Common Ground - the Altrincham coffee shop with an Olympic connection

Possibly the prettiest salad in Cheshire

Possibly the prettiest salad in Cheshire - Credit: Archant

When Olympians Liam Phillips, Jessica Varnish and Fran Halsall joined forces to launch a coffee shop, Common Ground in Altrincham, there was only ever going to be one result, writes Kate Houghton.

Jessica Varnish, Liam Phillips and Fran Halsall

Jessica Varnish, Liam Phillips and Fran Halsall - Credit: Archant

Meeting the trio of Olympians behind a new coffee shop, Common Ground in Altrincham, is quite an experience. Swimmer Fran Halsall, 27, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics is bubbly, giggly and energy packed. Cyclist Jessica, 26, who with team mate Victoria Pendleton set a new world record in the team sprint at the 2012 Olympics, is calmer, cooler, but no less passionate about their enterprise. Jess’s partner Liam, 28, a BMX racing cyclist who represented Britain in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics, strikes more of a midway point; he’s enthusiastic and articulate and a natural for the new customer service role he has adopted.

Opening onto a pedestrian area, facing the impressive Market Hall, when I arrive on a warm September day the tables at Common Ground, inside and out, are filled with people: some solo with laptops open at complicated spreadsheets; some clearly in the middle of business meetings; and some just passing the time with friends over excellent coffee.

It had been Liam and Jess’s dream to open their own coffee shop for some time, plans made prior to last year’s Olympics in Brazil. Fran came into the mix when she and Liam met via a mutual sponsor and Liam introduced her to Jess.

‘We’d found the premises in Altrincham prior to the Olympics,’ he tells me, ‘then just as I was going into the Olympic Village Jess and Fran met up, discovered that Fran also had plans to open a coffee shop and realised that it was a no-brainer for Fran to join us.

Sweet treats

Sweet treats - Credit: Archant

‘We chose this location because of Altrincham Market Hall, opposite. I don’t think we’d ever have found anywhere else that ticks all the boxes as this does.’

Fran says: ‘I think we were quite naïve going into this, we had no clue what we didn’t know!’

‘But I think that is one of our strengths,’ interjects Liam. ‘You can’t fear something you don’t know.’

Fran is laughing and Jessica is clearly on the same page: ‘We’re just completely winging it,’ she says. ‘I’m not joking, completely winging it – and it works!’

Liam Phillips and team at work in Common Ground, Altrincham

Liam Phillips and team at work in Common Ground, Altrincham - Credit: Archant

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‘One thing we have learned is that in this business everyone is a swan on the surface.’ says Liam.

‘We ticked 7000 things off the list,’ says Fran. ‘And then realised we’d missed 7,000 other things!’ laughs Liam.

Jessica says: ‘The biggest thing for us has been getting the right staff. We created the platform and then we found the people who could deliver the experience. Liam is the only one of us who can make coffee here – at least to the standard we want.’

‘I’m practising at home,’ laughs Fran, ‘and I’m getting there!’

A macchiato of no common form

A macchiato of no common form - Credit: Archant

‘Our intentions from the offset were to create something quite special,’ Liam explains. ‘It’s about consistency of delivery: the right equipment; the right processes; the right people; and the right coffee.’ A single origin coffee sourced, after serious research, from a specialist importer in London.

You might expect a coffee shop run by three successful competitive sportspeople to have a terrifyingly healthy menu, but thankfully you’d be wrong. Head chef Amy produces an array of delicious dishes from the tiny kitchen, inspired by the trio’s own perspective on what makes a great menu.

‘I may be studying nutrition at university,’ says Jess, ‘but I am so over the whole “clean food” thing. I wanted our menu to be balanced, using only the best ingredients. We have created a menu that is simple but is proper food.’

She’s demolishing one of the prettiest salads I’ve ever seen and a quick glance at the menu reveals all sorts of mouth-watering temptations, from homemade beans on toast (butterbeans and slow roast beef brisket) to buttermilk pancakes with honey ricotta, peaches and caramelised walnuts. The whole menu is an Instagrammer’s dream, each dish as much a visual treat as a culinary one.

Jess has also contributed two non-coffee alternatives to the menu that are gaining quite a following; a tumeric and a matcha latte. ‘We developed the recipes ourselves,’ she says.

Open just months, Common Ground now employs a team of seven full- and part-time staff, though on the day they opened they had just one professional in place.

‘It caught us cold,’ laughs Liam. ‘Fran’s parents came to visit and we had them in the kitchen washing pots! I send out an SOS to my friends – every coffee was being served by an Olympian that first weekend and we were all running round like headless chickens!’

Sitting sipping my (frankly delicious) coffee, watching tables full of contented customers while staff move rapidly but efficiently between tables, it’s clear it’s not taken long for things to settle into the place the trio envisaged.

‘It’s so rewarding when people notice all the little things we’ve done that have taken so much effort,’ says Liam. ‘It’s been hard, but I’d do it all again.’

Jess and Fran fall about laughing at this somewhat cavalier statement, but you can see the pleasure they take in their achievement and can only wish them as much success in this endeavour as they have experienced in their sporting ones.

Common Ground, 20 Shaw Road, Altrincham

Tel: 0161 941 6944

Facebook: @commongroundalty

Instagram: @commongroundalt

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