With the Brighton Coffee Festival right around the corner (Sunday 14th August 2022), we decided to sit down with Pro Baristas founder and Skylark coffee guru Ben Szobody, to hear about their plans for BCF and the future for the local coffee scene.
Hi Ben, can you tell us a bit about your background?
For a very long time, my coffee background was purely as an at-home uber nerd — the kind who roasted terrible things in a popcorn popper and made puppet parodies of barista competitions for a ridiculous hobby blog. My serious career, at the time, was political and investigative journalism in the States. I used to spend time with presidential candidates, or dig into government scandals, and then de-stress at home by making joke espresso videos in the pre-YouTube era.
That’s how I met lots of serious people in coffee (no one else was making fun of them at the time!) and eventually my journalism skills led to some collaboration with James Hoffmann on a coffee magazine, a master’s degree in the UK that looked at the grim colonial legacies in coffee production and the Pro Baristas project.
Can you tell us about Skylark Coffee Roasters and where the idea came from?
Well, it always sort of made sense to move into roasting at some point, given the amount of coffee we were using at Pro Baristas and the pursuit of higher quality. The real catalyst, though, was linking up with Micah Sherer, whose experience sourcing coffee on the ground in Africa and South America and researching the power dynamics embedded in the supply chain set us up to do something quite different.
He is wildly overqualified to be running a small Sussex roasting company, but what made the project interesting was: (a) his incredible coffee tasting and buying skills, (b) our shared goal of rethinking the way coffee is actually traded, and (c) the non-profit business model, which helps us just… give up profit margin!! Allowing us to do very fun things with the money like supporting Ethiopian farmers to rejuvenate their ageing coffee trees. In a nutshell, all profits go into social investments of some kind, and we don’t pay ourselves very much either. We publish our full financials every year and we might even be anti-capitalists!
What is the meaning behind the name Skylark?
Most simply, we love Sussex, we roast in an old stable yard near Steyning and we love to hear the skylarks hovering with their non-stop songs while we work and cycle in the area. We also want to make a connection between a far-flung foreign import and the local landscape — some of our profits go into local nature restoration at the Knepp Estate, and skylarks are a symbol of that. We’re lucky to have worked with the well-known nature writer Robert Macfarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris on our retail bags, which try to tell that story. Coffee drinkers collectively have a lot of leverage, and the global trail behind a cup of coffee is potentially a very powerful tool for the climate and the environment.
What are the challenges that come with running an independent roastery in Sussex?
Hmmm, there are a few! Off the top of my head: the cost of real estate. The rapidly crowding marketplace for speciality coffee is just awash in ethical messaging, much of it pretty confusing or meaningless. Also, perhaps, the still-considerable gap between how coffee people behave and how consumers think about coffee.
Brighton has such a strong independent coffee scene, how does that impact Skylark?
We’ve really held back locally, to be honest, because we have so many positive connections already with most people in the Sussex speciality coffee scene. So we made an early decision not to try to steal cafe customers from other local roasters — we want to contribute to the diversity and resilience of local coffee, not start fights in a crowded city. So most of our big accounts are outside of Brighton, and in fact when you go to Guildford or Bristol or many other non-London cities it looks a lot like the U.S. coffee scene did maybe 15 years ago. There’s a lot of room there, and a lot of new cafes doing trailblazing work who need the good stuff.
You also run the Pro Baristas training programme. Tell us more about this project…
Well, this is at the core of what we really care about: helping coffee businesses work better while insisting on making pathways for people who normally don’t have access to this type of work. I continue to think that most cafes hire all the wrong people and, therefore, staff turnover is a bit bonkers in Brighton — totally unsustainable.
We’re training many marginalised people who might see coffee work as a dream job, in many cases. So if a business can spend just a bit more time on the front end helping an entry level person get up to speed (with our help) then those folks tend to become really loyal, long-serving staff. The HR and recruitment cost-savings are substantial, and you’re suddenly a business that is pushing back against gentrifying forces that put Brighton life out of reach for working people.
As a charity, we can even do loads of extra work with employees who have special needs, and we can creatively train people for specific cafes and workflows too. Honestly, if you’re a coffee business in Brighton on the barista hiring treadmill I don’t know why you wouldn’t call our head trainer Xavier — he’s a legend, and we can find you staff for free! I think we’re now the largest coffee school in the country, too. Last I looked, we’d trained well over 1,000 baristas.
Looking ahead, how would you like to see Pro Baristas develop?
Honestly, the goals with Pro Baristas and with Skylark are similar: we want to empower marginalised people in both cases, whether they’re local unemployed folk or coffee growers far away. We think we can do this without compromising coffee quality or standards in the slightest. That’s our angle, and it takes a ton of work! However, if we can get more coffee businesses in Brighton to understand that mission and collaborate with us on staffing then Pro Baristas might just be able to help make hospitality work more satisfying, sustainable and healthy, for operators and for workers. That’s a big goal, but we talk about it all the time.
The Pro Barista courses and the Brighton Coffee Festival will share the same home in 2022, what makes the One Church so special to you?
Great question! I know people wonder about the church affiliation. Basically, One Church is a super inclusive place, whether you’re religious or not. Running projects within the registered charity umbrella is amazing, because they basically back passionate experts to reimagine their craft in order to accomplish a social agenda. It’s like being an entrepreneur with a safety net of volunteers and supportive risk takers. So we host lots of projects and also public events in our gorgeous church buildings as a part of that endless experimentation, and also as a way to fund the kinds of social work we do that never makes money. We’re very pleased to have Brighton Coffee Festival in the building.
Skylark will be the headline coffee sponsor at this year’s BCF, what are you looking forward to most about the festival?
I’ve wanted the Brighton coffee scene to gel and collaborate for so long! We’re really looking forward to being in the same space with local coffee people, especially after the long pandemic interlude. Making great connections over a cup of coffee is still where I have the most fun.
How would you like to see the local coffee industry progress in the coming years?
Coffee can either join the “gig economy” in a race to the bottom when it comes to quality standards and wages, or it can rethink ways to source coffee and hire staff that is more sophisticated and sustainable precisely because of who it includes. I’m pushing for the latter scenario, but I’ve already ranted enough about that!
How can people find out more about Skylark and Pro Baristas?
For more information or to buy tickets to the Brighton Coffee Festival, visit brightoncoffeefest.com