In a family conversation recently the subject of coffee shops came up. We were in a pleasant independent which sported all the usual attributes: filaments, scones, signature blends, all the filter methods, aprons and so on. The question: “What’s the future?
Definitely not the first time this one has been pondered. But maybe there’s no urgency. The sector is proving resilient, even as preferences evolve – dairy free is working pretty well – and by occupying the permissible treat space Frappuccino and the like have dodged the anti-sugar bullet. And prices appear to be rising at the premium end. Greggs and McDonald’s are doing a good job being accessible and Coke is yet to show its hand with Costa.
But I’m curious, so I reckon it’s time to consider the next thing.
“What’s the future?”
I’m not one of those people who sit on the bench outside Kaffeine, Rare’s local craft shop, trying to tease out notes of blackberry and watermelon in the Ethiopian guest blend.
There’s incredible breadth and depth to coffee, it’s potent, exciting stuff. But are serious numbers of people really interested in this sort of detail? I bet there’s research that shows just that, but it feels like the limit of product-focused offers is being reached and it never really touched the mainstream (how many people pay more for Starbucks’ signature blends?)
Perhaps more exciting is when they start to do something with the coffee. It may seem lame to drink cocktails at a Starbucks, but the company at least recruited a star from the Chicago bar scene for its upstairs lounge ‘Arriviamo’ at the new Roastery in Manhattan. Julia Momose, mixologist from Komiko in Chicago created the menu of cocktails that almost all incorporate coffee.
A Manhattan, for example, is mixed and then poured through cold brew grinds, leaving the drink with a distinct background flavour of coffee. It’s stylish, adult and evening – I reckon it could grow.
Nothing has stuck around
What about the thorny question of food? Despite their best efforts, I’m sure many a Starbucks executive gets a nosebleed when the subject comes up. It never feels right. The coffee shop classics all work - cakes and treats etc, but those odd salads and soups?
They even had a go at pizza in the US. Costa’s short-lived Fresco proved that despite then owner Whitbread’s unquestioned expertise in casual dining, it just wasn’t compatible. And Pret is a capable dining brand which reversed coffee into the existing food offering. The brands have all had various goes at ‘evening’ food (horrid microwaved snacks in Starbucks at Amsterdam airport).
Nothing has stuck around - it’s too demanding to keep up with coffee service alone and the economics won’t support more people (hence unwiped tables and filthy toilets). And anyway, proper food, except a proper brunch, doesn’t easily pair with the core coffee offer. So, despite Starbucks betting big on their latest offering Princi, I’m not sure food is the next big thing.
So much interior design endeavour is invested in creating places that people already want to go to. Yet it all looks the same. A mid-century inspired chair and loads of filament bulbs are no longer enough.
Proper branded environments require a sophisticated light touch. It’s not just decoration - every feature is a brand asset and needs to be relevant to the brand story: to consciously and subconsciously draw the user in. Immersive. Instead, the aesthetic defaults to early 2000’s Shoreditch ambushed by WeWork. The environment is a vital channel for brands at all price points and it’s an opportunity missed.
I think this might be at the heart of the challenge for the future of coffee shops. Starbucks invented the current vernacular which was codified and now normalised.
We expect them and all the others to feel like this, because that’s how they’ve always been. So, they do. Fortunately, we can look to Australia for inspiration. The wave of stand-up espresso bars that are not doubling as workspaces; that only serve an intense shot alongside a glass of water before sending you on your way (don’t even think cappuccino). No crouching over a laptop here. And no waffle (or waffles) either:
But attitude needs a bit of help occasionally, and Bermondsey’s brightest shows us how: come happy, leave edgy…
It starts to feel more like what coffee is really all about. Solid, strong and stylish. No frapp, no latte art, no nonsense.