Standing beside a double buggy and two wee pairs of wellies, I’m confident that my Craigie excursion is over and I have found the home of Lorna Bruce, my first Perth personality for our new blog. Her gorgeous, twin three year old boys are almost as Instagram-famous as her Bean Shop coffee roaster (well, maybe only to a social media prowler such as your’s truly) and the front step I’m on is reminiscent of children who come as a pair.
It’s a fresh-faced cheerful Lorna who opens the door, dressed in shorts and shirt and looking impossibly younger than her 38 years. We’re chattering about my getting lost on the walk from my home to hers (We are three streets apart. How is this possible?) and she’s leading me through the type of home you imagine Kirsty Alsop might have thrown together between tv series. It’s homely and comfortable with just the right balance of quirky v stylish. Should I be describing her home? Possibly not, but you’ll understand why I have decided to as her story unfolds.
I’m sitting in a little nook that has an office / play desk vibe going on and we’re chatting through a wall as Lorna brews our coffee. I know all you Bean Shop groupies (of which I am one) want to know what a woman who roasts coffee for a living makes her Wednesday morning, 10am guest. Here it is… Mexico Terruno Nayarita Natural Reserva. And very nice it is too – glass coffee pot, no milk, cups from her own emporium.
From the minute I thought of small city, big personality, I wanted to feature The Bean Shop. Mainly because I love its simplicity. It has stood at the end of George Street for the past decade (it’s actually 11 years I’m told on good authority) and is one of my favourite shops in Perth. There is no nonsense, no mistaking what they do, no need for extras. You can buy tea and coffee and things to do with tea and coffee. And so it has always been.
I am curious as to how a small business selling two things (three if you count the accessories, four if you include the heavenly coco-chocolate bars that you can now add to your basket) has weathered the storm of the recession, remained steadfast throughout the every changing landscape of bricks and mortar retail and, on a personal level, done all of this while raising two little boys. Would she spill the beans…? Boom boom. (sorry, I really shouldn’t have).
It all started circa 1998 when Lorna was an art student in Aberdeen. She was 22 years old, studying for her degree at Gray’s School of Art and skint in a way that only art students can be. She spotted a job ad for a shop assistant in a coffee roasters, MacBeans, and as an established drinker of proper coffee, she was deemed a suitable candidate and started part-time over the summer holidays.
I have to short-hand a little here as I have six pages of notes and I really want to chat about her Granny later on!
The simple version is that Lorna’s love of coffee exploded all over MacBeans and she soon badgered them into teaching her to how to roast. By the time she had completed her masters she was the head-roaster and her palette had begun to evolve into the finely-tuned engine that we all rely on for our morning kick-start today.
“I adored that first year at MacBeans. I was studying art, learning how to roast, finding out all those firsts that go into making a great cup of coffee… I would cycle from painting in my studio at Gray’s down to the shop to roast and it was just brilliant.” She’s looking a bit whimsical at this point in the conversation, I should add.
So, there she is, learning how to achieve that fine balance between strength and smoothness, acidity and body all the while revelling in the different brewing methods, roasting gadgets and beans from around the world. Bear in mind that back in 1998, our coffee tastes were neither as sophisticated nor as discerning as they are now. She was among a handful of proper artisan roasters in Scotland and as her passion grew so too did her desire to branch out and start on her own.
“I had already decided that art would be a hobby and coffee would be my trade. I loved the honesty of it all. I find it very nurturing, you know, to make a product that makes people happy. I wasn’t entirely sure how exactly it was going to fall into place and at the same time as I was trying to work all this out, I met the newly single John.”
Ahhhh – a wee bit romance for the tale! I love it! John and his family owned the pub next door – “Ma Camerons” for those of you who know pre-nineties Aberdeen - and he came into MacBeans for his morning coffee and supplies for the pub. Lorna would return the business by partaking in the occasional pint and before long romance had blossomed.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. John’s dad had run a tea plantation in India, and John was brought up here for the first 10 years of his life. (He is lover of proper tea – loose leaf, ritualistic. Mornings in their house still start with a pot of single estate Darjeeling). When things started to get serious between the pair, it soon became apparent that their mutual love of tea and coffee was going to lead them into business and so I will gallop through the courtship and bring you up to them selecting Perth as their base.
Enter the aforementioned Granny. Lorna spent a lot of her childhood in Perth, her mum’s family had owned the New Inn at Bankfoot, the MacDonald Arms and Finlayson’s at Bridge of Earn. Her dad’s family were from Kinrossie, her paternal granddad, the village blacksmith by trade and a bare-knuckle boxer in his spare time. (You couldn’t make it up!)
