It could be expected; the success of small independent coffee bars is picked up by the marketing departments of huge companies. At a Venuez 2011 symposium organised by Jeroen Veldkamp, I asked frontrunners of the specialty coffee bar scene if they weren't afraid of this copycat behaviour by big money-driven internationals. None of them was afraid of being copied succesfully. Karel Rietveld of Hopper said that they could imitate 'looks' but not quality. Now even James Hoffman (see below) gives his opinion on this subject.
Most of these frontrunners had to use scrap or vintage furniture and keep it simple due to a lack of money. These places with their anti-interiors were recognized by hipsters, urban independent laptop-using professionals as the places to be. They fell in love with the sheer quality of coffee. But even in 2011, vintage had become big, really big money. And specialized shops provided one-stop-shop solutions for buying your 'own' indie interior. And the faux anti-interiors were completed with the dress-codes of the beanie baristas even up to the obligation of having tattoos. All carefully copied by the marketing departments of the multiples in the market. It remembers me of a quote of Oscar Wilde:
“People say sometimes that Beauty is superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” The picture of Dorian Gray
The British newspaper The Guardian published an article about the faux-indie Harris + Hoole coffee shop. It looks like a small independent coffee shop, but it is partly owned by Tesco. And have a look on their website. They are really good in the indie image, good handiwork!
But when i read the article of The Guardian, it's making me laugh. Especially the tips of recognizing the true indie. E.g.:"Perfect spelling and punctuation: that could be one clue that a well-paid executive might be the eminence grise behind some charming piece of signage."
Why dont' people trust their own senses anymore? If the coffee is fine and the barista's are friendly, what would you care if there is a company behind where the CEO makes 7 million euro's a year? And that fine 'indie look-a-like coffeebar' is probably only taking money away from the big money behind it.
Pufrock, London. Foto by Maarten van der Jagt
"Katy Smith, Harris + Hoole customer: "I don't really like Tesco. I don't shop in Tesco. Now I'm in one of them."
Scandal! Outrage! There they were, the people of Crouch End, Twickenham and Walton-on-Thames, all leafy London suburbs, enjoying what appeared to be good coffee and delicious food in an attractive new independent cafe – when all the while it was they who were the mugs. Little did they realise that, actually, what they had been enjoying was good coffee and delicious food in an attractive new cafe … part-owned by Tesco.
Despite its perky blackboards with their drawn-on smiley faces, the new chain of coffee shops Harris + Hoole was launched by Australian siblings Nick, Andrew and Laura Tolley with a minority investment – and no doubt much satanic knowhow – from Britain's biggest supermarket. Even as we speak, there could be plans to open another of these deceptively pleasant places where you live.
The truth is that many people like the friendly local feel of independent shops, and the big multiples have noticed. Indeed Tesco themselves have form in this area. In 2008, the company applied for planning permission on a new megastore in Barnstaple under the name of Brian Ford's – an independent local retailer that it had bought out the year before.
Usually the simplest ploy is just to buy an indie company that has proved itself. For instance, Innocent Drinks – which makes those smoothies with the kooky cartons – is now majority-owned by Coca-Cola. Meanwhile Green & Black's, the classy chocolate manufacturer, is owned by Cadbury's, the ordinary chocolate manufacturer, which itself is owned by Kraft Foods. (Although McDonald's has now sold its stake in Pret a Manger.)
So how do you know fake indie when you see it?
Well, Topman makes it easy by putting its name above its "General Stores" in London's Covent Garden and Spitalfields, which with their bare brick walls and decorative bicycles look like the kind of groovy, eccentric places that might have been started by some lovable young fashion graduates. Otherwise, it's not so simple. Anything that a nice young couple in paint-spattered dungarees can do, a retail giant can copy. There are even some 12in white-label records – the hardest of all hip currencies – that are major-label fakes, while record companies have long employed street teams to whip up grassroots fan enthusiasm. A few bands' Tumblr pages, including the one that launched the Vaccines, are likely the handiwork of their marketing departments.
