The failings of English Cafes

This isn’t meant to be a righteous diatribe, coupled with a smug detailing of how I think cafes ought to be. This is really just a rant that has been building for a little while now.

I have been extremely lucky in the last few years when it comes to travel. I’ve sat in many different cafes and coffee houses around the world and had a varied set of experiences therein.

By and large the cafe experience in England is disappointing. I am not talking about the small number of quality focused cafes in and out of London, and I am not picking on anyone in particular, but there is something a bit depressing about sitting down in the average independent cafe.

First and foremost amongst my gripes is the lack of personality in many independent businesses. It seems that in an effort to compete with the chains and to please everyone many cafe owners consider injecting a little personality a bad thing. So much samey furniture, the same old display fridges, and a clear fawning devotion to all the worst bits of the chain cafes.

Forgive a brief tangent here but I also have to vent my frustration at how independent cafes refuse to take the good bits from the chains. We see the same absurd drink sizes, slavish pricematching (or just 10p cheaper!) but we don’t see the adoption of the clever things the chains do. Starbucks know how to move people. They know how to move a lot of people through a queue, how to quietly upsell them every step of the way, how to use that queue to get the most exposure to their merchandising.

Sadly most architects and designers don’t know how to move a queue. They design aesthetically pleasing bars, that are awful to work behind or to patronise. The amount of machines sat cosily in recessed spaces depress me, because I know at some point someone is going to need to get access into those side panels and that engineer is going to have an irritating day.

I think many businesses feel very accountable to “the consumer” – a mythical everyman customer. I feel quite strongly that you can’t have every customer, so you should go after the ones you want and the ones that appreciate what you do. When visiting Ritual last year we were sat down in the middle of cafe, Girl Talk was playing on the sound system pretty loud, the place was noisy and crowded and there are lots of people wouldn’t enjoy that experience but it was clear that I was one of many who did. It is very hard to feel possessive and loyal to a place without personality. When people find somewhere they connect with they get attached and fiercely loyal – it comes through quite clearly in Tim Styles’ short review of Leila’s.

The coffee served is always going to matter a great deal to me, but if I am going to go out and to sit somewhere to drink it then there has to be more. I want honest, interesting detail. I love the cups hanging on the copper tubing that weight the door closed at Flat White, or the little record player (and splendid choice of records) at Taste of Bitter Love, or the strange and unusual crayon markings adorning the cups takeout cups at Gwilym’s on Sundays at Columbia road. Genuine little touches that give away a little bit about the people behind the business or behind the bar.

I am not saying the coffee doesn’t matter – or that the coffee isn’t enough to be successful, but in my ideal future London is full of interesting, fun places to go and be that just happen to serve awesome cups of coffee.

16 Comments The failings of English Cafes

  1. John Richardson

    Hi James

    Great article. One of my current big rants is on a very similar line. There is a huge lack of personality in place in many independents and it is THE opportunity these days as far as I’m concerned.

    The modeling of Starbuck flow is also a hugely relevant concept. Nobody gets close to working out the science of customers and flow in the way Starbucks do and that’s the lesson for all of us. They still make mistakes though IMO. Too much clutter round the till confuses and tends to make us reject a purchase rather than actually buy.

    Great stuff.


  2. Julie

    Whilst I agree with much of what you have said, I would also point out that most of the items mentioned cost money. The smaller the cafe the less money they will have to spend on such things, hence the samey furniture, and display fridges, they are the cheapest and or easiest to source.

    Yes people copy the big chains, and often not the best parts thereof. But please if a small cafe is trying, offer advice, suggestions. And remember they can’t afford to do many of the things that you or the chains can, either in money or time.

  3. Luke

    YES! Substitute my city for yours and it’s what I’ve felt like for the past couple years. I’ve hesitated to write something like this on my site because I worry sometimes how people would receive it, but you have a good way of explaining things.

    The coffee, to me, is the most important factor… but how a cafe projects itself to the world is critical. Most places I think are either unoriginal, just in it for money, or are afraid to break out of the “proven concept”. I don’t think you necessarily have to spend a lot of money to do it right… you just have to spend it in the right areas that directly relate to quality or customer experience.

    One thing we’re never short on is personality. Sometimes I get some heat for it.

  4. James Hoffmann

    Julie – I think you’ve misunderstood me a little here. I am not asking people to spend a fortune on pointless fitouts or buy unnecessary things.

    I am just asking that their business reflects something of who they are and their passion for what they do.

  5. Ed Whitman

    Great topic. Que lines are effective if the customer knows what they want, modeled after fast food chains. If you stop and ask a question, you hold up the line and customers get irritated. I love the standup counters of Italian bars where you can chat with the barista or your neighbor. Coffee brewing should be theatrical so put those machines out there where customers can seem them and the skills of the barista.

