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A Brief History of the Modern Coffee Shop

I have great respect for the past. If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going’. Maya Angelou

As coffee shops strive to adapt to the challenges posed by Covid and post-Covid behaviour, it might be useful to look at the factors that contributed to the modern phenomenon that is the UK coffee shop. I spoke to some stalwarts of the industry who played a major role in the development process and have tried to reflect their different perspectives below.

Back To The Future

Andy Fawkes of Masteroast spoke to me about the environment preceding the coffee revolution in the UK. There had been a false dawn in the sixties, with the brief flowering of Italian Coffee Bar culture in trendy areas like Soho. However, we remained largely a nation of tea drinkers and instant coffee was the norm in and out of home. Coffee beans were a specialist line roasted in delis before being weighed to order into brown-paper bags. In the seventies, office coffee started to evolve along American lines with the offer of a free filter coffee machine and pre-ground sachets of filter coffee and this approach started to spread to some catering outlets. Although we still drank instant coffee at home (and still do in the most part), this trend was essential in preparing our palates for the coming revolution.

The Rise of The Machine

The espresso machine allows us to produce a single serving of real coffee relatively quickly compared to other brewing processes. I spoke to Louie Salvoni of Espresso Service about the growth of its popularity. Louie cites the introduction of all-day licensing in pubs as a key factor in the growth of espresso-based coffee. The major brewers saw an opportunity to develop food offerings in response to this new opportunity and coffee followed on the back of this initiative. In 1982 McDonald’s launched breakfast in their UK stores and started the drive to make breakfast an out of home meal. The pub groups followed suit and breakfast became a battleground dragging coffee along with it.

At that time, most of the suppliers of espresso machines were of Italian heritage with experience of Italian coffee culture. As a result, the majority of the terms we use to order espresso-based coffee are Italian. The espresso machine was seen as glamorous in comparison to traditional preparation methods and Louie was in constant demand to appear in the media and explain this rising trend.

In the event, lack of consistent on-site training and the demise of the major breweries (as a result of The Beer Order legislation) conspired to create another false dawn. Although this early initiative was poorly implemented, it provided the critical mass needed to establish the support structure for an espresso-based culture to grow. The authentic experiences offered by the early coffee chains won the consumer’s attention.

Café Culture

Barry Kither worked in Sale Directorial roles for a range great coffee brands during the rise of Caffe Culture in the UK. He talked to me about the key elements that conspired to create a fertile environment for the growth of coffee shops as the ‘third place’.

Italian coffee culture had reached the west coast of the USA and adapted. In the hot spots of San Franciso and Seattle espresso culture had been given an American make over, with a growing emphasis on specialty coffees with their stories told in store. These were cool places for young adults and teens to hang out and this trend was accelerated by the innovation coming out of that other West Coast phenomenon, Silicon Valley. Free wifi and portable computer technology was a crucial element in the establishment of the coffee shop as the third place. A young person could work or hang out with friends (physically or virtually) in a stimulating low cost environment that was part home and part office.
The coffee was being sold at a high price with a good margin, but customers might sit in your coffee shop for hours cradling a single drink and chatting to friends. Barry cites the evolution of the takeaway cup as crucial in the viability of coffee shop culture. A move away from the traditional polystyrene to the modern takeaway cup meant that it became ‘the brand in the hand’, a portable way of showing how cool you were as you arrived at the office and eschewed the in house filter or instant. For the coffee shop, it was a sale at a good margin and a free billboard.

Film and TV was quick to latch on to this growing behavioural trend and found the coffee shop a useful venue for characters to interact, Barry cites Ally McBeal and Frazier as two TV series which used this technique prior to the arrival of perhaps the most famous coffee shop in western culture, Central Perk. Friends first hit American TV screens in 1994 and ran for ten years. Central Perk was the perfect place for the lead actors to meet and interact with each other and new characters. Set in New York, it was only a matter of time before the concept hopped the pond and we were ready and waiting.

Chain Reaction

As the demand for specialty coffee increased, the coffee shop business model looked very attractive. This was a cool industry with a buzz about it. With no kitchen required, start up, staffing and floorspace costs were lower. The increasing social acceptability of eating and drinking on the move help bolster that all important takeaway market. Whilst their parents were a nation of tea and instant coffee drinkers, an upwardly mobile young urban population started to express itself through its choice of coffee brand.

The early players in the race to establish a branded coffee chain came from very different directions. Costa, (now owned by Coca Cola), grew out of a South London coffee roaster of Italian extraction. Café Nero adopted Italian heritage and was supercharged when the first few stores were purchased as an investment opportunity. Together with Seattle Coffee, Coffee Republic was one of the most American of these early chains, with its edgy name and styling.

In 1998, the game changed when Starbucks purchased Seattle Coffee and rebranded all its stores. Starbucks , though still largely based on Italian espresso culture, introduced ‘bigger’: bigger sized drinks, bigger branding, bigger range of options, bigger stores. Soon, many customers were not going for a coffee, they were going for a Starbucks, a concept so removed from its Italian heritage that the worldwide brand has only recently started operate in Italy through a theme-park like coffee palace in Milan.

In the past twenty years, some of these branded UK coffee chains have gone global, some have fallen away and new players have arrived and departed the stage. In this time, the coffee shop has faced new challenges: competition, rent increases and now Covid and Post-Covid culture. During this time, influences from other countries took hold. For example, Antipodean coffee culture brought us the flat white and an increased focus on quality.

In the blink of an eye, we have seen the demise of third place hang out culture and a shift to pre-ordering and collecting takeaway coffee via apps. It remains to be seen whether these changes have a permanent effect on how our industry operates. To finish on a positive note, it seems likely people will continue to drink takeaway coffee. In the economic downturn of the late noughties, out of home coffee sales remained buoyant as takeaway coffee cemented its place in our lives as the affordable treat.