It’s been a difficult 18 months for the hospitality industry, but David Abrahamovitch looks remarkably good for it. Sipping an oat-milk flat white at a table in his London Bridge café, there isn’t a hint of the burnout others in his sector complain about. Perhaps it’s good genes, or maybe he’s simply well caffeinated.
Abrahamovitch is, after all, the founder of Grind, the London coffee chain that became a hit last year. As lockdown set in and cafés closed, Grind ramped up production of its compostable coffee pods, and the company’s sugary-pink tins became a sort of emblem of pandemic life.
Before Covid, Grind had dabbled in pods but concentrated on its London cafés, which serve coffee and brunch during the day, and cocktails and dinner in the evenings. When Covid hit, it was already on the brink of shifting focus. Lockdown nudged it over the edge.
Looking back, the move “looks like a really great decision”, said Abrahamovitch, but he conceded that he was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Having closed a funding round nine months earlier, he had already decided to use about £1m to ramp up Grind’s “at-home” offering, moving to a larger roastery and improving its online shop.
“We were lucky with a few things,” said Abrahamovitch. “Some containers of pink tins got through just before everything closed down, and a really crucial piece of equipment got delivered and installed.
“If the pandemic had happened in January instead of March… it could have been a different story.”
Whether it was good luck or good timing is now irrelevant: since the first lockdown, coffee pod subscriptions have increased 5,000 per cent. Grind sells 20 pods a minute, and is on track to ship 30 million in the year ahead. The company has even launched its own coffee machine, designed in partnership with the Swedish coffee company Sjöstrand. Annual sales are in excess of £20m.
Lockdown took its toll on Grind’s cafés. “On [the] Monday [in March 2020] the Prime Minister said, we recommend you don’t go to restaurants – but it wasn’t until the Friday that that became law,” he said. Rivals immediately began cutting jobs, but Grind waited to see what would happen. As a result, it kept its 300 employees on throughout the pandemic. It was only last month, after the furlough scheme ended, that it made 40 redundancies.
Abrahamovitch opened Shoreditch Grind, his first café, in 2011. It’s still there, in a funny circular building on London’s Old Street roundabout. In another act of good timing, the café opened just as a rush of tech businesses sprang up in the area, transforming the area into “Silicon Roundabout”.
Abrahamovich grew up in that building: it had been a mobile phone shop owned by his father, a former market trader, since the Eighties. “Me and my dad literally sat in that shop watching east London change. It was a front-row seat,” he said.
After his father died, when Abrahamovitch was 25, he was determined to put the space to good use. “I loved that building. There was no way I was going to just hand it back to the landlord.” As creative types swarmed into Old Street, he saw a gap in the market: the laid-back, antipodean coffee culture. He brought on the DJ Kaz James as an investor and adviser: “He was Australian, which made him the most qualified person I knew in coffee by some margin.”
Grind was never just going to be a coffee shop. Abrahamovitch had launched his first tech business while studying economics at University College London. “Uni ended up being something that I did four hours a week around my full-time job,” he said. He still talks more like a tech CEO than the owner of a coffee shop. “I always wanted it to be scalable thing, I think that’s just kind of how I’m wired,” he continued. “I grew up reading [tech website] TechCrunch, not reading coffee magazines.”
That doesn’t mean Grind is immune from hospitality’s other big issue: Brexit. “I’m happy to go on the record as saying Brexit is the single worst idea of all time. I deeply wish we never done it.”
Has it made recruitment harder? “It certainly has not helped,” he said. “There were times when we wanted to extend opening hours and we couldn’t, because we physically could not find people to work in the stores, which is certainly not a situation that we’ve ever faced before.”
To celebrate its tenth birthday, Grind has published its first book. A Modern Guide to City Living offers tips on making “really good avocado toast”, “killing it at your internship” and “taking care of yourself like a grown-up”. With its sugar-pink cover and close-ups of the house plants and neon signs in its cafés, it’s a homage to the prolonged adolescence that characterises millennial culture.
Is it possible the brand is so achingly millennial it’s putting off future customers? Abrahamovitch looks pained. Admittedly, he said, “our customers are people that have a millennial mindset”, but he added that the tastes of one generation aren’t limited to a particular age group. “I think people from the generation below also buy into those things, in the same way that people from the generation above me buy into those things.”
So far, customers and other brands seem to agree. Last year, Grind signed an agreement to supply the hotel and members’ club chain Soho House (another brand that focuses on the millennial aesthetic), and next year Abrahamovitch has plans for international expansion. “I want a pink tin in every kitchen,” he said. Like even the most committed millennial, Grind is growing up.