When Kaffeine opened on Great Titchfield Street in 2009, London’s coffee scene was barely a sketch of what we know it as today. There’s no doubt that Peter Dore-Smith’s shop was one of the pioneering cafes in the UK capital. In those days, there were only something like 10 or fewer quality-focused coffee bars in the tangled mass of postcodes known as London. Nowadays, Kaffeine is still hailed as one of the best in the city, and has become a bona fide destination for coffee tourists. It draws in customers new and old with its excellent changing weekly menu, one-of-a-kind marmalade, and smooth flat whites; it's an Aussie-style cafe that’s grown to have a uniquely Londonian charm.
Behind the cafe is a man whose career in hospitality drove him to open this oft-praised shop, and who—refusing to rest on his reputation—recently opened a second, arguably even better shop, on Eastcastle Street in London's teeming Fitzrovia district.
Dore-Smith’s career started at age 17 in Melbourne, when he got a job washing dishes after school. From there he went on to catering college, graduated to a job working in hotels and restaurants, and eventually ended up back at the college teaching students about food and beverage service and the business side of things. Along the way, he spent three years in London, though when he left, he didn’t think he would ever come back. “I thought that would be it,” he says with a knowing look.
In 2005, Dore-Smith moved back to London with his wife. “The first thing we wanted to do was go out and get a nice cup of coffee when we arrived, and there was really nowhere around of the Australian style of that time.”
Luckily, fate intervened. “One day, I walked down Berwick Street and discovered Flat White,” he recalls. “Providores, a New Zealand restaurant, and of course Monmouth were around. But Flat White was the first real Australia/New Zealand-style cafe.” After much time spent hanging out in Flat White and seeing a gap in the market in London, Dore-Smith decided he wanted to create what he couldn’t find much of in his new city: a cafe space for the coffee lifestyle he had experienced in Australia.
At the time, he was working at Lord’s Cricket Ground, a mammoth job that left him responsible for up to 600 catering staff on big match days. Still, he found time to come up with his business plan and began to attend espresso tasting nights at the newly opened Square Mile roastery. After presenting Square Mile co-founder James Hoffmann with his business plan, Hoffmann agreed to provide the new cafe with coffee, and the real work began.
“In January 2009, we found the original store site. It was just after the recession. We’d been to the bank and the bank said, ‘No, we’re not going to give you any money.’ One bank said absolutely no money at all, the other said to go away and get some more money and then come back.” This didn’t discourage Dore-Smith, who approached friends about going into the business together. Finally, one offered to put up money for the new business (and remains a silent business partner today) and so Kaffeine was born in August 2009.
One phrase that comes up a lot in our interview is “right place, right time,” specifically about the nascent London coffee scene back in those early days. “At that time, it was a very close knit community of people, and we used to met up once a month as business owners. Taylor St Baristas, Lantana, Bea’s of Bloomsbury, Brown’s of Brockley, Dose, and Gwilym Davies…we’d just meet up and chat about coffee and business and how things were going.
“The specialty coffee industry started to take off in London around that time too,” Dore-Smith tells me. “James Hoffmann won the 2007 WBC, Gwilym Davies won in 2009. All of that put the focus on London coffee. And then in 2010, the World Barista Championship came to London, and that still continued to grow and build the industry in and reputation of London.” It was a perfect storm of happenings, pushing a city with a small group of cafes into a mushroom of growth.
But Dore-Smith doesn’t seem to pine for the old days as such—he is honest about the realities of a growing industry. “I still see [the community today] as being closely knit, but there’s definitely more competition. In the early days, I didn’t feel competitive against other places, but now there are just so many businesses, therefore you are in competition. You can’t rest on your laurels. You have to keep pushing forward all the time, which is great.”
Still, Dore-Smith has done his part in attempting to recreate a sense of community in an increasingly large scene. For the past two years, he has reinstated the London Latte Art Smackdown, reminiscent of the smackdowns Square Mile used to run “back in the day.”
Those of us in London who have crammed into the cozy confines of the original Kaffeine for said smackdowns might relish the thought of this year’s events taking place in the new, roomier Kaffeine on Eastcastle Street. And many may wonder why it’s taken over five years to open a second shop. Again, it was all about the right place and the right time for Dore-Smith. Six months after the first Kaffeine opened, his daughter was born. “It’s really, really, really hard opening a business, trying to support a family, having a baby…it took us some time to recover,” he says.
“But three to six months after opening, people were already asking when we were going to open a second store. It’s always been constant, that question. We had to save money, we had to get the business in place. My belief is that you should have 99% of your business perfect before you go on and do something else. It’s not fair to the first place or the new one.”
After a second child and another year for the Dore-Smiths to find their optimal work-family-life balance, the time finally felt right. When the location on Eastcastle Street became available, he couldn’t say no.
The design of the new store makes the most of the spacious, wide room. He hired an architecture firm—DesignLSM—to design the layout, believing that it’s the proper way to do things. “I very much believe in using architects to design a business that’s going to stay and develop, because they’ll put a lot of effort in and get everything right from the start…then, in the future, you shouldn’t have to keep changing things, or wish you’d done something else. However, some of the design was a bit more personal and close to home,” said Dore-Smith. “My wife has a very strong eye for color—she works in that industry—so she’s helped very much with certain color schemes in the cafe too. The copper counter, the black wall, the neon sign.”
In the new cafe, you can see echoes of both the old Kaffeine and of other trendy, of-the-moment specialty coffee shops. This space eschews minimalism for a sleeker touch that makes the space feel very much like an all-round food and coffee experience. White subway tiles give texture to the lower half of plain white walls, bordered by a strip of copper and broken up by panels of oak wood and a grey concrete-latex blend. Oak benches line this left-hand wall, with a convenient bar for resting your feet on hovering about a foot off the floor, and tables mirroring the blond-and-grey panels on the wall. The right hand wall is bare, only adorned by a sleek coat of black paint, a simple black menu board with white lettering, and a neon yellow “Kaffeine” sign in their instantly recognizable round type.
Taking pride of place on the counter, hovering over a pile of coffee books like they’re a clutch of chicks, is the impressive Victoria Arduino Black Eagle, accompanied by a Nuova Simonelli Mythos grinder. Though many a die-hard coffee nerd may wish to expound on the benefits of the new technology and all the shiny new gadgetry that attend it, Dore-Smith simply regards these machines as top-of-the-line kit in the same way he regards the ovens in his kitchen. “For me, personally, this is not a coffee business. This is a hospitality business. Everything in this business has equal importance. The amount of money I spend on an espresso machine is the same amount I’d spend on an oven. You should put as much effort in across everything you do in your business. If you’re going to do something, do it well. Why would you not?”
That, in essence, sums up the experience Dore-Smith is hoping to offer at Kaffeine. He truly believes that this model, in which all aspects of the cafe are attended to equally, rather than giving undue importance to coffee only, is the best way to run his business. It’s about respecting the customer and the staff—providing an all-round pleasant place to work and visit. If the future of London coffee is unavoidably more competitive, with seemingly every boutique and barber shop now offering an espresso service, then the real trick will be in sussing out quality from the growing mass of choice. Kaffeine makes a strong claim in this regard; the original cafe's history and importance to London's coffee scene is not up for debate, and their new shop on Eastcastle feels current, important, and above all, quite a pleasant place to frequent.