It’s been busy year for the UK café bar industry so, as it draws to a close, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the highlights and interesting stories that hit the media over the last twelve months.
The old year ended on a serious note – with the recent attention given to the pressure-vessel regulations following the explosion of an espresso machine in a supermarket coffee house. The Association of Independent Espresso Engineers formed a partnership with the independent testing house Bureau Veritas, with a view to making it simpler for café-bar owners to comply with the requirements for their espresso machines to be regularly inspected. In what is possibly still a unique move, espresso engineer Mark Allen formed his own Espress Test company specifically to offer independent inspection and certification.
On a sweeter note, John Taylerson of Malmesbury Syrups, who may still be the only person to try and accurately survey the flavoured-syrup market, reported that the number of consumers who had tried a flavour with their coffee had risen by 16 per cent from the previous year.
It was confirmed that United Coffee, which had previously been First Choice, had agreed to acquire the business of Coopers Coffee of Huddersfield.
The international business press had a field day with the news that Starbucks had decided to drop the words ‘Starbucks’ and ‘coffee’ from its logo, leaving only the mermaid (or ‘siren’) image. Several commentators from the advertising and marketing industry said the company was following the likes of Apple and Nike, and even McDonalds, taking the view that its symbol alone is recognisable worldwide. The Harvard Business Review said: ‘Starbucks appears to be pulling an Apple, but the result could be a lemon.’ The Belfast Telegraph called the move ‘nuts’. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said that the move indicates Starbucks ‘thinking beyond coffee’… and indeed, that proved true later in the year.
In Wales, it was reported that the once-famous coffee house chain of National Milk Bars, famously recommended by the Beatles, had dwindled to its final venue – the one remaining site is in Rhyl.
The Caffè Culture Show announced that it would make a major feature of tea for the year’s show – the beverage trade generally expressed approval.
The president of the world’s largest brewer, Stuart MacFarlane of AB InBev UK, told the pub trade to ‘think more like world class retailers’, and said that the benchmark for most publicans is other pubs, whereas they should in fact be looking at coffee shops. Several months later, a notable brewer would take him literally, and buy a coffee-house chain.
A delightfully scandalous story from the Black Isle, off the Scottish coast, concerned an application by the actress Penelope Keith to open a tea-room in the village of Avoch. A local report said that a petition was raised by local people objecting to the business – ‘a total of 240 people signed it, but it then transpired many of the names belonged to people who were dead, while others thought they were signing a petition to keep the local post office open’. Two months later, the actress was paid the compliment of being asked to officially open a new ferry service to the isles.
A new purchasing consortium for café owners was formed by Andy Goss, under the name of Thirst Drop, on the theory that the buying of miscellaneous items from milk to cleaning materials can be an inconveniently time-consuming matter for a small business owner.
The merger of GVS and Coffeetech formed the UK’s largest coffee machine servicing company, GVS Assist.
The tea trade was intrigued by Unilever’s announcement of ‘a major innovation’ under its PG Tips brand. The proposed launch of The New Ones would feature ‘new patented technology to preserve freshness’ and the company said that ‘the tea leaves receive an extra phase of pressing to more effectively lock in flavours’. Other major brands responded with what might be reasonably called derision, and demanded details of this new technology.
Taylors of Harrogate created a ‘social-networking’ promotional campaign which would provide the material for a new TV ad. The brand sent a sampling van, which looks pretty much like an ice-cream van, on an American road trip to meet British expats who are, the company said, ‘yearning for a proper cup of tea’. In addition to some pre-planned stops with expats, the van was to respond to invitations to visit other expats received via Twitter and Facebook. The resulting TV ads were to be shown during Coronation Street, within twelve days of filming. (For fans of Morecambe and Wise, it should be reported that the tea-sampling van is nicknamed ‘Little Urn’.)
The one-time ‘reluctant CEO’ of Coffee Republic, Steven Bartlett, made an unexpected return to the coffee trade as a supplier, under the name Ministry of Coffee. Bartlett, whose recollections of his time at Republic have been the subject of several irreverent and entertaining trade speeches, had already opened his own Americano coffee house in his home town of Plymouth, then the nearby Barista Brothers café, and followed that with his first range of coffees blended specifically for use in cafés. He said: “The Coffee Republic coffee blend actually did work well, so I knew what I wanted – a blend geared to be good enough to work with milk in cappuccino and latte. Unusually, I started from the cappuccino requirement first, not from the espresso.”
John Gordon won the UK barista championship for the second time.
A man in Cleckheaton had the Tetley Tea Folk tattooed all over his arms and back, for reasons which remain unclear. In a more restrained manner, Twinings said it was looking for a new flagship store location in central London, to be followed with a number of shops across the country, and branded concessions within other large stores in the UK.