Perfect spelling and punctuation: that could be one clue that a well-paid executive might be the eminence grise behind some charming piece of signage. Low prices is another, since one of the main advantages of corporate ownership is improved negotiating power with suppliers. The branches of big chains aren't often allowed to get too scruffy either, not with regional managers around. In short, if truly independent ownership is the most important thing to you, you'll have to research your coffee at Companies House.
The recent coverage of Harris and Hoole has made for interesting reading. Coverage ranged from the laudable to the laughable.
The one sentiment that popped up repeatedly was the idea that Harris and Hoole were being disingenuous by pretending to be an independent. This raises, in my eyes, a rather interesting question: What exactly is independence? What is it that Harris and Hoole were considered to be doing that they shouldn’t have been?
Looking at the comments it appears they have been committing the cardinal sins of:
- Fitting out their shops nicely, and not in an identikit kind of way.
- Brewing the coffee properly on quality equipment.
- Sourcing good coffee to brew and serve.
- Not plastering the place from top to bottom in Tesco’s branding
Essentially pretending to be an independent is simply not acting like other multi-unit operators in the sector like Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero. Unfortunately this point of view can easily expose one’s own hypocrisy. I’ve railed against the homogenous high street throughout the UK, the fact that everywhere I went the experience was pretty much identical, and pretty low in quality to boot. There are always going to be nationwide operators in any segment, and I certainly can’t complain if they start acting a little more sympathetically to their surroundings, or not cutting corners on fit-out or ingredient and preparation. (There are always going to be multiple unit operators because scaling is one of the very few ways to make selling cups of coffee adequately profitable – but this is a subject for another day!)
In the past I’ve defined independence through access to capital for expansion. ”Independent” is an incredibly annoying term to use and define, but I think access to cash is at the root of just about everyone’s definition.
People seemed angry about Harris and Hoole because they felt like they were lining the profits of Tesco, which has more than enough money already. People were indicating that their decision-making about which coffee shop to frequent was massively influenced by who they considered the ultimate beneficiary was. This is extremely interesting in and of itself. However, it quickly leads us into murky waters again. Every business requires startup capital – should part of a businesses identity be where this money came from. We like the plucky underdog in this country, and we do love to cut down the tall poppy. This would imply that people should avoid taking on serious investors (as they’ll expect a return, which of course will result in the destruction of quality because any form of profitability obviously requires “selling out.”)1
Yet, if we truly want independent entrepreneurs to have a greater chance of success, or even limited profitability, then surely we should encourage them to take onsufficient funding that they can open a business capable of that. (This is yet another topic for another day.)
This other Guardian piece on Harris & Hoole in the Guardian was somewhat annoying, or mildly amusing – depending how satirical you take the tone to be. One particular sentence tickled me – talking about how you can spot a corporate business pretending to be an independent one:
Low prices is another, since one of the main advantages of corporate ownership is improved negotiating power with suppliers.
Seems like this might work with anything but coffee. Our industry’s tendency towards a kind of false competitive pricing – where an independent with limited buying power prices the product comparably to a multiple outlet, or even multinational, competitor. In the short term this seems sensible, but of course the long term effect is that the consumer doesn’t see pricing being a suitable differentiator of quality, and the business doesn’t make enough profit to be sustainable.
(One day I promise I’ll stop ranting about this stuff – perhaps when our industry doesn’t have one of the highest failure rates of new businesses.)
This post isn’t really about Harris and Hoole. It is about how consumers perceive our business. We talk a lot about the things we think matter in the decision making process when someone chooses a coffee shop: location, quality, convenience, price and brand are all discussed. We don’t really talk about how the financial transactions involved actually make people feel. We don’t talk about what people expect of the financial transparency of a coffee shop.
Has the independent coffee shop culture sold an image of the independent coffee shop as a begging bowl, a place to spend away our guilt over how we much most of us spend with corporate giants like Amazon, Tesco, Walmart or Coca Cola?
Will this image turn from a boon to a shackle as we try to professionalise our industry, in the hopes of making it financially sustainable?