Robi Lambie – Owner @ Cairngorm

In Exploredi's first ever interivew; Robi Lambie, onwner of Cairngorm Coffee, took the time to have a chat about his adopted city - Edinburgh. We covered a lot of topics from his journey in the highlands to coffee, perfecting the grilled cheese and all the mistakes he’s made along the way. Enjoy!

On Cairngorm's famous grilled cheese sandwich

When I was younger I used to be, and still am, obsessed with cheese. It was always a go-to thing that I would have when I was younger, and then when I got a bit older and became a student the toasty maker was my prime thing. I think it was my dad who always said: “just keep things simple”. He was always going on about focus and “don’t try to do too much, don't try to make it too complicated”. I think there’s actually a lot to be said for home comforts, just doing simple things well. People know what to expect with it.

On running a music venue in Thurso

That was kinda what got me into a position of having an influence on something, starting a kind of brand with that and getting excited about the changes I’d make and the influence I’d be having on customers. That got me really excited, and that’s when I knew I wanted to run a business.

How Cairngorm was born

When I came back [from Thurso] I started working at my dad’s cafe. There was certainly a spark that was ignited between starting to understand coffee and knowing that I kind of wanted to do something for myself. Seeing my dad who’d worked in offices but then had become so much more happy when he had done his own thing, it all kind of just aligned.

The early days

I was still learning a lot but I knew very little. I was at the stage where I knew what a pour-over was and I was making pour-overs in the shop, but didn’t really understand what I was doing with them. It was kinda trying to masquerade to be something it wasn’t.

I remember I had staff back then, one staff in particular, who I disagreed with. Looking back now, the disagreements were because she was trying to push it in the direction we are now and I was like “I don’t understand. I’m not ready for that.”

Opinions on Restaurant Coffee

I think the future for good coffee in restaurants and hotels is just going back to filter and making filter really good. Starting with a good product.

What attracts people to Cairngorm Melville Place?

We’ve got an exceptional circumstance that the cafe has massive windows so when they're not steamed up its quite a good reason for people to come in. People want to get a bit of food and get a bit of sunshine, especially at weekends, and this is a nice place to do it. We’re also lucky with the location in the West End, there’s not a huge amount going on here.

How Cairngorm operates

Consistency and balance is very important to us, we want every experience to be consistently the same and good. Then we want the balance to be what were doing on the customer side at the top end of coffee in Scotland.

But on the customer side we’re not forcing it down your throats, and that kind of balance seems to work well for us. It means when someone is interested we know what we’re doing, but people who aren’t don’t feel alienated or stupid.

We get a lot of office workers who just want a quick latte in the morning and it works for them.

Positives of big commodity coffee companies

They’ve got a place for me, in as much as I like to go in on an intrigue level because they pay thousands and thousands of pounds to big Research and Development guys who obviously put a lot of effort into what’s trendy and what’s cool. You can’t just ignore that. If they’re gonna put all that money into research, all I’ve got to do is go into their cafe and see what they’re doing and see how it might work with us.

Negatives

What I feel happening is they dictate to the mass consumer market what a coffee is worth. Those people don’t realise that what those people (Starbucks) are paying for coffee is a fraction of what we’re paying for coffee but they still think it should cost the same in their cup. We’re restricted with how much we can make a flat white for, because people say: “oh it only cost me 2.30 from a machine in a service station”. It doesn’t make any sense, this is La Cabra [coffee] from Denmark.

The evolution of speciality coffee in the UK

I don’t think people really had the opportunity to get into coffee, because they felt like they didn’t belong, and I think now because we’ve woken up and realised that actually to make money we need to be more accommodating, I think the ‘average Joe’ is then realising that these places are nice, these places make nice coffee.

Opinions of Edinburgh as a city

I think the good stuff is run by independent brands. When I think independent I think like one to four shops - there are some clusters that have some really good places.

The pop-up culture in Edinburgh is pretty fascinating, there are a lot of places that started that way and developed, and they’re always really good quality. Some of the pop-up [restaurants] in Edinburgh are as good as some of the rest of the restaurants.

A lot of the events that happen here are very supportive of Edinburgh brands. It’s kinda nice to have local events working with local people.

[It's] very blogger driven. Instagram fuels successful restaurants in Edinburgh for sure. You can become successful as a restaurant if you’re good, but also if you have 100 bloggers that love you.

Where is it going?

I think there will be more clusters of really good restaurants and cafes. I think that’s awesome, because what they’re doing is super-high quality and if there’s chains that want to operate that way, like micro chains that are local and focused on quality, I fully support that.

So I think that will happen and bubble in the background, while the places that do well will continue to open more.