Independent of the Month: Hot Numbers

Images: Richard Fraser

At the forefront of the city's burgeoning cafe culture, Hot Numbers is a local indie with a huge following – and it's easy to see why

They say that one of the keys to business success is finding a gap in the market, and that’s exactly what Simon Fraser did when he set up Hot Numbers coffee shop in Cambridge in 2011. It may have been a gap that Cambridge residents didn’t even know was there, but once Hot Numbers filled it, it quickly became very hard to imagine the city without it. 

“Cambridge is my hometown, and after working as a mechanical engineer in the city for a few years, I went to Australia to study the saxophone,” explains Simon. “I worked in a couple of specialist coffee shops to support my jazz music studies and there was such a fantastic coffee scene out there, way ahead of the UK at the time. My manager sat me down one day, and said that I really needed to find a way of combining my loves for coffee, music and engineering. So that was really where the inspiration for Hot Numbers came from.”

When Simon returned to the UK, a decommissioned Victorian brewery site became available on Gwydir Street – he realised it would be the perfect location for the café he had planned, and he named the café after a defunct record shop on Kingston Street owned by a friend. 

"I never had to shout about the coffee. It sold itself"

Right from the start, Simon had a very clear vision. He put a really good coffee machine on the bar and pictures of jazz musicians on the walls, painted by John Lyons, a local artist. "But I didn’t advertise – people were going past wondering what on earth this strange place was that had appeared.” He opened the doors with two members of staff, and right from day one the place was a success. 

“The nice thing was that I never had to shout about the coffee,” says Simon. “I just got on and made it, and it really sold itself; a quality product that wasn’t available elsewhere at the time.”

After a couple of years, the opportunity arose to collaborate with Williams Art next door, knocking the wall through which separated the two units and creating a larger space, divided by arches, which allowed people to enjoy great art while they enjoyed their drinks and food. 

The plan was always to move into roasting once Hot Numbers had got off the ground, and within a year of opening, Simon had set up a roastery in an old outbuilding in the grounds of Anstey Hall. This was later incorporated into Hot Numbers' second branch, which opened on Trumpington Street at the end of 2014. 

 “It gives us full control of all the elements of the coffee process,” he explains. “For me, it’s also always been about the machinery. Roasting is pretty technical; we plug the roaster into a laptop and we can control temperature, time and airflow, and almost create a recipe for the perfect coffee.” 

Finding that ‘perfect coffee’ is an ongoing process, and Simon and his team are very aware of how subjective it is. They continually go through a process called ‘cupping’, which involves getting people to taste the different coffee profiles they’ve created and evaluate them, so they can decide which ones are best for the business. This has evolved naturally into the Hot Numbers team running barista training, with a whole range of courses, from coffee tasting and appreciation for enthusiasts, to more advanced courses for people who want to take it up professionally. There are vouchers available for those who want to treat someone they know to a coffee training session as a gift. 

Hot Numbers isn’t just about coffee, though. One glance at the walls of the Gwydir Street café is enough to see that music is a big part of the philosophy. “Thursday night is jazz night,” explains Simon, “and on Fridays we have jazz, blues and singer-songwriters coming in.” 

The food is important, too, with the kitchen being taken over by The Wandering Yak on Thursdays and the ever-popular Steak & Honour on Fridays. There are also regular Drink & Draw nights, with established and aspiring artists using the café’s big tables to demonstrate their work. Being part of the local Cambridge scene is very important to Simon and the rest of the Hot Numbers team. “For us, it’s always been about the community, and working together with local artists and suppliers is what makes the job fun. I really like meeting new people, new characters, and running a café is the perfect way to do it.” 

Hot Numbers is a great example of how a business can thrive when the team behind it have a genuine passion and belief in what they’re doing. “I knew I couldn’t be the only person who loved coffee and fantastic music,” says Simon. “And luckily I was right. There are loads of great coffee places in Cambridge now, but we were early adopters in the Cambridge coffee scene, and with the music, the food, the roasting – and the fantastic support we get from the community – we can still offer something really special and unique.”

Hot Numbers has branches at Unit 5/6 Dales Brewery, Gwydir Street and 4 Trumpington Street.