Minor Figures backs small businesses ‘absolutely devastated’ by COVID-19 crisis

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Image source: Minor Figures
Image source: Minor Figures

Related tags oat milk Dairy alternatives

Amid tales of furloughing, cash flow problems, and shuttered doors, Minor Figures is getting creative. CEO Stuart Forsyth tells us how the oat m*lk brand is doing its bit to keep small businesses afloat.

Minor Figure was created in 2014 to fill a gap in the market for premium iced coffees. A self-proclaimed ‘coffee company at heart’, today the business sells a ready-to-drink range made up of nitro cold brew coffees, a mocha, and a chai.

The UK-headquartered company has also become synonymous with oat milk alternative – or ‘oat m*lk’ as it is marketed on-pack. While Minor Figures’ litre-sized offerings are sold through retail channels, its oat milk – which is ‘ideal for baristas’ – is largely targeted at foodservice.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, Minor Figures has seen many a small business (and customer) ‘destroyed’ by self-isolation and social distancing measures impacting – or indeed ceasing – valuable cashflow, co-founder Stuart Forsyth told FoodNavigator.

In an effort to support its network, Minor Figures is rolling out a number of initiatives for those ‘absolutely devastated’ by the crisis.

From KeepCup to Oat M*lk

Forsyth developed a keen interest in coffee during his time as co-founder and general manager of reusable coffee cup company KeepCup.

Having moved from his native Australia to the UK with the business, Forsyth founded Minor Figures with two other ‘coffee misfits’ and secured listings for its iced coffee range in premium retailers, supermarkets, and cafés.

Minor Figures’ oat milk was developed ‘almost as an afterthought’, the co-founder recalled. The aim was to create a milk alternative product that would champion the ‘true characteristics of espresso’ in the cup.

“[Dairy] milk in your coffee is just the status quo. Every alternative milk on the market is just trying to replicate dairy exactly. They have tried to mimic its mouthfeel, texture, and vitamin content.”

Forsyth is open about ‘not caring about that at all’. With Minor Figures’ oat milk, customers get a ‘cleaner’ product, we were told.  

The company soon observed an ‘explosion’ of sales in all its channels, from grocery to foodservice, and is today selling to 22 countries worldwide. The oat milk is outsourced within the UK and all coffee-related operations, including its roastery and coffee-extract production, takes place in East London.

The brand sells a range of RTD beverages, including iced coffee, mocha, and chai / Image source: Minor Figures

Much of Minor Figures’ success to date may well be linked to its commercialisation strategy, which focuses on the coffee, rather than the milk. “When we sell our products, we’re not really trying to sell you milk. We don’t [care] about milk,” ​Forsyth revealed.

In fact, when the business approaches cafés, Minor Figures’ staff wants to talk about coffee origin, flavour notes, and roasting profiles, he explained.

It is these same cafés, which today make up the majority of Minor Figures’ business, that have taken a hit since the coronavirus outbreak reduced, or completely stopped, footfall.

Footing the oat m*lk bill for small businesses

Coronavirus self-isolation and social distancing measures have significantly impacted hospitality industries across the globe. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised citizens to ‘avoid’ restaurants and pubs on 16 March, and four days later, ordered they close.

While Forsyth suggested the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak are ‘coming for’ his business, Minor Figures is ‘managing’, from a business perspective, to ‘hold it together’.

In saying that, more than 60% of the company’s revenue came from foodservice – a sector that has experienced ‘devastation’ in recent weeks.

“We have managed to take up a lot of the slack by moving online, which has not been easy,” ​Forsyth told this publication. “We have managed as a business unit to hold it together, but we’ll see how it plays out over the next couple of the weeks. It is just so unknown.”

The Freedays initiative makes oat milk coffees served on Fridays free for cafes and consumers ©Minor Figures

Ahead of Prime Minister Johnson’s hospitality ‘lockdown’, Minor Figures set up ‘design solutions’ that Forsyth said could have been very beneficial to small businesses in the short-term.

One such initiative came through the company’s online store. For every purchase made online, Minor Figures donates 5% of the total sale value to a coffee shop of the consumer’s choosing ‘to support them in this period of uncertainty’. “That was one way to help cafés local to the area,” ​he explained.

Another initiative designed to support those in the foodservice sector is titled ‘Freedays’. If a customer orders any coffee with Minor Figures Oat M*lk on a Friday, Minor Figures will pay for the drink. “We advertise their café in the area…and try to drive footfall, then we foot the bill for all the [oat milk] coffee,” ​the co-founder explained.

The concept is founded on the idea that the coffee be free for both consumer and free for the café. “All we ask is that the café, prior to the Freeday, buys more of our oat milk.

“At the end of the day, the café will tell us how much we owe them, and we transfer the money. It’s a really old-fashioned kind of honour system. We’re all in this together, because the domino effect is just [huge].”

COVID-19 impact survey

Reaching out to its global database, another initiative has seen Minor Figures conduct a survey as a way of ‘directly communicating’ with its network to gain insight into their situations.

The business received responses from a total of 691 operators, from customers in the café, distributor, roaster, retail, equipment, bar, marketing and event sectors. Respondents were located in the UK, Australia, the US, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, the Czech Republic, UAE, and Spain.

Eighty-eight percent of those surveyed reported reduced customer levels since the coronavirus outbreak, with 58% observing declined sales.

A total of 62% said they were ‘concerned’ about their business, with 27% responding they were ‘terrified’. Just 11% said they were ‘not very’ worried about their business.

“People thought the Government hadn’t done enough, which I thought was interesting,” ​Forsyth commented. Indeed, 63% of respondents said the Government hadn’t done enough to support businesses.

“I have a feel that [responses] would probably have changed now,” ​he continued, suggesting the UK Government’s furloughing measures will be welcomed by small business owners in the sector. “We plan on doing another one of these to update it and see how the responses change.”

minor 2
The company is run by self-proclaimed 'coffee misfits' / Image source: Minor Figures

Moving forward, Minor Figures plans to keep these initiatives running where possible. When cafés are allowed to reopen in the UK, for example, the Freedays initiative will help to ‘kickstart’ smaller operators, and ‘take some of that cash flow pressure off’, we were told.

The business is also rolling out an initiative that will couple up the sale of local roasters’ coffee with discounted Oat M*lk via its online store. “All of our roasting partners will try to do that to supplement their income and push their products out while they’re shut.”

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