Caffeine Magazine: Championing independent coffee

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Baristas and the love of well-made coffee have taken over the world. Enjoying a well made latté while working or talking with friends at your local café has become a ritual that many of us enjoy daily. London’s Caffeine Magazine gives an inside look at independent cafés livening our neighborhoods. Interview with the former editor, Katia Hadidian.

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Baron: How did it all begin?
Katia Hadidian: The magazine was started by Scott Bentley, a graphic designer and creative director from London, who has worked for more than 10 years with all the big international publishing houses (Condé Nast, Hearst, Bauer, the BBC). We met while working for Hearst on Men's Health magazine many years ago, and remained friends ever since.

In London, these publishers are based in very vibrant urban areas, such as Soho and the South Bank, where other creative companies in film, fashion, advertising, communications and so on have their headquarters. So, there are lots of independent coffee shops there to service this community. In fact, one of the first "indie" coffee shops in London, Flat White, is around the corner from our old office at Men's Health.

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People who work in creative companies tend to like hanging around coffee shops reading, daydreaming and gossiping! We never thought that such a pastime could become part of our careers, however. Scott is a self-confessed "coffee geek" - he can talk for hours about equipment, bean varieties, and anything else on the subject. Also, he is a very accomplished cyclist (not quite Tour de France, but close!), who cycles about 30km a day, and there is a lot of crossover between the cycling and coffee communities. As for me, ever since I was a child, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time in cafés, so ours is a good meeting of minds, though he is far more technically fluent in the subject than I am. My approach is more emotional or experiential, you could say. I spent my childhood in Beirut, with its colonial French cafés, so café au lait sucré, marble-topped tables and wooden Thonet chairs are in my DNA!

Scott had a coffee blog, and noticing the huge surge in Internet activity of blogs, tweets and online forums devoted to artisanal coffee, he decided the time was right to turn his blog into a magazine. We also both noticed that even with the global economic downturn, people are still willing to spend up to £3 on a coffee. That is not "loose change". However, it is an affordable luxury. Even when we've been broke - which happens a lot when you work in publishing! - we've gone out for a coffee to cheer ourselves up and interact with humanity a little bit. Others obviously feel the same way. Last October Scott asked me if I would like to help launch his magazine, and by January we had published our first issue.

I think this is quite an important point. We did not launch a magazine after hiring a company to do detailed market research about consumer sectors and come up with financial forecasts and so on. It was very much Scott's "passion project" - we knew there was a market for it, as our friends and colleagues and everyone we meet are the market. We also knew that we had to do as best as we could NOW before someone beat us to it. Scott found a specialist niche (perhaps this is where magazine publishing has its future?) and now we satisfy that niche.

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I would therefore encourage anyone who is passionate and knowledgeable about a subject and has a project or product they would like to work on and has the skills to make it happen to just go ahead and do it. I should know: I have missed many opportunities, as I am not a great risk taker. This is because taking risks can be a luxury - you may not be able to afford the consequences of the risk not working out. However, unless you are a huge corporation, there is never a "right time" - there will never be enough hours in the day or enough money and there will always be problems. But at least if you start, and produce something good in a modest way, then you can start having a conversation with your audience, and have a platform from which you can engage with people. My other piece of advice is, find a compatible partner who's good at the things you're not good at. I am very design literate but can't even draw a straight line. Scott is incredibly artistic and eloquent, but hasn't the time or patience to write it down. We're both not so good at cold-calling potential advertisers, but our advertising director Nicholas Sykes likes nothing more than charming strangers and winning them over the telephone!

Editorial wise...
We are a bit of a "work in progress" at the moment as we started modestly at 48 pages an issue and are slowly growing. Our focus is simple: to entertain and inform readers and to celebrate the culture around artisanal coffee and everything that goes with that - the simple, good things in life like delicious bread and chocolate and design and books... We also try to strike a balance between the general reader and someone working in the industry. So, you won't find us writing about refrigeration units, but we will write in detail about coffee equipment for the home or the correct temperature for espresso, for example, as well as the provenance of coffee. Scott is such a wonderful designer and our writers, photographers, illustrators, readers and advertisers really appreciate being in such a well designed and produced magazine.

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Why choose print? what kind of paper you use and why? typography?
Scott noticed that people often sit in coffee shops with nothing to read except an old newspaper that someone else has left behind. He wanted people who had decided to come to an independent coffee shop to read more about what went into their coffee and the magazine was the perfect place to capture their attention. The fact that it's free makes it even easier for them to engage with the magazine.

We do have an iPad version of the magazine available on iTunes, and a version for Android coming out soon on Magzter, but Scott and I trained in print, we read print, we love print, and so do millions of people around the world! We choose print because we like the tactile experience, we like the idea of having an object in your hand that you can keep on a shelf; of having pages that you can tear out of a magazine and pin on a real pinboard, not a virtual one. Of course digital offers a wonderful experience too, the opportunity to include sound and moving images and so on - but it is very different, like comparing the film of a book with the book. Two different experiences of the same story.

