Branded chains and the flat white

Rumours are currently circulating about some of the UK branded chains starting to serve flats whites. The baristas at Flat White in Soho fielded calls from broadsheet journalists asking for comment about an apparent decision by Starbucks UK to start selling the drink.

Twitter a, on the other hand, suggested that it was Costa Coffee who were going to put an 11oz flat White on the menu in the new year.

This won’t be a surprise to some people who’ve been predicting this for the last couple of months. b

If this is indeed true I look forward to the many and varied reactions to this. I hope that most independents, especially those in London, greet the decision with relief.

Recent reading c has really reminded me that in any competitive environment, be it selling coffee or evolutionary biology, any competitive advantage gained (through mutation or innovation) is temporary. Everyone caught up, either because they copied or because the pool of competitors shrank to only those with an old advantage.

Innovating just the once is fine in the short term, but it needs to continue to be a successful long term strategy.

The flat white d is not a magic bullet that can help recover declining coffee sales. The brands are increasingly aware of a new breed of independents and are looking to react. By picking on the flat white they will have made the classic mistake of confusion correlation with causation.  Lots of the best shops in the UK offer a flat white (correlation) but they are not successful because they serve flat whites (causation).  This is an apparently easy to mistake to make, going by the last broadsheet article about the flat white.  Independents know that it is a myriad of things that make them better than the chains, and should be relieved that despite the scrutiny the chains are likely to miss the key factors that give them an advantage.

That said – it should remind independents that while they still have the advantage it won’t last for long and that they have the attention and the interest of the largest coffee operators in the UK.  For the coffee-quality focused amongst us to be truly successful we have to constantly keep pushing forwards, and never give them the chance to catch up.

Hopefully there will be some official comment from either Starbucks or Costa that I can link to in the next couple of days.  Thoughts on this from all of you would be very welcome.

UPDATE: So it has been confirmed that Costa are putting them on the menu.  I haven’t found any mention of Starbucks anywhere.  (I did twitter at the UK MD but haven’t had a response yet.)

UPDATE: Starbucks have now also confirmed that they will be serving the flat white in London as of next week, and across the UK from January.

UPDATE: The broadsheet article mentioned above can now be found here.  Eric (who I am not sure really claims to be the first man serving flat whites in London) made me chuckle with his comment.  It is nice to see some explanation from Starbucks on why they are doing it.  I am more curious about the apparent customer demand for it – I would imagine the kind of people who would want a flat white wouldn’t head to Starbucks to try and get them to make something off menu.  Will Costa be grumpy they got beaten to the punch?

  1. Sources here and here, as well as a couple of DMs  (back)
  2. Most notably and repeatedly Ian Boughton in his Coffee House magazine  (back)
  3. The Red Queen by Matt Ridley  (back)
  4. essentially a small, strong latte  (back)

27 Comments Branded chains and the flat white

  1. Tim

    I have never, ever understood the attraction of the flat white. A well made cappuccino is a far superior drink to the flat white, and the adoption of the flat white in the chains is unbearably misguided.

  2. James Hoffmann

    I’ve recently had a strange craving in the morning for a lovely capp. 5oz of silky, foamy goodness. Single shot. Awesome.

    I like the flat white, much as I like the gibraltar or the cortado: variety in the marketplace is a good thing, and allows for some definition of individuality in a business. I wouldn’t sell a flat white in our retail space because they have no cultural significance (for me personally, nor I think for Anette). That isn’t to say they are bad or that I don’t like them.

  3. Bea

    The fact is that for most chains, the distinction between a latte and a cappuccino is your choice of thin milk with coffee or shaving foam with coffee, I doubt how adding a flat white will make things better.

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  5. Jason Scheltus

    For me this amounts to McDonalds announcing the release of a new Triple Whatever burger.

    It’s probably just come about because it’s a cheaper reply than Starbucks 15th Ave strategy.

  6. Natalie

    Yes, Costa is introducing the Flat White in January – I have it on very good authority (2 managers at our local Costa hangouts)…I’ve had the odd sneaky FW there when its quiet as the manager likes to use me as taste -tester. Yes, my opinion counts – I’m an Australian coffee-nut from Byron Bay!

    Hooray for smooth, strong coffee!

  7. Neil A

    So is this the same as what we Australians call a flat white?
    If so, can I say “we’ve been doing this for ages!” ;-)

    With many, many Australian only ever drinking their coffee with milk, a good, double-shot flattie is not a bad way to present quality coffee to that audience.

  8. Ryan

    I find it hilarious that the flat white has not only become hip in London, but the Savior For Lagging Sales for people like Costa. In Melbourne, I always thought ordering a flat white was a sign of one of the following:
    1. you want a caffe latte, but you want it in a cup with a handle
    2. you want a cappuccino, but you’re worried there will be too much foam, or
    3. you want a caffe latte, though you don’t like saying the word “latte” in public.

  9. MrC

    It would appear this is only positive stuff for the independent coffee community.. once the fumbling minimum wage kids prove that turning out decent flat whites is not a viable task, further discussion will surely be raised to highlight this disparity in quality. No?

    Agreed though, Costa really needed some form of retaliation against the Starbucks Eggnog Latte campaign!! pffft.. i mean wtf?

  10. Daniel M.

    American, here:
    The mythical “flat white”: I don’t get it.

