From Professional Rugby Player To Unprofessional Businessman - Wayland’s Yard at Two

The flagship Worcester branch of Wayland’s Yard is celebrating its two year anniversary this month. We caught up with founder Sam Smith to hear the story of how his business idea became a reality.

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Proper Coffee, Proper Food, Proper People.

In the last two years Sam Smith has accomplished more than he had ever expected. In October 2016 he opened the flagship Worcester branch of Wayland’s Yard, a coffee shop and restaurant built around an ethos of ‘proper coffee, proper food’. Since then a second store has been opened in Birmingham, a partnership coffee shop was founded with Method Coffee Roasters, and the Worcester store has become a favourite among local residents. Wayland’s Yard will be celebrating its two year anniversary this October.

For a first-time business owner, Smith has much to be proud of. However, when asked about what he considers to be his greatest success, he pulls up a photo. It shows a group of Wayland’s Yard employees in the flagship store’s yard, celebrating at a staff party earlier in the year. Smith himself - along with his spaniel Kobe, the store’s most popular regular - stands front and centre.

“If you’d said to me in October 2016 that I’d have over thirty members of staff I would have said no way, that’s a joke,” Smith says. “We opened up with eight. To see that growth and to have created a cool little community - I think that’s my proudest moment.


From Rugby Pitch To Coffee Shop

Wayland’s Yard is not the first community that Smith has been a part of. He became a professional rugby player as soon as he finished school, playing for Harlequins in London before joining Worcester Warriors in 2014. He played for Worcester for a year before he suffered an injury that forced him to miss an entire season. In April of 2016 he underwent surgery, but ultimately this proved unsuccessful. A few months later Smith made the difficult decision to retire from rugby.

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It was then that he turned his attention to the venture that would eventually become Wayland’s Yard. Smith had been thinking about starting his own business long before his rugby career ended. One of his initial concepts was to make furniture from reclaimed materials, but this idea soon grew and came to incorporate one of his other passions - speciality coffee.

Smith can pinpoint the exact moment he fell in love with speciality coffee. He was on a trip to Amsterdam when he saw V60 filter coffee on a cafe menu and, thinking that it sounded interesting, decided to order one.

“The girl came and made it at the table, which we all thought was pretty incredible, seeing it for the first time,” Smith says. “When she finished I asked for milk. She almost spat in my face, and said no, and walked off,” he laughs. “Then I tasted it and absolutely loved it, and totally got why you wouldn’t put milk in a drink like that. That really sparked my interest.”

While this encounter introduced Smith to the pleasures of high-end coffee, it also got him thinking about the culture of the industry itself.

“Speciality coffee shops can often be so unwelcoming,” he says. “There’s that big, invisible barrier between the baristas and the customers. You almost get scolded for not knowing as much as them, and you feel as if you’ve interrupted their day by asking questions. I don’t think it should be that way. Baristas should get excited when customers are interested about coffee and are asking questions.”

This frustration with certain aspects of the speciality coffee industry became central to the Wayland’s Yard ethos. Smith set out to do something that was different, not only serving high quality coffee and food but also creating an environment where everyone could feel welcome.

Today, Smith feels that Wayland’s Yard has achieved that. “You can come in any time on any day and there’ll be a really wide demographic of customers here,” he says. “You’ll have your hipster students coming in for their filter coffees, but you’ve also got older gentlemen and women coming in for their cups of tea, friends having a slice of cake, families, and everyone in between. I really like that about Wayland’s.”


Trial and Error

The journey from the initial idea to today’s bustling cafe was not always an easy one, however. “This whole process has been the biggest learning curve I’ve ever been on,” Smith says. “Playing rugby you have everything given to you on a plate in terms of the support team - coaches, physios, doctors, teammates behind you. If you have any questions you can go and ask someone, and there’s a specialist in that field to help you work it out. Whereas this was the first time ever I’d totally done something on my own - and with absolutely no experience.”

Smith researched both the business and coffee sides of the venture intensely, and reached out to others in the coffee community for support. Peter Dore-Smith, the director of Kaffeine, invited him down to London to to see how their Fitzrovia store was run.

“That was a proper baptism of fire,” he says. “It was amazing for me to see how well his shop was run despite how busy it was, and it gave a really good benchmark to try and set our processes and standards against. I’ll always be very grateful to him. He helped me to avoid a lot of mistakes by that one day.”

