Inferior coffee at an inflated price, that's the verdict of a new survey on the coffee shop chains that have sprung up over the UK. You get a better brew at an independent coffee shop. But how are the small guys staying afloat?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
When was the last time a really good cup of coffee put your world on hold, took you to another place in your head? For most people the thought of coffee just takes them to the nearest table in a crowded Starbucks.
But a good coffee can be a catalyst, says the three times UK National Barista Champion, Simon Robertson.
"However busy you are, in the time it takes you to finish that coffee your normal world is put on hold and you go somewhere else in your head. It's about creating a moment, creating an experience."
Starbucks is UK's 'favourite' chain - 27% rate it as such
Don't recognise that feeling? It could be because what's being served by the big chains is inferior coffee at an inflated price, according to Which?
A new report from the consumer magazine says it's independent cafes where you get the best coffee, at the best price. But despite such a winning combination, many such cafes are struggling to survive.
Britain's coffee culture may be bubbling like the head of a freshly made cappuccino - generating an annual turnover of £2.5bn according to research group Allegra Strategies - but it's the big name brands that are popping up on every street corner and reaping the rewards.
"The big chains are like a cancer," says Adrian Maddox, author of Classic Cafes. "They're erasing individual cafes from the UK. It's happening at an incredible rate and is a sad situation."
The millions who patronise these outlets every day would surely disagree. It's easy to romanticise old-style cafes, but compared with the insipid instant dishwater that used to pass for coffee in British snack bars multiples offer a superior drink.
Independents have had to up their game. But how can the little guys take on the coffee giants and all their financial muscle? By not trying to match them and offering something different, say the experts. That can be anything from creating a unique ambience, right down to the coffee you serve.
"What the chains are about and what my business is about are totally different," says Mr Robertson, owner of Leoni's Coffee House in Malton, Yorkshire. "The big guys just chuck hot milk on a coffee product. They're selling a lifestyle, not coffee."
Own worst enemies
But they're good at it, which is a big part of the problem for the independents. The three main players - Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero - have such a strong image. They've become synonymous with coffee.
"As brands they are just so incredible visible and people head straight for them without thinking," says Tom Hiskey, who runs the Cosy Coffee Shops website.
Coffee should be 'an experience'
"We're being sold the idea of what a cafe should be when just round the corner is probably the real thing - an independent cafe serving much better coffee, in a unique setting, with personal service."
Coffee enthusiasts are coming up with novel ways to tackle the high visibility of the coffee giants. They need to because most independent coffee shop can't afford the rent on a prime location, even though they are often tucked just a few streets away.
Delocator UK is a website where people can type in a postcode and it will show them the independent cafes within walking distance.
"People end up getting lost in endless chain outlets because they lack a bit of local knowledge," says Mike Dewar, who set up the site. "Delocator is about giving people more choice than just Starbucks, Costa and Nero."
Some enthusiasts argue the British palate is not as refined as that of our continental cousins.
We are in the "Blue Nun stage" of coffee drinking, says Mr Robertson. Just like wine a generation ago, people have started drinking coffee but don't know enough about it to judge if it's good or not.
On the analysis, tastes will change. Quality coffee - as the Which? investigation says these cafes provide - is another way for the sole traders to differentiate themselves.
In London's Soho - the spiritual home of the British coffee house - all the big brands have set up shop. Yet that didn't put Cameron McClure off when deciding where to set up a coffee shop two-and-a-half years ago.
"I don't even consider them as competition," says Mr McClure, owner of Flat White. The shop, which sells about 700 cups a day, won the Allegra Strategies' award for Independent Coffee Shop of the Year 2007. "They do bulk orders and making the coffee literally involves pressing a button. We hand measure the beans and adjust throughout the day because the beans change."
Mr Robertson believes the masses will come round to his way of drinking.
"It's natural that people's tastes will evolve and they will learn what good coffee is, it's just a really slow process," he says. "Then it comes down to basics, the coffee. You never stop learning when it comes to making coffee, but I would say the bare minimum of training you need is three months.
"Big business is just about filling people up with what is basically a hot milkshake. My coffee is about a delicate balance of flavours."
Caring about the coffee has paid off for Mr Robertson. He has a customer who travels 50 miles once a week for one of his espressos.
Price is also a way to fight back. Which? says you'll pay on average £1.48 in an independent coffee shop for a medium-sized cappuccino, compared to £2.29 in Starbucks. At Leoni's it will cost £1.65. At Flat White the price tag is £2.30, but the shop uses "three baskets" of coffee - 23 grams - against the one or two measures used by the multiples.
Independent cafes can be unique
While independent coffee shops want to make money, they are not usually willing to compromise on quality to get it, say enthusiasts.
But the economics of serving good coffee in a high profile spot are brutal. It's labour intensive and rents for good locations are high.