As interesting as granddad sounds, if I could transport myself back in time I’m certain it would be her paternal granny that would be on my Big Personality hit list. Granny lived to be 101, on Lorna’s birthdays she played “Happy Birthday” on her fiddle, she was best friends with Jim Aitken who you might know better as James Aitken, the man whose name was given to Kinnoull Hill’s Arboretum.
“I remember coming to stay with my Granny and learning all about plants from Jim. I’d come for summer, Easter and October holidays and we’d go picking strawberries and tatties at the farm. It was idyllic, carefree. We were that generation who had endless days of summers – kids now are so organised, mine included! My granny’s was a treat. We’d get dressed up, all polished and preened to come into town in Perth.”
At this point we talk for ages on the endless summers of the seventies and having a childhood unhindered by “stuff”. I almost forget why I’m here as we sit blethering like two old pals. I’m a firm believer that anyone who cites their grandparent(s) as one of their favourite ever people is one of life’s good guys.
“Oh my granny was the best. She was born, lived and died in the same cottage. I think that’s why Perth has such strong, positive memories for me. You know, when she met John she apparently said to my mum ‘oh that’s a real man Lorna’s got herself’. I love that she said that!”
Equally important to the decision was the travelling distance to Aberdeen as John had three children that he needed to be near. Perth was a perfect solution and after one missed opportunity, number 67 George Street came onto the market.
“It was weird, because we had wanted to do a café and of course the shop in George Street was barely big enough to turn around in. But it just felt right.”
Building warrants ensued, the 5kg batch Probat Roaster from Germany was lowered into place in the basement and in April 2003 they were open for business.
Lorna was in her element, roasting her own blends of coffee using beans from all over the world. Finally her years of training were being poured into her own product and as the news spread that George Street had a real live roasting machine and proper loose leaf tea, the foodies of Perth began to find their way in droves.
“At first a lot of people wanted to talk about the Farrow and Ball wallpaper” Lorna remembers. “I spent my time explaining why our freshly roasted beans were so much better than supermarket pre-ground coffee. It was hard work and long hours but we knew we had something special and for me it felt like I was doing something honest and real. When you use your senses, all five at once, to make this amazing tasting coffee and then stand while people sip at it, enjoy it and willingly buying a bag, it is truly incredible.”
The business grew, they got married in 2006 (course they did!) and in 2007 they rented an additional unit at the harbour from Castlecroft and forklifted a mega-roaster into place.
I’m now sitting staring at her – second cup of coffee poured - I had no idea they had this "second place at the harbour".
“We needed to. We were sending coffee all over the UK by this time and the roaster downstairs in the shop just couldn’t keep up. It’s great for limited amounts but for cafes and restaurants who order larger batches we use the big guy.” They supply from Shetland to London incidentally.
“Tell me about the boys,” I say.
“Ahhh, my boys. We always wanted kids but we were busy with the business and John’s youngest, Euan, deserved his place as the baby of the family for a while. We waited until he was ten and then what do you know? At 35 years old I’m pregnant with twins and our family is complete all in one go!”
Vinnie and Gregory are three years old now and Lorna has only just returned to work full-time. She is obviously completely smitten with her boys and loves her big, extended family. The home I described earlier is full of children’s favourites – from my seat in the nook I can see a playroom strewn with coloured bunting and the corner of a toy chest. There is no evidence of the “style over fun” look you sometimes find in an art lover’s home.
It is warm and loving and has little nods to two wee boys everywhere. We’re chatting now about websites and how people access info. She’s telling me a story about googling “how to open a coconut” and how her and the boys sat watching a you-tube demo intently before she set about giving them a full re-enactment, corkscrew included. I want to come and play here.
Her time at home has brought back some of her old passion for art and has allowed her to find a creative outlet.
“I’ve set up a studio to paint in – I’m working on a portrait of John’s oldest son Corrie and it has been really great getting back into it. I dropped the boys off at nursery the other day and came home, did a bit of painting and got on my bike to cycle down to the shop to do some roasting. I’ve come full circle, I guess. But this time it’s with my own family and all my own blends. I feel incredibly lucky.”
As if she wasn't busy enough she has just launched the shop's new website - drawings and design by Lorna, IT and build by her big brother.
The Bean Shop is situated at 67 George Street and is Perth’s leading independent Coffee Roaster and Tea Blender. Lorna, John and the team are passionate about what they do, buying from ethical sources and committed to finding ways to reduce their carbon footprint. They are actively involved in the Coffee Kids Scheme and sponsor a child in John’s childhood home of India through World Vision
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