  6. Dale

    great rant…

    i don’t however like the idea of copying the more psychological commercial strategies of big business. What i really want a food display to do is display great food not sell it…

    i want a cafe that really cares about it’s coffee to give equal attention to the sourcing, prep and pricing etc of its food offer then educate its staff and take pride in their ability to sell it in a friendly, honest manner… good coffee and good food will sell themselves… i hope

    maybe that’s why I’m not running a successful (or otherwise) business :(

  7. Gemma

    I’m currently in the process of setting up shop in Central London. As costs are spiralling out of control I’m continually finding I have to cut back on little ideas which would have given it the individual touch. However the details for me is the most important thing, especially in today’s market – so while I can’t do everything I had hoped (of course) I still plan on making it as unique as possible with the budget I have, and it will be a work in progress.

    What I think however is more memorable than all these little things, will always be the staff – and as long as I invest in the right staff the personality of the shop should shine.

  8. Lance

    I had get in on this debate. I have been selling coffee to English cafes for 10 years and 9 out of 10 sites serve poor coffee mainly due to poor grinder settings and staff turnover. I have been banging on to my customer base about how the basic espresso based drinks are served. Most independent cafe owners have followed the chains with huge bowl like 14oz china cups. This is another american supersize me bastardisation of what cappuccino should be. We are a tea drinking nation. 89% of people in the UK drink instant coffee at home so espresso education in the UK will take many more years.
    The coffee chains have only one style of offer so why dont independent owners do something different and original.
    The best example of trying to be different is the little group based in east London called Coffee@. The lampshades are made of paper cups, the sugar trays made of lego, well made coffee with an original menu, shabby chic styling, interested staff who all get a free bike to cycle to work on, milk steamed superbly and at the correct temperature, toilets using recycled rainwater, and paper cups that can be recycled.
    These sites are busy because the customer base is kept on their toes with an original experience.
    Location is another issue. Most independent start ups think they need to be on the high st. Leave that to the chains to fight it out over huge rents. Setting up near a university is a sure fired way do well with a quirky cafe.
    I have not given up on educating my customer base but the penny will never drop for most indenpendent cafe owners.

  9. The Onocoffee

    While I certainly won’t presume to comment on the UK scene, I’ve found that in the United States the ability for a cafe to deliver is dependent on choice. Numerous persons interested in opening a cafe ask me about the various points of operation, most of which are concerned about the lowest cost everything. Too many operators are focused on getting everything as cheap as possible and have difficulty understanding our approach of purchasing the best ingredients possible, with near disregard for the cost or the length and difficulty of training to high standards.

    It’s not hard to create quality. It just requires that you choose to do so. Once you’ve chosen the standard you will pursue, it all comes together and your choices become quite simple and clear.

    Julie touches on a subject but there are many aspects of developing a great cafe environment that don’t require a tremendous outlay of cash. James mentions pigeonholing an espresso machine into a nook that makes accessibility and repair less than ideal. Much of what I do as an owner is continually refine and develop our work environment to facilitate speed and efficiency. Placement of machine, refrigeration, storage and display are key, and I’m always fine-tuning and tweaking.

    New shop owners have the potential to develop an efficient working environment from the outset with very little impact on their actual capital investment. It takes roughly the same amount of money to build a poorly designed space as an efficiently designed one. The latter, however, requires more time and thinking to develop.

  10. Bea

    In my experience, I’ve had the problem with the identity of my shop, which has morphed into a cafe instead of what it was originally intended to be (a takeaway shop)—because of that the existing layout isn’t as efficient as it could be, plus to make it more coffee-maker friendly would have required more extensive plumbing than the budget required. To be honest though, I think while some London cafes may be disappointing, I also think sometimes that London customers can be just as disappointing, in expecting and wanting mediocrity.

    I think one large difference between NYC and London is while NYC craves the unique and the eccentric for the masses, allowing for some great cafes and food places, the vast majority of Londoners flock to Caffe Neros, EATs, all high street stores and eschew the interesting quirky places, partly on price, and partly on not liking unfamiliar things.

    Also in defense of some cafe owners, having a business is hard…I come up with 100’s of ideas all of the time for the shop but stuff falls to the backburner—for example, changing my front shop’s light to a more pleasing yellow hue had been in my head for months—finally got it done last month and wow, you can actually see the food!

  11. rick

    Bea’s comment really hit home for me ” To be honest though, I think while some London cafes may be disappointing, I also think sometimes that London customers can be just as disappointing, in expecting and wanting mediocrity.”

    I just moved from Vancouver (a city with its share of bad cafes, but also with many terrific ones) to the interior of British Columbia. Though there are a few neat cafes, many are just carbon copies of the chains. This area has ALOT of coffee, the concentration of cafes even in tiny towns is oddly large, but palatable coffee is nearly impossible to find, and no one seems to be willing to innovate with anything. Mostly they just seem to want to try to copy Starbucks et al. I’ve just started a blog dedicated to reviewing cafes in the area with mind to giving some kind words to the ones doing great things, and giving the mediocre ones a bit of a kick in the pants. We’ve got a great food scene here (as well as wine), but the coffee is so far below that standard.

    Of course, I’m in the backwoods here, and perhaps I’m expecting way to much, whereas your expectations seem perfectly reasonable….

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