Originally published in Fire & Knives March 2013.
Once upon a time a coffee shop was either the place owned by Daphne where everyone met in Neighbours, or a snack bar announcing the fresh, new vision of Tesco circa 1985.
Coffee shops: places we now can't live without, an essential part of our day. I think it was when my own suburban mother referred to 'needing' her coffee 'hit' that my stomach turned over and I felt the first twinges of cynicism. Now we talk about coffee in terms like 'flat white' and 'stumpy'. It's like we've all eaten an Australian phrasebook.
I'm not going to re-write the story. We all know that the coffee shop industry has us by the balls. What do you spend every day on coffee? £5, £10? Possibly more? Scary.
Coffee has been in the news a lot lately, of course, with Caitlin Moran's favourite - Starbucks - grudgingly forced (after PR pressure, not the rules) into chucking the government a bone occasionally, after being caught paying less tax than a single-mother working part-time as a trainee nurse. Or the opening of the latest chain, Harris & Hoole, where people have been hoodwinked into cheerfully believing their neighbourhood has a friendly new independent latte lounge, complete with cool interior, groovy staff and homemade flapjacks, only to be horrified (after loving it) when they read in the paper that the secret silent investor is none other than the evil corporate bully (and UK's biggest employer) Tesco. Boo, hiss.
I was walking through town the other day and coffee was suggested. Where should we go? We considered the options. There are generally three choices now. The ancient Italian coffee shops we all know and supposedly love (although when charged £3 by a shouty Inter Milan fan for a bitter espresso, not always); the corporate super-chains where you're lining the pockets of a fat bloke on holiday in Mustique; or the new cuddly, liberal, eco-friendly, brown-cord-wearing nice guy reading the Guardian Weekend - the artisan coffee shop.
Artisan coffee shop. I could have easily said 'independent' - those places of vibes, design and good intention. Started by 'folk who love good coffee' (there seems to be quite a few of these), they have mutated into achingly worthy hangouts for more than just coffee: they are now full all day at the weekend with creatives resembling Catalan beatnik intellectuals, hipster families and everyone in between. It's even started filtering through to the normals. Liking 'artisan' coffee is not just for the foodies and coffee geeks now. Instead of going to the pub, they go to The Nordic Bakery (open late) and linger over a cortardo with their MacBooks and woolly hats and unfinished semi-autobiographical manuscripts, discussing righteous causes.
We need more of these little shops, sticking it to the corporate man in a stylish, good intentional granary bread kind of way, standing proud like a little beacon of brown in a sea of bright green & burgundy branding. So to encourage quitting that job in the City and running the independent hang-out you've always dreamed of, here's my guide to opening an artisan coffee shop.
Your 'Monopoly Mayfair' gold spot would have to be a corner plot in London's Broadway Market in Hackney, a street so pleased with itself it recently decided to attempt to ban tourists as they were the 'wrong kind of people'. But any recently gentrified, middle-class enclave will do. Ultimate neighbours would be a specialist vinyl record shop, bookshop and vintage boutique.
Rough & ready. Stripped pine, distressed and exposed brick are all good. As funky as possible. Helvetica font, or worn typewriter for more scrappy feel. Concrete/kitchen tiles/filament bulbs obviously - they're a given. There has to be a peg board menu with amusing notes for the customers. Any colours should be muted greys/greens from the late 90s gastropub era.
Single supplier, hand roasted, ethically sourced, locally roasted beans of course. Square Mile, Climpson, Monmouth all favourites. Latte art essential. Serve coffee in glasses, Barcelona style.
Homemade cake, thick and crusty artisan bread, specialist Spanish hams, salads, and don't forget, lots of quinoa. Tea: great one as can be charged at the same as coffee (or it would make the coffee look expensive), enabling the extremely sneaky £2.50 cup of tea that has found its way unchallenged onto menus across London. Ker-ching!
No-no: branded cups, anything packaged. Walkers crisps. Syrup shots.
Baristas are the original mixologists. Get the most aloof ones you can find, and instruct them to wow your customers with their milk stretching knowledge. Tell them time spent is no object, and queues forming while they expertly tamp grounds and tap the milk jug up and down should be encouraged.
Girls: Wacky funky tomboy lesbians with exotic accents, lots of shaved haircuts and piercings.
Men: beards are essential, as are band t-shirts or cable-knit jumpers and beanie hats. Southern hemisphere where possible.
Background music should resemble a Match.com ad. The Staves, Laura Marling, the knowingly retro Joni Mitchell are all good.
Of course you'll need some cash to fund all this. Don't risk your own, and banks are extortionate. What you need is a backer. Be careful who you get - large evil corporations equal bad publicity and don't mesh with the independent vibe you're aiming at, so keep it quiet.
Good Backers (feel free to shout about these)
Local community whip-round
Fair trade coffee company
Crowd funded multiple investors
Bad backers (shhhh)
If you do well, you can open more shops, and hopefully become a chain. By that time you'll be loaded and have forgotten about the reasons you started your shop anyway, so it doesn't matter.
Last but not least, your coffee shop will quickly fill up with buttoned-up lumberjack shirt wearing freeloading wifi suckers buying a coffee at 11am and sitting there for the rest of the day using your tables, loo, heating etc as their office. How to diplomatically discourage these folk will make the perfect topic of conversation as you clean the Marzocco.