    What is it about this drink that makes it such a lodestar for the U.K. and Australian coffee industry? Come to think of it, what exactly is a “flat white”? I have never, ever seen a satisfactory answer to that question.

    What is this drink, that its rumored inclusion on the menu boards of some major coffee chain causes such alarm? Somebody please give me a taste of the magic. Make me understand the superlative coffee experience that is the “flat white”.

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  12. Tim

    And to further decipher these 3 points…

    1. you want a caffe latte, but you want it in a cup with a handle
    – this means you either want your milk to hot to handle or you are in the wrong place already making milk too hot to handle

    2. you want a cappuccino, but you’re worried there will be too much foam
    – again, you are in the wrong place – they can’t make a decent cappuccino

    3. you want a caffe latte, though you don’t like saying the word “latte” in public
    – then the only scenario is, you are a moron

  13. James Hoffmann

    As mentioned above the flat white can typically be defined as a small strong latte. Because of the influx of Aus/NZ coffee people into the UK it appeared on a lot of menus in quality focused places. As for its success/popularity back in Aus/NZ – I wouldn’t be the person to speak to about that. (Anyone?)

  14. Daniel M.

    Indeed, Mr. Hiakita’s comments:

    It all comes down to the quality of the coffee. And frankly the big chains just can’t train up their staff to the high standard needed.

    … and …

    Comparing us with Starbucks would be like comparing Gallo wines to Petrus

    ring true when speaking of any drink a national chain decides to place on their menu. You can make a lot of money on economies of scale but I refuse to believe that quality scales in the same fashion. It’s not hard to find evidence for the validity of this belief — not just at Starbucks and not just in coffee.

    Flat White (the café) and it’s colleagues in the U.K. specialty coffee industry can rest easy that the two drinks, while having the same name, won’t be the same drink.

    Keep hammering out the quality. Quality trumps quantity, at least in my eyes. I dare say it’s the same for most anyone reading this blog.

  15. tibor

    I saw a Flat White on the menu of a McCafe in Budapest, Hungary. It had enough coffee that day, so I only asked the barista about it. She didn’t like the question, and said it’s basically coffee with milk, nothing about creaminess or doubleship or anything.

  16. Anthony Silverbrow

    I agree with James that the chains serving Flat Whites is not all that important vis a vis the drink or chain itself. It does demonstrate though the effect that the independents are having, although there are two interpretations of that effect, either

    1) the chains are facing real competition and are running scared and now trying to compete head-on


    2) flat whites are ‘cool’ so ergo are the shops selling them.

    I’ve no doubt the chains would push us to believe 2. With falling sales and closing shops, I wonder if 1 is more likely.

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  18. DarkroastedDC

    I have to say that your blog post was the first I have heard of a flat white. However, I think I have been inadvertently making these at home for some time now. I use a Nespresso pod system (I know, I am not a true coffee connoisseur) but the coffee is pretty good for a guy who is always on the run.

    If I understand the flat white correctly, it is a small shot and tightly frothed milk. I use the Nespresso Aeroccino Automatic milk frother. It creates an extremely thick and creamy froth. I use a 1.5 ounce shot from the Nespresso machine and then pour the thick frothed milk from the bottom of the Aeroccino into the drink and get rid of the more airy top foam (what you might typically see Starbucks use in a dry cappuccino).

    Is this the essence of the Flat White? I would like to know.


  19. Michael

    Can someone confirm that, essentially, a flat white is a latte with less milk/more espresso?

    latte 4:1 textured milk to espresso
    cappuccino 3:1 frothed milk to espresso
    flat white 2:1 (minimally) textured milk to espresso
    macchiato 1:1 milk to espresso

  20. tibor varady

    Ok, so I tried the McCafé flat white in Budapest. I don’t think anyone else uses the name here in town, so what could I do, I went to try a flattie where I could.
    I was surprised that they actually had a good old, manual – stupid – steaming wand, and not one of those automatic “smart” wands most McCafés use. But that’s just a side note.
    Basically it was a 2 dl (almost 7 oz) drink, with a single shot of espresso, with slightly steamed (yet quite bubbly) full milk. Not a very silky experience. If I understood what the barista was telling me, full milk is a “feature” they use for the flat white. At least I knew I was getting fresh milk…
    In any case, the coffee was buried under the milk, so from what I understand this had nothing to do with the antipodean style.

  21. Nick Appleby

    As a Kiwi who lived in London for years, you don’t know how lucky you are to be getting the flat white coffee. We are a nation of annually retentive coffee snobs. Probably a small man thing.

    For a better understanding, read this tongue-in-cheek article on the flat white.

  22. Paddy

    I have encountered many different versions of the “Flat White” over the years, and I have also encountered many versions of the cappuccino, latte, macchiato, espresso etc etc. Everyone has there own ideas. Even within New Zealand there are different ideas about what a flat white is.

    It is a different drink because enough people have called it so. You could call it a stronger and less textured latte, as you could also call a latte a weaker and less textured cappuccino. Does it matter? Let individual cafe’s decide what fits their image.

    For the record, I prefer the Wellington NZ version of the Flat White – A double ristretto in a 150 ml cup with very lightly textured milk. Also, I think Australia probably invented the flat white, but we made it better.

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