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 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  ↩︎

The Fair Trade Finish Line

A little while ago my frustration with Cadburys advertising led me to try and sum up my frustrations with Fair Trade in 140 characters. The best I could do was,

Fair Trade – the absolute minimum necessary to get people to stop questioning how you source, or pushing you to do better. Not enough.

The advert that had sparked it off was one I had seen on the underground, and it was the language more than anything that frustrated me: Continue reading “The Fair Trade Finish Line”

Agitating the industry

Last week I had the opportunity to pop over to Vienna for 24 hours.  It was the Allegra European Coffee Symposium, and I got to dress up in black tie and go to the Hofburg Imperial Palace for the awards dinner the night before.  I even got an award 1 which was amazing and I am very grateful!

I wish I could have wandered around Vienna for longer, in the end I only had a chance to pop into one coffee house – Hawelka – and those places are just no fun unless you have an afternoon to kill with a newspaper and an unusual desire for large quantities of whipped cream with your coffee.  They are possibly less fun if you are looking for an excellent shot of straight espresso, but I didn’t sample enough to know where local expectation lay, and how my own preferenes would fit into that.

The day after the awards was the symposium.  I don’t mind confessing that I felt a bit like the odd one out again – the speakers and fellow attendees came from Europe’s larger coffee companies and manufacturers.  However I am always interested in how that section of the industry views things, what is important, what their challenges are and what I can learn from them.

Continue reading “Agitating the industry”

  1. Outstanding Contribution to the European Coffee Industry 2009  ↩︎

Diversity Vs Identity

I’ve tried to avoid writing about the current economic climate, and the outlook for coffee in 2009, and using the two “c” words that lost any meaning months ago.

Nonetheless it has been interesting to see what they industry press are writing about, what advice is being offered, what strategies are being deemed wise.  A word I am seeing more and more is ‘diversifying’.

Starbucks are in a mess right now, and they have been for some time.  To me the problems are linked to a gradual loss of identity over the last few years.  Right now they are putting out mixed messages – on one hand promoting better coffee, on the other hand discounting it. Worrying about breakfast sandwiches, selling CDs, whilst still trying to claim that they are all about the coffee.

Continue reading “Diversity Vs Identity”

A Clover quandry

Currently sitting on the bench at Square Mile HQ is a Clover. It was lent to us for the barista party and had stayed there for a while longer for us to play with.

SQM Clover

Clover at Square Mile HQ

The internet has been all a flutter with the news that Starbucks have acquired Coffee Equipment Company who make the Clover. It is so ubiquitous that I am not even going to link to any sort of articles about. Tempting as it is to post smugly about one of my five predictions sort of coming true something else is on my mind.

It seems that Starbucks has intentions of withdrawing the machine from the market and retaining complete control. Clover currently pledge on their website that all machines currently deployed will be supported.

I had come back from the States intent on spending some quality time with the machine and trying to get a better understanding of it before I had to give it back or buy it. I like the fact that you have control and repeatability in one cup brewing in a way that is currently unrivaled (be interesting to see how Starbucks use their ownership of the Clover patents to keep other manufacturers out of the market). However I’ve had quite a lot of coffee from it, and I wasn’t sure if I didn’t like the cups I didn’t like because of the brewer or the way it was being used. Hence wanting to get to grips with it in a bigger way.

Still – I need to think more on whether I want it. I don’t think the fact that Starbucks own it now devalues it for me. The people who have them now (approx 300 machines I think) are the only people outside of Starbucks with access to this technology. I was always against selling the brewer above the coffee, but if the brewer can do what people feel it can then it is an undoubtedly a great tool.

However the worries about support (machinery is machinery after all) are still pressing, and seeing a big company devalue a device and lower expectations and pricing of by the cup brewing is also a concern. That said – I think I would be very surprised if Clover rolled out with the 1s model as is. With that whole team/company on board I expect to see a machine based on the 1s designed much more specifically for Starbucks. (do you smell another prediction?)

I suppose that I will I could just ignore all the news/media/hype/hate and decide if it brews coffee like I’d like to present coffee. Though I suspect that the ongoing disconnection from Clover/CoEqCo will remain the largest obstacle.