Small independent coffee shops can seem cramped while, Mr McClure, observes, the "chains seem to have a huge amount of space."
"We play music and create the atmosphere that way. And also we're more personal - we try to remember people's names and what they drink."
Mr Robertson insists the coffee making experience is paramount. He recalls when an elderly customer stopped him to say the coffee he'd just drank was the best he'd had since his time in Italy.
Coffee culture in the 50s
"I asked him when he was last in Italy and he said during World War II. I realised the coffee I'd just made him - the smell, the taste, the experience - had transported him all the way back in his mind to wartime Italy.
"Realising that power was massive, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end."
Just don't ask him for a skinny, soya, caramel latte - it's not on the menu because its "not proper coffee".
Below is a selection of your comments:
I enjoy my friendly, confusing trip to Starbucks in the morning:
"Hi sir, what would you like?"
"I'll have a bucket of milk with a tiny drop of coffee in the bottom please."
"What silly name would you like for your coffee, sir?"
"Let's see, how about a skinny-venti-mocha-frappuchino."
"Certainly, one silly-named coffee drowning in a bucket of milk coming up."
David, London, UK
It's true though that people are at a very early stage of coffee appreciation in this country; I got my taste for quality coffee as a teenager in the Netherlands. In those days good coffee barely existed here. It does now, but it takes a little effort to find. Oh, and to everybody who has ever bought take-away coffee at a station, sipping it through the nipple on the white plastic lid looks truly daft, and does nothing for the flavour.
John Knight, Beverley, UK
Memories are short. I still well remember in the 1950s frequenting Macari's coffee bar in Herne Bay. Wonderful gleaming chrome espresso and cappuccino machines, roaring steam jets served wonderful coffee. Nowadays I have to make my own to come close. Oh and they also made the best ice cream in Kent, if not the world.
Andy Thompson, Leatherhead, Surrey
Some eight or nine years ago, Starbuck announced it was going to set up its first outlet in Wellington, NZ, because "there's nowhere in the city to sit with a coffee and linger over a book". This incensed the populace, as this Goliath had clearly never even bothered to visit the latest territory in its sights. At the time, Wellington had the most espresso cafes (and ties and mountain bikes) per head in the Southern Hemisphere. I hope it still does, because that city knew how to drink coffee.
Sarah, North Carolina (ex-Wellingtonian)
As a teenager I worked in an Italian coffee shop in Adelaide, south Australia where I learnt to make a decent cup of coffee.
Moving to Edinburgh 12 years ago, I was distressed that there was not one single cafe offering "proper" coffee (only day-old filter rubbish). To this day I will not step into a chain cafe, but their presence has definitely educated the general public on coffee and created a demand - and there are now 150+ cafes in Edinburgh. Support your local independent cafe and get a much better cup... and better banter!
Tracy Griffen, Edinburgh
What will get me back into a coffee shop? A drastic drop in the ridiculous prices they charge. But even more than that, a drastic drop in attitude from the people serving or making the coffee. Why do waiters in posh places think they're above the customer, and still expect a tip? They're still just waiters...
Bob, Oxford, UK
My friends always raise their eyebrows whenever I get passionate about "poor" coffee and refuse to enter the chain cafes. They think I am a snob, but it this isn't just quality and taste, it's about supporting independent shops and actually buying something that is about taste and quality and not just buying for the sake of it being a brand.
The main problem I have with the big chains is that they don't know how to make a decent cup of tea. Filling the mug with the hot (not really boiling - and definitely not fresh) water from their coffee machines gives the tea a really strange taste. And more often than not they then swamp it with about half a pint of milk. I find this much more shocking than the fact they can't make coffee - tea is our national drink.
Emma Marsh, London, UK
It is rubbish to think that there were little independent coffee shops all over the country before the chains came along. Think back... there weren't. Did you go to a coffee shop, or even know where one was, until these chains appeared? No. Cafe Nero and the others have created the market for them, so let's not pretend that the little guy is suffering here because it's simply not true.
I treat myself to one "special" coffee per week and was always disappointed with the big brand coffee shop that I used as they frequently messed up my order and lacked that personal touch. One week I decided to use the smaller place across the road and to my delight discovered that not only do they get my drink right 100% of the time but actually smile and chat to me while I'm there. Their prices are also substantially cheaper that the big names. Go back to the big brand coffee house? Not me.
Sara Williams, Cardiff, Wales
Last time I went to Starbucks I got so confused by the menu I ended up just asking for a cup of tea. I also learned that the person who takes my money and gives me my drink is called a barista. I did not learn why a pretentious title is necessary.
Jay, Northampton, England
High Street chains and independent cafes have different merits; one benefit of the chains is that you can walk into any branch and know what they are going to sell, and you also know roughly what the standard of the products will be like. The independent cafes often provide a more tailored service and stock products that are specific to their brand.
Karl Chads, London, UK