“I think again that touches on what I love about the coffee community,” Smith adds. “Every other shop owner I’ve ever met is just always so friendly, and we can always chat and find stuff in common and laugh about things we’re struggling with. It’s not some sort of abrasive competition, it’s a proper community.”

The next challenge was finding the right location for the flagship store. Smith viewed over thirty different premises before visiting the Foregate Street site. As soon as he saw the garden - which was then an overgrown jungle - he knew that he had found the right place.

Launch Day

Now that he had the perfect premises, it was a question of finding the money to turn the space into a coffee shop. Smith had already put his own personal savings into the business, but more money needed to be secured before he could move on with the project. After traditional routes proved unsuccessful, Smith turned his attention to crowdfunding.

The response was overwhelming. The target goal of £10,000 was reached in just twenty four days - the majority of this support coming from Smith’s first community, with pledges pouring in from former teammates and rugby fans from both Worcester Warriors and Harlequins.

After the start up money had been secured, the hard work of renovating the store began. The courtyard was choked with weeds, parts of the shop were in disrepair, and there were mushrooms growing in the stairwells. On top of all this, the store was located in a listed building, making the work even harder to complete.

But, over the next few months, everything began to come together. The garden was cleared, the interior was restored, and bit by bit the first branch of Wayland’s Yard began to take shape. In October 2016 the store opened its doors to the public for the first time.

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“In the end I got so impatient that we opened about three weeks too early,” Smith recalls. “The bar wasn’t clad, lots of stuff wasn’t finished. The night before I finished at three a.m. and came back at five to finish stuff before we opened at midday. Our oven got delivered two hours after we opened. That list could go on.”

The months of planning and hard work had finally come to a head. “I was a complete and utter nervous wreck,” Smith says. “I remember I actually cried the morning of opening - I’m going to put that down to tiredness, but I think it was an outlet of all the hard work and worry and excitement and nerves. Everything all came out at once. I was really proud and excited.”

Above all, Smith remembers the people who were there on the first day. His friends and family were in attendance, as well as rugby supporters and other people who had contributed to the Crowdfunder campaign. Some of his old rugby teammates were at the shop helping him set up until 3 a.m. the night before the launch; they were back again first thing in the morning, queuing up to be the first customers of the day. Smith is still grateful for the true friendship his former teammates showed him then, and he voices a hope that when they transition out of rugby he can return the favour and help them in kind.

“It was pure excitement to show them what we had been working on for so long,” he says.


What’s Next For Wayland’s?

Since that first day Wayland’s Yard has gone from strength to strength. Business has been growing steadily, a second branch has opened, and responses from customers have been overwhelmingly positive. Yet Smith is not ready to rest on his laurels.

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“The only way that this has got to where it is is through us as a business being willing and open to developing and growing and learning,” he says. “We’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve and we’re not happy to sit and rest and let other people catch up. I think that’s the only way you can survive in such a competitive industry. But that’s what makes it exciting, because you never stop, and that’s what I love. There’s always new stuff going on.”

When it comes to the success that Wayland’s Yard has enjoyed so far, Smith returns to the ethos upon which the business was founded - proper food, proper coffee and proper people.

“We’ve always wanted to source locally and get the best quality produce, and we’ve always done that with our coffee and our food. I guess that’s our building blocks, the foundation of what this place is built on,” he says. “I want people to leave the door with us having had a positive impact on their day.”

As well as the business itself, Smith feels that he too has grown alongside Wayland’s Yard.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” he says. “It sounds cheesy but it’s been a proper journey of discovery. I think I used the shop as a way of blocking out the fact that I’d had to retire from rugby. It was the best distraction ever, but I had to face up to that at some point, and when I finally did it was quite a tough process to deal with that. That was my identity for ten years, who I was as a person, but since then I’ve probably discovered who I really am and what I really want to get out of life.”

In the end, it comes back to the same question - is he proud of what he has achieved?

“I think for a long time I wasn’t very proud of it, because I’d never given myself the chance to step back and appreciate what had been created. Now I walk into the shops and they’re busy and people are having a nice time, and it does make me feel proud,” he says. “It’s exciting to see where this all ends up.”




Interviewed and written by our old time barista friend, Lauren O’Donoghue.
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