Modern Retail

Blue Coffee Box’s Standout Subscription Model

Blue Coffee Box

Blue Coffee Box is a gourmet coffee subscription club run by father and son business team, Jon and Harvey Butt.

Their business has become the UK’s first and only coffee subscription service to use 100% fast-compostable packaging for its products and postal packaging. Offering ethically sourced speciality coffees from around the world, their beans are hand-roasted weekly by the best of the UK’s 300+ artisan roasters before being delivered to customers.

Modern Retail had the pleasure of speaking with Jon about Blue Coffee Box’s inspirational journey so far.

How it began

Blue Coffee Box began when Jon found an idea while travelling. After he spotted a gap in the market, he set up Blue Coffee Box with his son.

“I was in America on an internal flight, reading a magazine and found an article about a successful American coffee subscription. I took a photo of it and told my son who was around 16 at the time. I’d planned to sign up to a coffee subscription over here and realised there wasn’t one. A year or so later, my son remembered it and said he’d like to set it up as a business to pay his university fees instead of having a student loan. So that’s what we did – it genuinely started in a back bedroom and when my son came home from school, he’d pack the orders and it grew from there. You don’t necessarily need to think of a genius idea. You can find something that you want, know and understand and find a way to make it happen.”

Getting started 

Jon used his relevant experience to get the business off the ground, however it was a challenge to begin with. Persistence and trial and error played a key role in turning Blue Coffee Box into the success that it is today.

“I had business experience and online marketing experience and it went from there. It was set up as a business but I’d only done B2B, never selling to consumers before. We decided that the first thing would be to contact every friend, family member and business contact and make an offer to get our first sales. It didn’t work particularly well so once we’d exhausted those, we decided to try a few new things that I’d tried with my other business and it started to work. It was almost like a snowball effect. Once you see something works, you can do more of that and spend effort to make that better and improve it.”

Coffee Information

The rise of gift-giving

Blue Coffee Box’s subscriptions can be given as gifts, making them an incredibly popular purchase. Gift-giving has proven to be a growing trend throughout the pandemic, as people looked to send presents to loved ones.

“Our subscriptions can be bought for someone else as a gift, with a message added in. They’re designed so the gift subscriptions don’t renew, so people don’t get caught out. They have always been at least half of what we sell. During the pandemic, we could tell from the messages that people were putting in them, that it was for people that couldn’t see each other, rather than just for occasions. There was a clear rise in appreciation for people, sending gifts to nurses in hospitals, teachers in schools and delivery drivers that were making sure parcels were delivered.”

The challenges of COVID

Blue Coffee Box’s growing team faced challenges as a result of COVID, yet the business managed to grow in popularity despite the changes they were required to make.

“We are small and efficient. It became difficult in terms of safety to have people in, so we decided to furlough the couple of members of staff as it wasn’t safe to have others together in a small space. Harvey came back from university and worked 7 days a week with me on the coffee side of the business. Then before long, we were able to bring Jessica back and people kept buying more.”

Investing in the future 

As the popularity of Blue Coffee Box continued to grow, Jon and Harvey invested into the future of the business to help it run safely despite COVID, as well as allowing them to keep up with the growing demand.

“We decided to invest in the future, so we invested in expensive machinery which enables us to do more work with less staff because it was so difficult to keep everyone spaced out and safe. Because we change the coffees we have every single month, the bags need labelling, so we got a machine that automatically labels them, as well as a pouch-filling machine that weighs out portions, brings up a bag, opens it, drops the coffee in and seals it. This arrived just in time for Christmas when it gets busier and meant that we were able to grow and stay safe at the same time.

“We also invested in air conditioning to keep everyone more safe and even borrowed office space from my other business while workers couldn’t be in there, using it as a second packing location. We rolled up our sleeves, looked after ourselves and made it succeed by adapting, which is what saw us through the initial stages where nobody knew what was going on with COVID.”

Choosing the right delivery method

Finding the right method of convenient delivery can be a challenge for many in the retail sector. Jon explained his approach to finding the right delivery partners.

“We try to be as eco-friendly as possible, but don’t use this as a big USP. So we use the Royal Mail as they deliver it by hand with the post through letterboxes, so they’re already visiting each area and it means there is no additional journey. Communication was key throughout COVID, as deliveries became delayed but by being honest and transparent with customers, they understood. We added a message at the top of the receipt to communicate any potential delays, so people knew what to expect. We have since changed to use Whistl, who still use Royal Mail for deliveries. If you’re big enough, this allows you to get a slight discount and they also deliver to Ireland with no additional charge.”

Blue Coffee Box - Subscription delivery

Sourcing coffee

Blue Coffee Box prioritises the quality of its coffee. Setting the bar high, there have been challenges along the way.

“Our coffee is single origin, which is not common. At first, we didn’t buy enough to get a decent price as it is quite expensive in comparison to most coffee. What we pay at wholesale is higher than the retail price of coffee in a supermarket, so we began by pretty much making no profit on what we did, with the hope that we could grow in size.

“Some of the coffee shops that roast their own saw us as competitors as they also did coffee subscriptions, so they didn’t want to supply us. But some understand and are supportive because when we put it in our bags, our labels have all of their information – we talk about the roasters and the coffee on our packaging to publicise them.”

Suppliers

Blue Coffee Box builds relationships with suppliers to create mutually beneficial working processes.

“We see our suppliers as part of our team. We treat them well and pay them on time. They have to be reliable and we try to make it easy. We don’t make any demands. If you want to find a specialist or higher quality product, the pool of choice is smaller and you must make more effort to be wanted as a customer. You should always treat people the way you would hope to be treated.”

Blue Coffee Box Coffee Suppliers

Sourcing packaging

While Blue Coffee Box don’t advertise themselves as being eco-friendly, their packaging has been carefully designed to reduce their impact on the environment as much as possible.

“We wanted compostable packaging that was fast, rather than taking 10 years to break down. So we had to look around, do our research and learn. Many companies use recyclable packaging, but this doesn’t stop the creation of plastic, or they’ll tell customers to rip off aspects of the packaging that aren’t recyclable, but this doesn’t always happen. Our coffee valve looks like plastic, but it isn’t and it’s actually fast composting. Rather than just telling people this, we wanted to get it certified. Even the adhesive that sticks the layers of paper to the lining has to be plastic-free and environmentally friendly, as well as the ink on the outside, with absolutely no trace of plastic. So we can say we have the solution to this. We use enough packaging that we can buy a quality where it can be made bespoke for us.

“It does cost around 2.5x the cost of what we used to pay for normal packaging, and as it is compostable, it has a shelf life as soon as it’s made as it starts to break down. But having this plastic-free certification was important to us as we want to do our bit and do the responsible thing.”

Keep up to date with Blue Coffee Box

To stay up to date with Blue Coffee Box, visit their website by clicking here.

Subscribe to Modern Retail's Weekly Newsletter

Holly Worthington

Holly brings a wealth of experience in both print and digital publishing. As Modern Retail's Content Editor, Holly is passionate about helping independent retailers to thrive in today's ever-changing market.