[T]hey’ve been voted “coolest baristas” in the country (according to the UK Coffee Stop Awards) and occupy a seventeenth century coffee house in a quaint part of Victorian London so perfectly authentic you almost expect to find Charles Dickens in a corner sipping espresso.
The Gentlemen Baristas are Edward Parkes, a former stage and television actor, and business partner Henry Ayers, who worked as a consultant for Kimbo—an Italian coffee roaster with shops across Europe. They met at the London Coffee Festival in 2011 and three years later opened their temple to “well-mannered coffee” (their own tagline) encompassing a cafe of forty square meters set over two floors. A coffee school occupies the second floor, used to train Gentleman Barista staff, amateur coffee enthusiasts, and even baristas from competing cafés.
“What we concentrate on is the customer experience,” Parkes explains over a cup of smooth Kenyan peaberry. “Specialty coffee had become a bit too stuffy. I’d go to some places which concentrated so hard on being cool, that I didn’t feel welcome—in fact, I felt an inconvenience to the staff. Sure, the barista has to love and control what they are doing—they influence the customer’s experience more than the coffee machine does—but they also have to make it accessible and enjoyable. Creating an environment where people feel welcome and wanted is at the heart of what we do.”
Inside the café, whose frontage is painted British racing green, rustic comfort prevails with lots of salvage-chic furniture, reclaimed wood, and exposed brick. Their gentlemanly credentials are evident in the focus on politeness combined with a smattering of British eccentricity—many of their coffees are named after classically British hats. “In addition to the Top Hat and Pith Helmet, for example, we have a coffee called Deerstalker because it uses a Sumatran crop and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sumatra in some of his Sherlock Holmes books,” Parkes says.
As well as quality product and attention to service, the two business partners also attribute their success to investment in, and ongoing care of, good equipment. “We started with a fourteen-year-old La Marzocco Linea which Henry already owned,” Parkes says. “It’s the work horse of the specialty coffee industry, a fantastic bit of kit that won’t let you down, providing you care for it and service it . . . it’s the machine that most baristas cut their teeth on.”
They now have a Faema E71, which is an updated and more technical version of the retro classic E61, enabling the Gentlemen to run up to four different brew ratios at any time. “I’ll always love the Linea but this has taken us to the next level, bringing out the various characteristics of the bean, showcasing the coffee at its absolute best,” Parkes says.
The shop’s main roasting partner is Bristol’s Wogan Coffee; they also regularly feature guest roasters and have released their own brand of coffee, now sold in the famous London department store Harvey Nichols.
The Gentlemen are opening a new café later this year, not far from the tourist shopping center of Oxford Street, where they will debut an expanded food menu, including cakes, pastries, sandwiches, and salads. “There’s good margin in coffee but you have to sell a hell of a lot of cups to make it worthwhile, so you need to concentrate on making sure your food is just as good as the drinks you serve,” Parkes says. Whether coffee will feature as a prominent ingredient in their breakfasts and lunches will remain a secret until their newly hired chef launches the range in the next few weeks. Menu reveal aside, the Gentleman are sure to continue employing the same recipe of polite service and well-made coffee.
—Russell Higham is a UK-based freelance writer.