19 November, 2020
Ask anybody their personal connection to the café and they will happily oblige with a romantic love affair of undeniable truth.
The café has, does and will always play host to many people from all walks of life and for different reasons. Whether you’re a writer searching for inspiration, a freelancer needing to get out of the house (don’t we all), a coffee aficionado looking for that next new thing or you’re just like me, in need of a sit down and a good read over a Turmeric Latte and a slice of carrot cake, a big slice at that!
Café culture is part of our daily makeup, there are literally hundreds of books written about it and some super interesting articles to be found on the world wide web (not used that saying for a while) – it’s very being has well and truly cemented its place in the history books and will continue to play a huge role well into the future. It might seem a playground for innovative craft businesses to parade their interesting and sometimes quite extravagant products, actually that’s exactly what it is and that’s what we love about them.
You might however be interested to know, this is by no means a new trend, the café was a theatre for all sorts of delicacies throughout history, an opportunity for locals to try the latest intrigue imported from the other side of the globe. There has been a collective, possibly universal adoption of things craft related of late, it’s damn well exciting and actually, you would be hard pressed to find a better place to get your grubby little mitts on them.
Right now, we’re all experiencing something none of us could have predicted, unless Bill Gates is reading this (probably is) well done Bill, we should have listened! The global pandemic has really tested our individual resolve and collective ability to adapt, adapt to takeaway only cafes, closed cafes, back open again cafes (but keep the hell away from me) - café owners are caught between a rock and hard place and the café culture we have embraced as our saviour is bruised, a bruise the size of the world. Instead of delving into the articles and impressing you with some rather outstanding history facts, I wanted to speak to some humans, some real good humans from the industry and see what their thoughts were on café culture and the changing nature of it, pre and post pandemic.
So, I did what every self-righteous person did in 2020 and dropped James Bellis, the owner of Balance Coffee and Ryan Moore, the founder of Blendsmiths Drinkmakers a zoom link and asked them a bunch of questions.Check it out.
James Bellis, Founder of Balance Coffee
YOU HAVE BOTH WORKED IN THE INDUSTRY FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS. WHAT IS THE MAJOR DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NOW AND THEN?
James: For me, the clear difference between now and when I first joined the industry back in 2013 is not just the accessibility of great tasting coffee but the level of knowledge most people have. With access to information at our fingertips these days, even avid home coffee users have spent hours trawling online through the plethora of coffee blogs – they’ve become really educated. Even my personal journey in coffee has gone through an incredible change – there was a time (23 and green around the ears) when I was training 30-50 year old Wetherspoon's Area Managers to scoop milk out a jug into the coffee to create ‘the perfect foam’. The good old days, but how things have changed for the better!
Ryan: When I came into the industry, the average café that had something going on (or so they thought) were in desperate need of an interior makeover, a hangover from the early naughties bling, you know the style - outlandish decorations, big chairs, overzealous sofas and leather menus. A café, of speciality standard as the professionals like to call were few and far between, a handful in London and that’s a long way to travel from Manchester for the kind of experience we now have on nearly every street corner.
The standard of café now is exceptional, the bar has been set and the boundaries to what can be achieved keep on surprising us each year.
The influence of cultural diversity cannot be underestimated in this shift, nor can the unequivocal opportunity to travel be, making the world a much smaller and more accessible place – in 2017, in peak season on average there would be 16,000 planes in the sky across the globe at any one time, take that in for a moment. My point being, we are learning from other countries, cultures, sharing and implementing ideas faster than ever before. There is a little app called Instagram, you might have heard of it, this has a huge part to play in the development of how cafes are today.
CONSUMER BEHAVIOUR IS OFTEN DRIVEN BY MARKETING CAMPAIGNS, BUT HAVE CONSUMER HABITS CHANGED THE CAFE SCENE?
James: For me, the boom in third wave independents a few years back caused an enormous ripple effect in the consumer behaviour. Primarily around standards in quality - places that had below par products or who failed to consistently deliver these suffered as newer cafes popped up with a new attitude to offering a step change in quality to a more educated consumer. In the last couple of years, we’ve seeing a huge shift in plant alternative milks due to health benefits and the rise of Veganism. Cafes were forced by consumers to offer a wider range of milks and alternative drink offerings.
Ryan: Behaviours change, habits, trends, the things we are into and enjoy can change (or not) but can be heavily influenced by what is around us and let’s face it, the streets we walk down today look a hell of a lot different to what they did fifty years ago and it’s absolutely wonderful.
It’s these developments in our world, our own desires to explore new horizons that leads us into trying new things and to a large degree, expectations rise quite rapidly. As James rightly pointed out, the standard of coffee now served in any reputable shop is first class speciality grade coffee, simple as that. With that, consumers are showered with the best of the best and what happens when they go home and instant coffee is all they have in their cupboards? They look at how they can change this, and quickly.
Alternative drinks and the rise in popularity of them show us all that we’re a fast-developing species, where traditions are and always should be important, but we are not bound by them anymore. As humans, for the best part we naturally crave change, we’re intrigued by intrigue and want to test ourselves, ‘actually, what do I like’ opposed to, ‘well, my parents drank this and their parents drank it too so, you know….
’Couple this with my previous points about cultural diversity, opportunity to travel and ability to download an app and see a million and one ideas being offered in cafes around the world and you can easily create a shift in any scene. Consumers now have the privilege to consume what they desire and cafes provide the perfect cauldron to duly indulge, so yes, consumer habits have absolutely changed!
WE'RE IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC, WITH NATIONAL AND REGIONAL LOCKDOWNS AFFECTING INDEPENDENT CAFES. FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, HOW DO CAFES MOVE FORWARD AND WHAT CAN THEY DO TO SURVIVE?
James: There’s no arguing with the fact that Covid-19 has had serious implications for most hospitality businesses, including cafes. Some have prospered, and some have sadly disappeared altogether. What we can’t ignore is that Covid-19 has forcibly changed our daily habits – we no longer leave the house! People are at home for the foreseeable and even in a post Lockdown world, businesses have to think about the number of people who have re-adjusted their work and living situations to benefit their overall lifestyle. The question cafes need to ask themselves is, is there a viable business left if the footfall doesn’t return? If not, could they explore expanding their product offering altogether to increase average purchasing value? Could they share rent with a complimentary business? Or do they have a loyal customer base that they can tap into to make an online model work?
Ryan: It’s a great question. Hands up who misses popping down to their local café for a brew without wearing a mask!It’s not a simple solution or a one size fits all approach but ADAPT, and quickly. A lot of our customers have worked tremendously hard since March in creating safe spaces for their customers, setting up online web shops and offering a wider range of produce. These two elements for me are brilliant business decisions.
People are restricted to what they can and can’t do, offering the products they like to buy from the shop online is a great way to keep the community spirit alive. And do you know what, if it’s one thing I’ve learnt from 2020 it’s that the consumer is wising up and they want to buy better, better quality, variety and they are more supportive of local. If cafes can offer all the craft produce that people are used to buying on one platform, they’ll support the cause.
You can’t ignore the importance of community, especially right now and cafes tend to be very good at engaging the community and being a part of its future. Is it too much to ask to actually look back at traditions (something I mentioned about being important before), provide a local delivery service, a local discount, move toward sustainable goods – a traditional method with new age products.
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