Branded chains and the flat white

December 4th, 2009

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 1, 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. 2

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 3 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 4 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  ↩︎
  2. Most notably and repeatedly Ian Boughton in his Coffee House magazine  ↩︎
  3. The Red Queen by Matt Ridley  ↩︎
  4. essentially a small, strong latte  ↩︎

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