A remarkable café-versus-council row came in the middle of Fairtrade Fortnight, in Garstang, the world’s first Fairtrade Town. One of the guys who drove the town’s first Fairtrade movement had attempted to open a café as part of a museum dedicated to the history of the Fairtrade movement, but councillors said it was ‘very unfair’ on established café owners. The local paper reported a delightful exchange in which one councillor protested ‘can’t we just wish him luck?’ to which the mayor simply retorted: ‘no’.
Graham Stewart of Newcastle launched the Milk to Perfection steaming jug, featuring a stainless steel tube in the centre of the milk jug, which is said to make the action of milk steaming and frothing considerably easier.
Costa Coffee, having paid £59 million to buy Coffee Nation, the pioneer of on-the-go automatic speciality coffee, now spoke of plans for 3,000 of its proposed Costa Express bars, to be based on the Coffee Nation format, within five years.
As coffee prices continued to rise, the trade’s major suppliers urged the trade not to try and absorb the increase, but to pass it on to consumers. The general feeling was ‘we’ve been saying for ages that the era of cheap coffee is over, and you’d better get used to it’.
The London Coffee Festival claimed an attendance of 7,000 paying visitors.
Christian Aid Week saw a number of bishops and senior clergy trained as baristas by local cafés as a way of highlighting the situation of coffee farmers. The bishop of Knaresborough was trained at Chimes Café in Ripon by owners James and Vanessa Bell, while the Bishop of Pontefract received training at Costa in Halifax. The Bishop of Bedford underwent training at The Coffee House, and Barry Cook at Café Licious in Swindon was invited to train his local bishop. At the Aroma coffee shop, in Haxby, they didn’t get a bishop but trained the district chairman for the York & Hull Methodists. In Lancaster, Sue Steel of Atkinson’s trained the Bishop of Liverpool, but stuck to her usual training script, which included classic lines like: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” and “Our aim is to try and pull the God Shot!” He was amused…
The new St Ali coffee company in London, the latest Aussie company to arrive, said their name refers to the patron saint of coffee. It was pointed out that the generally-accepted patron saint of coffee-houses is St Drogo, who is also the patron saint of unattractive people (!), and the trade must not forget Marco D’aviano, ‘friar cappuccino’, who was beatified in 2003 for his services in bringing coffee to the civilised world.
The bubble-tea concept arrived in Britain, with the launch of Bubbleology in Soho in London. The product originated in Taiwan, and is formed of tea, flavourings, and ‘pearls’ of tapioca, the drinks have a red, white or green tea base which are infused with fruit flavourings, with the unique addition of Tapioca pearls at the bottom.
In Dublin, there was the first running of Tamper Tantrums live, a fascinating and fun get-together of the barista community, largely driven by top Irish barista Colin Harmon, and Staffordshire roaster Steve Leighton. The individual presentations were later made public on internet video.
The Bath Coffee Festival, the pioneer of end-consumer events, drew over 10,000 visitors, and then later announced that sadly would not run in 2012 – the event had been successful, but because there would be problems obtaining use of the venue, and the city held no possible alternative, the organisers said they would hold off a further show until 2013.
And not forgetting… May also hosted the UK’s leading industry event, with The Caffè Culture Show at Olympia. This year’s event saw 4,433 visitors and over 200 exhibitors in attendance over the two days. Now in its sixth year, The Caffè Culture Show is the UK’s most comprehensive resource for the UK café and coffee bar market. Event director, Elliot Gard, commented: “We developed a number of different initiatives this year to provide the core audience of café bar owners and managers with the business support needed to ensure they continue to survive and thrive despite tough trading conditions on the high street. From the fantastic feedback we have had we are delighted to know that Caffè Culture continues to play a pivotal role in the industry’s calendar, providing a much needed opportunity for the whole community to come together to network, share ideas and do business.”
The Health and Safety Executive spoke for the first time of its investigations into the espresso-safety question, following the explosion in the supermarket café the previous year. The investigators had a list of a dozen very senior operators in the industry, and were to visit them all to consult and learn about the workings of the coffee trade. As the HSE continued this work, the first regional authority began its own check-up operation – the New Forest council sent a letter to all the coffee shops it knew of, to ask whether they are in possession of their machine maker’s manual and instructions, a ‘written scheme of examination’, and the last date of such an examination. The council said that the project was intended to be ‘educational’, but that coffee shops who fail to respond might be pursued by personal visit. An espresso engineer commented simply to Coffee House magazine: ‘it has started…’ And indeed, other councils did follow with similar moves.
It was suggested that the coffee house trade should make a specific presentation to the Mary Portas project, in which the ‘shopping consultant’, famous from her TV shows, had been hired by the government to report on the retail mix of Britain’s high streets. There was a distinct suspicion that the café trade might not come out of this report well, with a constant complaint from councils throughout the country that their high streets are becoming too full of coffee shops. The coffee trade was invited to get together to form a proposal document for Portas, as indeed the convenience store and pub trades were to do. After several such suggestions, the trade eventually failed to put forward any presentation at all.
