The coffee-shop culture war
The anger at Tesco’s shareholding in a trendy coffee chain, Harris + Hoole, is snobbish, small-minded and ignorant.
There has been a bit of furore in the past few weeks over the ‘revelation’ (it’s actually old news) that a newish chain of coffee shops, each with all the trappings of an independent café, has Tesco as a major shareholder.
Harris + Hoole now has 10 branches, mostly in London, but one focus of recent controversy is over plans to open a shop in the north Kent coastal town of Whitstable, on the site of a former Clinton Cards shop. The firm’s sibling founders - Nick, Andrew and Laura Tolley - insist that Tesco’s involvement does not make their business a stalking horse for a proliferation of Tesco cafés on every high street. Rather, the family went to the supermarket chain out of desperation to get affordable finance in the midst of a credit crunch.
Quite what the trouble is with a card-shop chain being replaced by a coffee-shop chain in Whitstable is hard to tell. The local gift shops are no doubt happy to see the back of a major competitor and Harris + Hoole is as likely to take business from the branch of Costa on the other side of the road as from any independents. (It will almost certainly look a good deal nicer than the Clinton Cards shop.)
The proposed Harris + Hoole site in Whitstable
Yet the Guardian’s Rupert Neate apparently found customers seething with indignation when he revealed the truth to them about Tesco’s minority stake at Harris + Hoole’s branch in gentrified Crouch End, north London. A local physiotherapist told him: ‘I avoid Starbucks because it’s a big chain and it avoids tax. Now I find this is Tesco… It looks like a small indie. It is disingenuous. It makes me upset. I feel duped. I don’t go in there [Tesco]. It is taking over the world. If it [Harris + Hoole] had been called Tesco Coffee, I wouldn’t have come in.’ The tone of the Guardian’s report is not a surprise, however; the paper seems to have developed something of an obsession with the coffee-shop culture war.
In an interview for CafféCulture after the controversy broke, Nick Tolley said: ‘I was hardly surprised by the Guardian piece. The interview with the journo was a most unpleasant experience – it was clear from the very beginning that he had an agenda for the article before we’d even met.’
In fact, Tolley is keen to emphasise his company’s right-on credentials: ‘The fact is, we’re behaving like a local coffee shop because that’s what we want to be – a local coffee shop. It’s in our DNA. Our managers are encouraged to think about how best to engage with their communities. We’re looking to source product locally. We hire locally. We design each of our shops individually so that each local town or neighbourhood feels like it’s got something unique to call their own; we’re not some pre-fabricated, soulless template that’s ubiquitously stamped on every high street in every town across the land.’
But the earnest attempts by Harris + Hoole to look like the ‘little guys’ - and the way that many corporations now feel the need to play along with the notion of being a bit indie - does speak to a contemporary, and misplaced, snobbery about big companies. The fact is, there is much to be said for the benefits of doing things big.
In terms of its core supermarket business, Tesco has been a real benefit to consumers, providing comparatively low prices in big stores with wide product ranges and convenient parking. For women in particular, the modern supermarket has been key to replacing the daily drudge around a variety of small stores with a one-stop shop at the weekend (or even a delivery). Tesco’s resurgence in the Eighties and Nineties can be credited with giving an enormous kick up the backside to every other major supermarket, which means that all of us now have a variety of options to choose between when it comes to spending our weekly food budgets.
Having grown up in inner-city Birmingham in the Seventies, where the choice of cheese on offer was usually ‘yellow’ or ‘orange’, with the exotic option of Danish Blue, having cheese sections that take up the entire side of a supermarket aisle is a boon. The local greengrocer, with a fairly paltry selection of British staples, has been replaced with fruit and vegetable departments offering enormous variety from around the world, all year long. Such choice might not mean much to those raised in well-to-do areas of London, where such riches have long been the norm, but it made a huge difference to those of us who grew up in provincial towns and cities.
Of course, many will say that the big supermarket chains are bad for farmers and have destroyed high streets. But the trends in food retail are much the same as in any other industry. Small companies become consolidated into big companies with greater efficiencies and economies of scale. The small trader is replaced by the big corporation. In sector after sector, this has been to the benefit of society as a whole, even if the changes are often painful for those pushed out of business by the competition. It’s a bit galling to find Harris + Hoole or Tesco criticised by the Apple Mac-wielding defenders of the small shopkeeper organising their protests on Facebook and Twitter. Some corporate behemoths are more acceptable than others, it seems.
Whether it is supermarkets or coffee shops, there are good reasons why big companies tend, over time, to come to the fore, ahead of independents. Economies of scale, good standards, predictability of quality and so on mean big companies tend to win out. Of course, that’s by no means always the case. Well-run smaller operations can often do well, particularly in a sector like cafés, where the space in which you hang out is as important as the coffee in the cup. It is perfectly possible to see the merits of one-off shops and small chains while also recognising the wider benefits of big companies.
However, the belief that ‘small is beautiful’ in principle is just, er, small-minded. There is still plenty of opportunity for good specialist retailers, while everyone benefits from the lower prices, wider choice and greater convenience of the big boys. Perhaps those Tesco haters could find something more useful to get misty-eyed about than coffee shops.Tesco haters: wake up and smell the coffee, spiked