Successfully battling through a life-threatening illness inspired one young entrepreneur to live her dream by setting up a speciality coffee roasting business. York-based Sadie Hopkins talks to Mark Williams about overcoming the odds
It was the life-changing moment we all fear. “While I was at university I started feeling very unwell and it got so bad that one day my house mates ended up taking me to hospital,” remembers Sadie Hopkins. “I had an X-ray and thankfully an eagle-eyed radiographer spotted something abnormal. It could easily have been missed.”
Further tests revealed a tumour in Sadie’s bile duct. “As a result, my body was struggling to get rid of toxins and had been for years, which is why I’d been so unwell throughout my childhood and teenage years.”
In 2003, one year after graduating from the University of Leicester, Sadie underwent an exhausting 12-hour operation. “Removing the tumour was near impossible, because of its location. My surgeon said usually such tumours aren’t found until people are in their late 30s or 40s, when often it’s too late. I’m very lucky.
“Something like that changes you. When you’re young you think you’re indestructible, but my illness made me realise just how short life really is. Following my operation, I became even more determined not to waste my life, but to spend it doing something I truly enjoyed.”
For some months, Sadie had worked in exhibition sales in London (“a fun job, but I knew it wasn’t for me”). Originally from Rushden, Northants, Sadie’s mum and dad split up when she was 12. For years, mum had wanted to move to York to be nearer her family.
“We just thought ‘Let’s do it’,” Sadie recalls. “York’s a lovely place, it attracts plenty of tourists and there’s a thriving café culture. I’ve always loved coffee. I went to school near Bedford, which has a wonderful Italian community, so there are loads of brilliant coffee shops. I’d always dreamt of having one of my own.”
Shortly after relocating to York in 2004, Sadie’s dream came true. She opened La Cremeria in town. “I loved the café,” the 28-year-old continues. “We had nice customers and I learnt a lot about coffee and running a business. But I wanted to get more involved in roasting the coffee, rather than just making and serving it, so I became a trained barista.”
Customers would often complain they couldn’t buy high quality roasted coffee for home use. “That’s where the idea for the York Coffee Emporium started. My second business opened in January 2009. I ran the two businesses concurrently until December 2010, when I sold La Cremeria as a going concern to its current owners. The Emporium is a high-street speciality coffee roaster - all our products are freshly roasted on site.
“More recently, I also set up Slave to the Grind, a consultancy offering independent, industry specific guidance to people setting up coffee shops. I plan to dedicate much more time to advising this niche market - there’s a definite need. When I started I had little help, so I was never quite sure whether I was making the right decisions – sometimes I wasn’t.”
Sadie’s childhood ambition was to be an astronaut. Later she studied archaeology at university, but not because of any career aspirations - she simply liked history.
“I was always going to find my own way,” she says, “I’m not a nine-to-five person. There’s an independence and creative side to me, which I get from my mum. I also have a strong work ethic - at university I had three jobs at once. After my parents split I lived with mum and we didn’t have much money. I’ve always wanted to be self-sufficient, and look after mum as much as possible.”
She doesn’t view her age or gender as barriers. “I’ve track record now - I’ve started two successful enterprises from scratch. Anyway, you can influence people’s perceptions by the way you conduct yourself and communicate your thoughts. You toughen up a lot in business, gain confidence and learn that no one will rescue you. If you want success, you must make it happen.”
Rather than well-known figures, Sadie’s entrepreneurial inspiration comes from everyday business people she meets. “The Apprentice is good fun, but it’s just entertainment. The Dragons’ Den gives a good idea of the difficulties involved in raising finance, but often ratings are the main consideration with these programmes.”
Sadie finds it hard to switch off from her businesses. “Even when I’m not there, I’m thinking about work,” she admits. “I don’t go away on holiday much, the odd weekend, and I don’t have any hobbies really. Unfortunately, I like nothing better than to relax with a nice cup of coffee somewhere nice, but it just reminds me of my business,” she laughs.
This case study was first published in June 2010. Since then Sadie has sold the York Coffee Emporium to new owners Lawrence and Philippa. She now runs Slave to the Grind Coffee Consultancy.