How Caffeine & Machine became an overnight petrolhead phenomenon
With a couple of weeks to go before Caffeine & Machine (C&M) first opened its doors, founder Phil McGovern was worried. Having spent months renovating an old pub and B&B in rural England, sinking in thousands of pounds of his own money, and dreaming of a hangout for every kind of petrolhead tribe, he was suddenly having doubts. “Do you think people will come?” he asked, as the finishing touches were being put to the bar.
Looking back, Phil recalls: “We had beaten our business plan down to the square root of f*ck all, just so it would keep the lights on. We’d planned five members of full-time staff. We thought we were going to do 40 cups of coffee a day. We planned for 40 burgers a day and 35 t-shirts a month. And we thought that that was going to be an absolute stretch.”
C&M co-founder Phil McGovern
He needn’t have been concerned. When the UK’s newest petrolhead attraction threw open its doors at the end of 2018, it was immediately full to bursting. Internet buzz had been considerable, thanks to several notable motoring folk catching wind of Phil’s big idea. Top Gear magazine and a couple of national newspapers had covered the plan with enthusiasm.
The appeal of the place is simple. It’s a place for any petrolhead, no matter what they’re into. Have a coffee. Have some food. Have a chat. See some really cool machines.
The Caffeine & Machine gathering at DP World in Dubai
While C&M looks to be a very English institution, it has its roots in the sand and heat of the Middle East. In 2015, Phil was working in Dubai, having jumped from a role at Jaguar Land Rover to the position of serial entrepreneur, launching a publishing company and media creative agency.
While waiting for a new business’ office to be ready, Phil was spending a lot of time working out of Cafe Rider, a motorcyclists’ coffee shop in Dubai. “They were an explicit motorbike place, they sold stuff to motorcyclists, but every now and again I’d see a car guy turn up. So I said to the guy that owns Cafe Rider, ‘I’ve got a really silly idea, do you mind if I use your place as a platform? I’d like to do this pop-up event’.”
An early C&M event in Dubai
And so the Thursday before the 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Phil organised a gathering, conscious that a lot of international car people would be in town. It was called Caffeine & Machine and was themed on decades from the 50s to the 80s, with a car and bike to represent each decade, and artwork from a local artist.
“And off we went,” Phil says. “The first one was super, so I did another one and it grew exponentially.” The meetings quickly outgrew Cafe Rider and moved to different venues around Dubai, culminating in a huge show in 2017 at DP World, a port facility. With 1,000 cars and some 4,000 people, it was now clear – if there had been any doubt – that Phil was onto something. But at this point it was still a passion project, something he did on the side.
Phil with co-founder Dan Macken
By now he was working for a startup bank, alongside future C&M co-founder Dan Macken. When the bank project didn’t work out, Phil and Dan both decided to leave the Middle East and returned to the UK. And they kept thinking about Caffeine & Machine. “Why don’t we try and throw all the dice at it?” Phil suggested. So they looked for a property, and in November 2017 they found the Hounds Hill, an old B&B in the small Warwickshire village of Ettington. It was perfect. And the question of how to afford it came up.
C&M in development
“We didn’t have the funding,” Phil says. “So we – Dan, my dad Alan and myself – decided to use the funds from the houses that we’d sold in Dubai. We didn’t want a bank to have a stranglehold on us, because we were so nervous about the proposition. So it was entirely self-funded.”
Phil and Dan, with the help of friends and family, spent months gutting the place, kicking out the chintzy old decor and creating a welcoming bar and restaurant area, with bedrooms overhead if you want to stay for a while. It opened its doors on Saturday, 27 October, 2018 and 500 people immediately flooded the site. The following day, another 500 turned up. It was a hit. Within months, the five full-time staff had swelled to more than 50.
The vibe and the vision
Caffeine & Machine is more than just an eatery. On any day of the week, the car park – considerably expanded since the business opened – is home to a huge range of automotive cultures. A lightly modified Ford Fiesta ST might sit next to a fully-kitted out drift car, with a concours-quality 1930s Bentley next to it. Porsches of every shape, size, age and level of originality mix with Japanese imports and Americana, both modern and vintage. Police vehicles. Racing cars. Racing tractors. Off-road behemoths. You name it, Caffeine & Machine welcomes it.
“I don't think that Caffeine & Machine was ever designed to create car culture, it was designed to foster it, to give it a place to go and hang out,” Phil says. “Your car meets that happen all around the world are very insular things. But here's a cafe that’s been built for the car community – come and use it as yours. We're going to cater for absolutely everyone.
The C&M bar, custom made by hot rod fabricator Wayne Allman
“I'm seeing all the sh*t that would normally live in people's garages. Before, I wouldn't see a Morris Minor with a Cosworth rear end on it and a Burton crossflow motor, because historically, I would never have gone to the Morris Minor owners’ meet. All of these interior activities that used to happen, where nobody was really exposed to anything beyond what their passion set was, all of a sudden that's in front of you daily. Your boy in a Ferrari 458 Speciale with a purple spray on wrap has never seen that sh*t in his life, and he never would.”
Crucial to the vision for C&M was Phil’s enthusiasm for scenes he knows nothing about. “If an R34 GTR Skyline comes in, I'm not in that culture,” he says. “I don't dress right. I don't talk right. But that thing's banging. A stepside truck – again, not in the culture, not in the scene, absolutely love it. I'm not going to be that guy that goes ‘I drive a ‘50s stepside truck, so your Suzuki Cappuccino’s a bag of sh*t’.”
While the weekends at C&M tend to be rammed – the venue has had to introduce paid parking to try and contain numbers – the weekdays tend to be a little calmer, with regular patrons mixing it with curious visitors from further afield. Often test drivers from companies such as Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston, all of whom are based nearby, stop for a coffee during the shakedown of new vehicles. Don’t be too surprised to see heavily disguised test mules sitting in the car park.
As well as customer cars, a range of guest vehicles sit on plinths artfully placed into the picturesque landscape. Just next to the gates sit giant teepees, hastily brought in to help contain the greater-than-expected number of visitors.
Speaking of the gates, visitors will notice a subtle request when leaving. A sign on the opposite wall reads “don’t be a dick”, a plea to the antisocial minority that can carried away with the petrolheadedness when headed home. As a business in a small community, Phil is keen to maintain a good relationship with the locals, and dicking about on the road is not tolerated.
“I’ve spent years travelling to car meets and events, and they're all on tenterhooks of survival based on the people that go there,” he says. “Your entire event is at risk of the customers that come. There's no other extenuating circumstances, it's Dave in his Mustang that f*cks it up. The ‘don't be a dick’ thing was a life mantra. We've built this for you. You wouldn't take a sh*t in your own front yard. Please look after Caffeine & Machine because we knew that we were going to have an impact on the society around us.
“We knew we had the customers from week three. The rest of it was how do we mitigate the problems and instil a level of responsibility? We’ve kept beating that drum to protect what we’ve built and all the authorities around us now are exceptionally happy with us and the work that we’re putting in.”
The popularity of Caffeine & Machine has prompted questions from many about expansion. The answer is… probably yes, but only when the time is right.
“There’s so much more work to do before we’re ready to copy-paste it,” Phil says. “There’s a lot of process, brand, guidelines. We need the right people in the right place, the right economic processes. We don’t want to release it yet, we don’t want to kill it with the wrong investor.
“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right and we need to keep control.”