Late last year, a new kind of coffee shop entered the increasingly saturated London cafe market. The New Black—a high-design, businessperson-oriented cafe concept that originated in Singapore—opened in November, gaining popularity among both office workers and coffee enthusiasts alike.
The coffee outlet follows in the footsteps of The New Black Singapore, founded in 2012 by Malaysian-born designer and entrepreneur Phoa Kia Boon. The company’s strategy is to provide better coffee to corporate environments, so they chose a location in the Square Mile, the financial and commercial heart of London.
The cafe immediately stands out among the competition of coffee chains and independent artisanal shops thanks to its modern and bold interior design. Phoa designed the store, including the fit-out and furnishings such as wooden tables and benches with metal cup holders, and steel counters and cabinets. The shop’s ceramic cups, tableware, and takeaway paper cups are also expressions of the cafe’s unique style and attention to detail.
The New Black’s state-of-the-art coffee equipment features four Modbar and Alpha Dominche Steampunk machines, one Nuova Simonelli Clima-Pro grinder (used for the house blend) and one Mahlkönig EK 43 grinder (used for guest coffees which are pre-ground and dosed in custom-made airtight pods).
“Our outlet is a coffee theater,” says Phoa Kia Boon, “an exhibition that people can come and explore.” Customers who enter The New Black are invited by baristas to a sophisticated and nuanced tasting experience. “We want to say to our customers: coffee is complex, but come inside and let me help you through it.”
The New Black’s goal is to make specialty coffee accessible to people who might not have previous knowledge or experience with this type of coffee. A big focus is placed on service and on training baristas to assist customers in the best possible way. “We have found a way to serve customers that maybe others failed to see,” says Phoa.
Everything in the store is designed to encourage customers to have a meaningful interaction with the front of the house. Baristas face the customers while they prepare the drinks; a set of benches is placed in front of the brew bar to let people sit down and watch the filter coffee being made. The first time I visited the coffee shop I spent a moment admiring the space, and immediately a barista came to greet me and offered to help me choose my coffee.
“Baristas working in artisan cafes are focused on their craft,” says Phoa. He believes that as a result they tend to overlook the customers. “We want to serve our customers better and differently,” continues Phoa. “We run The New Black as a business. There is a brand behind the shop. Not just art.”
Equally important is the quality of the coffee they serve. The New Black’s launch menu featured a house espresso, Big Trouble, by North Carolina roaster Counter Culture Coffee with whom they have a longstanding relationship. Customers who want to go for more adventurous blends can choose between Aussie coffees Small Batch Roasting Company and Single O, Norwegian Tim Wendelboe, and American Verve Coffee Roasters. The New Black also features local coffees roasted by Workshop Coffee, Assembly Coffee, and Square Mile Coffee Roasters. The menu will evolve, says Phoa, as they gauge their London customers’ preferences in new roasts.
To help customers appreciate the complex and distinctive taste profiles on offer, The New Black developed a simple visual representation of the coffee flavor wheel commonly used by roasters. “We use the taste wheel to identify the flavors of each coffee. People will understand the visual flavors more than the words, like in wine,” says The New Black’s director Sonja Wittenberg.
The taste wheel is projected across the backlit black wall and also displayed on iPad tablets placed along the coffee counter. Glossy paper menus placed on each table provide further information on the featured roasters, other hot and cold drinks (Mörk Chocolate; Press juices), and food pairing options, where coffee or tea are paired with locally sourced pastries. The New Black has partnered with some of London’s premium suppliers to provide freshly baked food: St John Bakery doughnuts; Babelle canelés; The Bread Factory cakes.
For The New Black, London is the real market, while Singapore was the company’s lab, a place to test out the company’s business strategy. “We are a premium brand,” stresses Phoa. “We are not excited about quantity of sales, we are interested in creating an established premium coffee shop.”
The New Black wants to become known globally for being really good at coffee—and in a short time, they’ve already become known for a very new, very premium, coffee experience in London.