Exchange Coffee entrepreneur preserving Blackburn’s historic past
MARK Smith is jubilant. The cause of his excitement is the discovery of an original 1840 Gothic fireplace hidden behind screens in a historic Blackburn building previously occupied by a pizza takeaway.
He looks like a man who’s won the Lottery.
For the Exchange Coffee entrepreneur, the unexpected find symbolises a return to the town’s past glories, a cause to which he has dedicated much of his time recently.
Mark, 56, once dreamed of becoming an architect, but his father’s untimely death from a form of septicaemia when he was just 18 brought his business skills to the fore as a means of supporting his mother and younger brother.
At 14, they were already well honed when he bought and ran a book stall on Todmorden Market.
He has no regrets.
After all, he’s been phenomenally successful in the coffee business, but its legacy is the desire to restore beautiful old properties and put them to good use for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
It’s somewhat poignant that the fireplace was uncovered at his latest purchase, 34 Darwen Street – the former home of the Philanthropic Society.
But much of Mark’s life is full of coincidences. His entry into the coffee business came about when his father, a signwriter with not enough work, bought a confectionery business on Todmorden Market. “None of us knew anything about confectionery,” Mark says.
"But when my father died I had to take his place as the provider. My mum was a draper on the markets, an entrepreneur who made her own clothes during the war and sold nylons. I think that’s where I get it from.”
His brother, now a barrister, secured a place at Oxford University and when Mark travelled down with the new student he visited the town’s famous covered market. It was there that he first experienced the alluring aroma of fresh coffee. He was hooked.
“The chap was only grinding it, not roasting the beans, but the smell was so evocative. I logged it in the back of my head to be revisited later.”
By the late Seventies, the supermarkets were threatening the confectionery business and the need to diversify was apparent. Again by chance, Mark met a distant relative at a family wedding, a former grocer in his mid-70s who had once learned how to roast coffee beans as part of his trade.
“I asked him to teach me how to do it. He turned up with an old Uno Sample Roaster – it’s still a treasured possession – which roasted half a pound of beans at a time. It took me 12 months to learn. It was an art that had been virtually lost, but I discovered how even the weather and how much moisture is in the air can make all the difference.”
Mark started experimenting and created his own monster version, which could roast four pounds of beans at a time. “I took it to Hebden Bridge market and set it roasting,” he says. “Before long I had people surrounding the stall. They’d never seen anything like it before.” The coffee venture was to save the family’s business.
Blackburn-born Mark’s move to the town’s market was a further coincidence. A local farmer he had helped with a burst pipe turned out to be the market inspector who rewarded his good turn by offering him a stall on the busy market.
Bizarrely, it was complaints from other stall holders about the smell of roasting coffee that forced him to seek alternative premises at Fleming Square, site of the hugely popular Exchange Coffee.
Today, he owns all the properties except one in the row.
He also owns a network of coffee shops across Todmorden, Clitheroe and Skipton plus the successful Caffeine Rush mobile coffee franchise.
As word of his roasted coffee spread, he moved into a council-owned warehouse and then the Baptist Chapel on Canterbury Street, where a wholesale operation distributed his blends to restaurants, cafes and bars throughout the country.
Even the emergence of the big-hitters like Costa and Starbucks has been unable to keep the good coffee roaster down. “On the contrary,” he says.
“They have introduced good coffee to a much wider audience and pushed up the price. I’m not a millionaire, far from it. I’ve lived in the same house for 32 years and I plough everything back into other properties. But I’ve never got up and said ‘I don’t want to go to work today’.”
With his portfolio of historic properties, Mark, who is married to retired teacher Sandra and has one son, is fully supportive of the regeneration of the town’s Cathedral quarter with an innovative scheme to encourage new enterprise.
He’s the brains behind Artisan Row in Blackburn market, a scheme to encourage start-ups to trial new ventures, and is on the steering group of BID, aiming to create a Blackburn Improvement District to make the town centre a more attractive environment while giving entrepreneurs like him a chance to live their dream.
If Mark’s past experiences are anything to go by, he can find the right blend.
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