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It was also important for us to have a magazine rather than just launch a website - in fact we are still working on having a website, we just have the blog at the moment. Thousands of websites and blogs are launched around the world every week and if you are not a famous person who already has an established following, then frankly it is an exceedingly difficult and lengthy enterprise to try to stand out among the digital chatter. The great thing about print - and being a "freemium" title at that (we do not charge for the print edition) - is that the coffee shops agreed to be our distributors - it costs them nothing and is a pleasant extra for their customers. We only charge for the iPad edition exactly what it would cost for us to buy an envelope and post a magazine to someone.

I think if we had started as a digital magazine or blog, it would have been harder to gain a readership and to persuade the wonderful, talented photographers, contributors and industry figures that appear in our magazine to return our phone calls. They see the physical copy of the magazine in the coffee shops and actually witness people reading it and walking out with it or giving it to friends. Now we run out of copies and are inundated with phone calls and emails every day (be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes). So starting in print and progressing to digital was the best decision for our circumstances.

Perhaps this is not the place to get into a debate about digital versus print, but I certainly feel that publishers rushed into digital and online to "keep up with the Joneses" without knowing what would happen or having a strategy. The result has been   huge expense, a huge upheaval throughout the industry and mass redundancies of very talented people. Also publishers now have to have a print edition, an online edition, an edition for iPad, an edition for smartphone and android as well as having a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram (or Pinterest) and so it goes on - all of which do not necessarily provide more readers or more income. You're just trying to "entice your customer into the store" in as many ways as possible and stop them from "walking past the window". If an established publication like Vanity Fair only had a print edition, would this have led to a drop in sales because people just wanted to read it online? I doubt it. However, on the upside (there's always an upside!) someone living in the middle of nowhere where you don't have print distribution can read your digital edition, which is a marvellous thing.

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Scott deliberately chose an uncoated paper stock and a muted colour palette to compliment the current look and feel of independent cafés in London - he wanted it to have an artisanal, hand-crafted feel.

How’s the public’s response so far?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. With the first issue, we  started with distribution throughout London in independent coffee shops and by the second issue started distributing throughout the UK. Readers are very engaged and write to us everyday, making recommendations, giving their opinion, pitching stories... Everyone has a favourite coffee shop they like to escape to for a few minutes each day, and the magazine is another little escape. You will always find some nugget of information to spark your interest...

Print mags get a lot of love, something that is not always translated to sales or advertising. How are the sales? advertising wise, do you have a traditional approach of selling an ad page or more a brand ad approach?
We are a "freemium" title, in other words, we don't charge readers for the print edition. In the UK there is so much competition for readers, as well as an economic recession, and we did not feel we could charge when there are so many popular prestigious publications like  Time Out and The Evening Standard newspaper being distributed for free, let alone the quirky and fun free zines like The Shortlist and The Stylist. So we don't focus on sales as such, but I have to say, our magazines disappear in minutes. It's quite extraordinary.

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Our advertisers at the moment are both well-established, international equipment manufacturers as well as boutique roasteries and food and beverage companies. Advertisers are generally reluctant to advertise in a new magazine as they are worried you will fail after a few issues and take their advertising revenue with you. However with 3 days of the first issue being out one of our advertisers rang to say they had sold a £1500 espresso machine directly because of the ad. Advertising does work!

Can you give us a  tour of  the UK niche media scene?
Wow - big question. The UK is a nation of readers and has a long-established reading culture, and a thriving design culture. Despite the economic downturn, people still buy magazines - compared to going to the movies (at least £12 per person not including popcorn!) or to the theatre or out to dinner, buying a magazine or going out for a coffee are an affordable treat. An escape, if even just for a few moments.

The UK independent magazine scene is very active, generally made up of high pagination, high production value, niche titles like Kinfolk, Hunger, Port, or Delayed Gratification. These can cost up to £15 per issue and there are literally hundreds of these kind of titles. We fall into the freemium category along with more mainstream titles but it's a business model that works for us.

Upcoming projects
International editions. We'd also like to expand our page numbers, and therefore the subject areas that we cover. There is so much potential for publishing to feed into other areas, so we are developing documentary concepts at the moment too. We do take each day as it comes, as in this economic climate, you have to be flexible rather than have a fixed business plan that you may not be able to realise. I think better than a business plan is to have business goals, and just try your best to keep your eye on the target - but truly, these days, nobody knows what's round the corner, and if they say they do, they're not telling the truth!

Our objective is always to entertain and inform our readers, and be of service to the industry. A magazine is a great calling card to speak to people, get projects off the ground and be part of the conversation, as the Americans say!

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Correction: 27 of January 2014
The Q&A was done with the former editor, Katia Hadidian. We will be updating the Q&A with the new editor.
If you have any question, you can contact us at [email protected]
Thank you