The failings of English Cafes

November 18th, 2008

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.

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