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What's in a name?

November 23, 2012

I have always seen us an independent company that specialises in speciality coffee, exploring concepts of displaying and serving the product.

Quite often though, we are asked-

“What’s the deal?  Are you part of a bigger company?”

The word Independent means one thing when taken literally, independent ownership. However, based on the conversations I have had with many customers and other shop owners it would seem that when it precedes the words coffee shop it also suggest a very specific genre, type and model.

I have stated early on that we have made a conscious decision to separate ourselves from the existing/traditional coffee shop model in order to achieve our goals in serving speciality coffee. We found that the expectation set was not beneficial(for our goals and aims).  I did not think that in doing so we would also be less likely to be considered independent.

When I think about it, the clues to why this link is so often made are all around.  Stepping back to look at the operation and functioning of our store, I begin to see many parallels with a larger company. Ambiguities, which do a poor job of communicating, are eliminated, replaced with a clean strong design presenting a unique character and brand, and focussing on a unique product that we are very proud of. All of our staff deliver the same information and are neat and polite, whilst endeavouring to provide a guided experience for the customer. In essence, the experience is considered and structured.

At the same time we do things very differently to many hospitality chain establishments, especially coffee chains. The premise that we are chain-like is particularly unintuitive when considered in the light of other food and drink businesses. When you think of interesting specialist restaurants, would you expect them to be independent or franchised? In most culinary cases it is the independent format that provides the hot bed for creativity, development, and quality. I do then wonder if it is less the case that we resemble a chain, but rather, that we don’t slot in to the identifiable independent coffee shop box. Processes of deduction may then follow that result in the aforementioned ownership and background queries.  In fact, the feedback may just mean that people are not sure where to place us. This works well for us, we are free not to suffer the associations with each genre box (chain/independent). In the residing gap our own character and brand can be established.

However you look at it, there is something being said about the ‘independent’ tag when it is applied to coffee shops.

I guess it should not be surprising that successful communication solutions will possibly mirror bigger companies. After all, these companies have put a lot of time, effort and money into tackling these issues. I have met an individual whose sole job is to understand the psychology and effectiveness of Whitbread’s (owners of Costa) menus.  Yes, there is every chance it is an attempt to increase sales with immediate subtle persuasion, but it will also be about effective communication and customer experience, the kind of communication we can use to achieve our goals as independent businesses whatever they may be.  I guess I feel it would be an awful shame to break the coffee industry into two main boxes and for there to be a shunning of the positive clever professional aspects of chains and bigger businesses due to a phobia of all things big/chain/professional. When a chain launches a product some people may mock it, (often rightly so as it may be a misleading rip-off of an authentic product) but a huge swath of people sit up and listen. What do independent coffee shops say about their interesting complex coffee that has arguably so much to shout about? Often there is virtually no spotlighting; a more subtle presentation is par for the course. This soft relaxed display is often a refreshing respite from chain pushiness, but it also has its drawbacks with regards to a unique specialist product.  I am drifting off point slightly, and of course in some areas it may be beneficial to a business to appear as independent as possible in their branding.  It may even increase their turnover.

Discovering that the terminology independent coffee shop largely represents a very specific model also then leads into the statement I made in my last post – “independent coffee shops are not specialist coffee shops.” Now this is in effect a squabble centred on the clarification of definitions. It can feel like a pedantic excursion, but I do see it as significant.  Firstly, for what this says to everybody about the nature of coffee as a complex product, represented in different ways by a plethora of different establishments, each with unique character. Secondly, because it says something about how coffee shops may see themselves.

From a specialist point of view, this says so much about how specialism is rarely synonymous with coffee*. It leads to the often touted view of coffee and coffee shops as a commodity, a public service; that in essence coffee shops are all serving the same thing, but with different seats to enjoy it in; that maybe we have a different brand of sandwich accompanied by different imagery and aesthetics, representing a different lifestyle, a different scene, that different people will find aligns with them. Put more succinctly - a target audience. This is a sweeping statement. Yes, many will recognise badly steamed milk and consider ideas of quality, and different aesthetics will suggest different approaches to quality, but I do question how much the coffee is considered as a complex product in its own right rather than just a poached egg that isn’t overcooked.  Yes there are hugely different approaches to sourcing, seasonality, and produce across coffee shops and indeed this is often the real marker of an “independent coffee shop”. The approach to an array of products differentiates the brand image, with freshly ground coffee as part of the equation; it’s seen as the whole package.

