?
Well, it feels wonderful, when I first began Café Blend, receiving awards never really even entered my head. It started when I had a tweet from a regular from the Birmingham Blend saying she had nominated us. I thought there would be no chance of us being shortlisted as we only have one branch in Birmingham and have only been around for two years. I was very surprised when we were and I am hopeful that Café Blend could win – I think it deserves to. We were also shortlisted in the Retail Awards 2011 for Best Café in Birmingham; it was an honour when Café Blend’s name was announced on the night of the awards, up there with Starbucks, Nero and Costa. We have also recently won an award from Theo Paphitis for our innovative business idea, which has also been wonderful – I thought I was dreaming when it was announced.
Do you have any advice for women who want to start their own business?
You need passion and a unique selling point. But you need to be strong, skilled and be ready and not mind that it will consume your life for a while, if you love it that much you will want to see it develop. You need to ensure you have the funding and the experience too. Café Blend has always been a professional body since day one and this is because of my management years with Mitchells & Butlers – you need systems, procedures, manuals, you need to put in the time and fight to the death. Business is not easy, especially as the owner and the director because you are your business and you need to prepare yourself for a roller coaster ride.
As an entrepreneur, what is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is that every day Café Blend reminds me of really great times, but it also gives me the promise of great times ahead. I strive to achieve the best for Café Blend and to be proud of myself and to one day say that I was successful. I love that I can be creative with coffee, as I could not get that from anywhere else if Café Blend did not exist. I look forward to the journey and seeing my plans come into fruition. Perhaps, I have found freedom after all.
To find out more about Café Blend and their events, please visit www.Caféblend.co.uk