Indie Oxford Interview: Society Cafe
This week we chat to Adrian Campbell-Howard, owner of Society Cafe on St Michael’s Street in the heart of Oxford city centre.
Tell me about yourself
Hi, I’m Adrian. I am originally from Yorkshire but have travelled a huge amount since the age of 14, mostly in Asia, with 4 amazing years in Tokyo where the Japanese culture really resonated with me. That’s when my eyes were truly opened to the world of food, drink and exceptional hospitality. I absolutely love service and looking after people and I still draw on my experiences in Japan where it’s an art form! I met my wife in San Francisco whilst travelling, she was cheffing for Formula 1 at the time. In 2000 at the age of 26 we bought a 14 bedroom hotel/restaurant in Bourton-on-the-Water –The Dial House Hotel. We sold it in 2008 after an amazing 7 years having transformed the hotel and gained a Rising Michelin Star. We headed off to Morocco and had a brilliant three years immersing ourselves and our young children in the crazy/beautiful city of Marrakech.
When did you set up Society Café and what was the inspiration behind it?
We moved back from Morocco in 2011 with the intention of running another hotel in Bath. We couldn’t find the right property and were having a lot of meetings in coffee shops with agents. This was pre ‘third wave coffee’ and most offerings were old school cafes and big chains with no love or passion, yet they were so busy. It just struck us, coming from a ‘service’ and ‘foodie’ background that if they were so busy doing it with such little love, surely there was room for it to be done so much better. We wanted to take the level of service and high quality ingredients that are associated with Michelin-starred restaurants and apply that same ethos to a coffee shop.
Have you always worked in hospitality?
My first proper job was washing up in my local café in Halifax. Every Saturday and Sunday I would race into town on my yellow Falcon road bike, it was always crazy-busy but I loved it! Adrenalin buzzing, I’d wash up, make sandwiches, serve customers. I was definitely the youngest by at least a decade but the boss was pretty intimidating so, in a bid to impress, I made sure I worked the hardest!
I helped to run an amazing Thai fusion restaurant in Hong Kong from 1995 – 1997. Always in the Top Places To Eat lists, the attention to detail was a real eye-opener and I learnt so much from how the Thai kitchen team worked together. Even though they weren’t family, they operated like one, being supportive and encouraging in all the right places and it’s something that we always try to emulate with our teams.
Whilst living in Marrakech in 2009 we were approached by Vanessa Branson to run her incredible 26 bedroom Riad El Fenn. Running a team of over 40 Morrocan staff in a country full of totally different ways of operating was a huge challenge but it was one of the best things we’ve ever done. It was a blast!
How did you go about designing the space for Society Cafe?
It’s really important to get the balance of a beautiful aesthetic and comfort. It’s always our aim to create a space that we would want to sit in ourselves and read an inspiring magazine. I remember many years ago in San Francisco going to a place called the Squat & Gobble. This was back in 1996. It was way ahead of it’s time with a big open plan layout, communal tables, gorgeous looking food and drink. It’s the first place I can remember that had clearly thought about not just the food and drink offering but the whole experience for the customer. One of the most important things is that everyone feels welcome. That’s why we called ourselves Society. We worked very closely with two incredible Bristol-based brothers who run Shape Studio to create our Oxford space. They are obsessive about detail, their use of woods and metals, the angles that everything sits at, the grain in the wood. Every detail was obsessed over and absolutely everything in the shop is bespoke – the lights, chairs, tables, bar – it was all made by Shape for us.
What is the café best known for?
Amazing coffee and an exceptional knowledge of coffee. We all live and breathe what we do, we can geek out about coffee with those that really want to know the provenance or are interested in what our new offerings are and why we have chosen them. But at the same time we recognise that not everyone wants to know that their coffee is a such and such a coffee from Burundi, they just want a nice coffee in a nice environment. I’d like to think that people know us for caring about every part of a customer’s experience.
Where do you source your produce from?
We mainly work with Origin Coffee Roasters who have carefully built up relationships with the best farms in the best producing countries. They direct trade with the farms that they visit and, for us, knowing that the farmers, the workers and their families are well taken care of is hugely important.
Our guest coffees and filter coffee offerings come from other roasters all over the world. They have different methods and to be able to showcase those is exciting for us and our customers.
Hot Chocolates and teas are equally important. We use single origin real chocolate and teas are all loose leaf and sourced equally carefully. Cakes and pastries are all local from the completely brilliant Barefoot, the incredible Gatineau and other local suppliers.
What makes Society Café unique?
Oxford has many good places to enjoy great coffee. Our hope is that, at Society, we have created an environment where everyone feels exceptionally well cared for. From the suppliers we work with, to our cherished customers and our lovely team. Providing incredible coffees and other things to eat and drink is obviously a huge part of that. It still excites us every single day that people choose to come to us and that we are able to offer them our unique experience.
How important is the local community to your business?
Hugely! We have been incredibly lucky to have been welcomed in the way we have by Oxford – and that’s not just the public but other local businesses as well. The positivity and mutual support amongst businesses in Oxford is one of the most attractive things about the city. In turn we have gone out of our way to support other local independents, local charities or simply local people that need a bit of help and it’s a huge honour to do so. It feels like we are all in this together.
Tell me about your plans for 2019.
We are going to start regular cuppings for our customers to come along to. This is the procedure we go through when we are choosing our coffees. It’s a really exciting way to taste coffee and understand what we are looking for in our coffees.
We will be teaming up with Oatly and other businesses to offer exciting competitions to come along to and either compete in or just watch!
We are also teaming up with Fixed Gear Party and will be hosting some cycle focused evenings too.
Lastly, which are your favourite independent businesses in Oxford?
We have many, we really are spoilt with good independents in Oxford. As a keen cyclist I am a big fan of Bike Zone on the same street as us! They have been very supportive of us since we started.
I also love Objects of Use. Many of the objects in there take me back to my time in Japan. Beautifully designed objects that can either be used or admired. Everything in there is essentially a piece of art!
We absolutely love Oli’s Thai! Wish it was next door!