Local hero


Words by Chantelle Horton
Photography by Karolina Wiśniowska

In June, independent Bristol and Bath café, Boston Tea Party, decided to ban all single-use coffee cups. Here, chief executive Sam Roberts tells us why they chose the planet over profits


Whilst the decision to stop using plastic cups made perfect sense, it was also terrifying. We sell roughly £1m worth of takeaway coffee a year, so the thought of losing a lot of that business made me very nervous.

Boston’s business purpose is simple – to make things better – and this is absolutely what drove our decision. We were putting roughly 300,000 cups a year into landfill and that was quite depressing. My finance director and brand director came to me with the idea to ban plastic cups. Three months later we’d done it.

We believe we were the first coffee chain in the world to do this. We wanted to show the world and the industry that it was possible. There’s now a café in York that’s followed suit and lots of talk in Sydney and Melbourne about businesses doing the same. 

I talk a lot about scale versus soul. In my opinion there are too many examples of great initial concepts being scaled around the country and losing their original soul, because they’ve become simply an exercise in making money and rolling out.

Our worst-case scenario model was to lose 90% of our takeaway business. And the best-case scenario we modelled was to lose 25%. As it turns out, we’ve lost around 20%. And the caveat to that figure is also that we also had a blisteringly hot summer and the World Cup with people choosing the pub over a café.

We don’t necessarily have a plan for our brand to be global. But we want our impact to be global. There are lots of problems in society and we can’t fix them all, but we can do our bit.

The customers have been fantastic. We’ve had people coming in with washed out yoghurt pots, all sorts of things to put their coffee in. We’ve had great fun with it on Instagram.

The biggest piece of work was training our staff. We faced every single interaction with customers wanting a takeaway coffee being a negative one and them potentially walking out. For six weeks we trained all 600 of our employees to tell customers why we’re doing this and hopefully getting them to buy into it. 

We’ve saved around 50,000 cups going to landfill. We’ve also sold over 16,000 reusable cups, which we sell at cost price (£4.75) and don’t make a profit on. Best of all, the old plastic cups, sleeves and lids used to cost us 10p each – which we’re now saving. So, every time someone buys a takeaway coffee we give that 10p to local charities. 

Businesses and consumers need to take huge action. If we’re going to deal with the problem of plastic in the oceans then both need to behave differently or nothing is going to change. 

Consumers need to start voting with their feet. They need to look at where they’re spending their money and if they agree with the purpose, beliefs and actions of
that business. 

A big part of my role now is to spread the message to other businesses. We’ve already run free workshops for around 40 local businesses – telling them honestly how we did it and what the effect has been.

PeopleKate Monument