The origins of loyalty cards lie with this devaluing of the product. Why not do a loyalty card on all the sandwiches and soft drinks as well as all of the coffees? In many cases loyalty cards often contradict how the owners of quality driven coffee shops see their product. This all goes to show how the labelling ‘independent coffee shop’ defines what a coffee shop is expected to be, and what it is expected to offer.  Maybe importantly it says something about what people want from an independent coffee shop. Customers may not want the traits of a specialist coffee shop when they walk into an independent one.

To make it clear, I do think an independent coffee shop is completely capable of making speciality coffee to the highest of standards. At the same time though, I think that if a shop does not openly display itself as focused on one product, then it is not. There could be multiple specialisms within one store but it would not be categorised being a speciality coffee shop. This is simple.  On top of this, the whole experience offered to the customer is, by default, not a speciality one. It is a café with some speciality coffee on the side. (This can be great & lovely. It can go wrong too, as I mentioned in our first post). This may sound obvious, but there are many ideologies that do not agree with this separation. Ideas such as, that specialism will alienate people and therefore speciality coffee has better chances hanging out in a regular café, or more romantic ideas, for example those that wish for a reversion to something more authentic and crafted (I touched on these ideologies in Romanticism). The point I wish to make here is: why not have both? And why not distinguish your focus and describe establishments precisely? This means letting go of a fluffy grey area that only means speciality to the few in the know. Complex products are sold in a number of ways that reflect their diversity.

 It is also arguable that preparing speciality coffee to exacting standards is less likely in a typical independent coffee shop. With industry specialists banging their heads together to fix this problem, I’ll go out on a limb and say- it won’t be fixed. The issues of a speciality coffee experience are based around the logistics of a functioning coffee shop, of serving several products, and of having a staff base that reflects this approach. There is so much to talk about in coffee, so much to focus on. We have personally found it a challenge to cultivate this approach. Hiring coffee focused individuals and creating an environment where the coffee is the sole focus, provides a platform within which every customer can easily take part. They can ask questions and make the most of an environment that is designed to indulge that specialism.

The flip side of this coin is not often considered. It is the unfair judgement of many independent coffee shops by people really into speciality coffee, with many complaints centring on the lack of information, and the lack of conversation and dialogue. Well they are not supposed to have this exclusive focus. Maybe you will manage to chat to a passionate barista when they are not too busy making shots, but the odds are not in your favour. If you want a specialist coffee experience, most independent coffee shops will let you down. Hopefully they will deliver a well made coffee that meets your taste needs… hopefully - continued emphasis on understanding and the importance of the brewing role across the industry will continue to improve this likelihood.

I will write a post about the redefinition of the Barista role needed in speciality coffee, and especially about how the nature of different working environments will either allow this profession to develop and flourish or will stifle it. How would a cocktail barman develop with one set of ingredients? How would a chef learn and progress with an equally limited set of ingredients? How will presentation and coffee dialogue develop in an environment that does not allow or encourage such discussion but is actually scared of it? One of the most common questions I am asked about by interested coffee making people from other shops is ‘how do I really get into it properly?’ There are a lot of resources out there (if you know where to look, rather than forum info, which must often be taken with a pinch of salt), but that is not working with and exploring coffee in depth.  I think of talk about what servers need to do and what baristas need to be, but there have to be the environments for these realities to become apparent.

I think this also challenges the idea of what independent really means to people. This would suggest that it doesn’t represent the epitome of a focus on quality, and that it doesn’t allude to the best service. It may suggest that independent, by default, means good because it is not a chain (this is worrying justification of the quality of many businesses). It would seem that judgment of quality, service, and professionalism actually takes a backseat to the question of ‘is it independent?’ This, in itself, is not a problem. Each individual chooses the reasons they want to patronize a certain establishment. In reality independent coffee shops occupy a wide range of approaches and services. This is not supposed to be a ‘shops should do things in a certain way’ dialogue, but rather a questioning of perceptions and labelling that hold firm.

What does independent coffee shop mean to you?


*In this case and that of the whole article I am looking at the definitions and association with in the U.K. for the simple reason that it is this market we operate in.


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