Lavazza sponsored all the coffee at the Wimbledon tennis tournament, with sixty cafés onsite – on the first day of the event, one of those cafés alone did twenty kilos of coffee. In the Wimbledon press office, the world’s journalists went through more coffee in the first two days of the tennis than they did in the previous year’s entire tournament.
The MD of Starbucks British operation, Darcy Willson-Rymer, announced his departure, and it emerged that he would be replaced by Kris Engskov, who had been with Starbucks for nine years, but had an interesting earlier position – he was president Clinton’s personal aide for three years.
Costa introduced its new drink, the Light, described as ‘a brand new and unique coffee only available from Costa’. The aim had been to create a low-calorie drink which still had a perceptible coffee kick, and the brand’s own explanation of the method was: ‘a new production technique of adding Costa’s Mocha Italia espresso to skimmed milk in its own jug, and frothing, creates a milder, well-balanced, light, yet indulgent coffee. It has been lovingly developed by Costa Coffee to fill a gap in the market for a lighter coffee, with an indulgent mouth-feel’. Costa offered customers a taste-test guarantee, in which customers could buy the drink to try, but if they didn’t like it, would be given the equivalent size of their usual coffee for free.
The silly season for tea stories continued. A business writer from Liverpool discovered that Typhoo Tea was to sponsor St Helens rugby league club, and would be providing tea to the club for the 2011-2012 season. However, the rugby club has one notably famous fan, the comedian Johnny Vegas… yes, the one who promotes PG Tips with that woolly monkey. Typhoo’s chief executive apparently said he was looking forward to seeing the PG man served Typhoo at the very next match.
A well-known high-tech consultant from America caused some consternation with his ‘social experiment’ based around a Starbucks card. Jonathan Stark was annoyed that his Starbucks account would only work on one of his mobile phones at once; so he took a picture of the payment barcode on one phone with his other phone, and discovered that this allowed him to pay for a drink with the picture on his second phone. He then wondered if he could give free coffees to other people – so he posted the image on the Internet, lodged $30 on his Starbucks card, and invited the first half-dozen or so people who found the code to download it on their own phones and have a coffee on him. What happened? A few days later, 177 people had used the ‘card’, and $3,651 had been spent on it – people were using his money to buy coffees, and then popping on the odd ten dollars of their own for the next person to use. The experiment went sour when one user allegedly found a way of removing money from the fund.
An Australian medical journal reported that the latest group of workers to be affected by RSI, or carpal tunnel syndrome, is baristas. It was mainly to do with the repetitive motions of tamping, but apparently more coffee shops are now beginning to work harder at providing convenient working heights, and in some cases, yoga exercises to help alleviate or prevent injuries arising.
The general press turned to coffee for its silly-season stories during the traditionally light news month of August. The Telegraph suggested that pistachio nuts could provide a caffeine-free alternative to coffee, and turned for support to a top roaster and well-known barista – both were politely unenthusiastic. Elsewhere, the press swallowed a publicity story fed to them by a kitchen equipment company which said it was ‘shocked’ that ‘the amount the average person is forking out each year on high street coffee is as much as your average yearly electricity bill or annual gym membership.’ They claimed that Britons ‘spend £430 million a week on 511 million cups of coffee’, which would give an annual out-of-home coffee market of some twenty billion pounds. Various members of the trade pointed out that this figure, were it correct, would mean that coffee makes up half of the entire UK eating-out market, including food at all restaurants, pub restaurants, and contract catering!
The silly-season tea stories continued. The daily press reported that tea-drinkers are ‘rising in revolt’ against a reformulation of Twinings Earl Grey blend. If they were, they weren’t being very active about it – the new blend had appeared a clear five months previously. Twinings were adamant, when accused, that it had not concocted a press story just to win some brand attention.
The Rainforest Alliance held its first ‘awareness’ event – however, many parts of the coffee trade were quite openly critical of the planning of it, pointing out that they themselves had not been made aware of it. The organisation promised to plan its promotion of the 2012 event much farther in advance, and to involve the trade earlier.
A Scots barista led a new campaign against the use of kopi luwak coffee, the one in which the coffee cherries are eaten by a kind of cat which lives in the Pacific region, and the undigested beans which appear from the other end of the cat are roasted and sold at an extremely high price. Although this coffee had for a long time been regarded as a relatively harmless novelty, it was realised that some suppliers had begun factory-farming, or battery-farming, the cats and allegedly force-feeding them coffee beans to produce the high-priced coffee. An international news agency later carried a story suggesting that 80 percent of kopi luwak coffee in the Philippines is now produced using caged ‘battery-farmed’ animals, and that the situation in Indonesia is similar.
Masteroast, the large private-label coffee roaster, celebrated thirty years in business.
Jamaica’s coffee regulator began a campaign against counterfeit Blue Mountain coffee, one of the industry’s highest-priced products. Fraudulent false-branding of cheaper coffee with the Blue Mountain name is ‘rampant’, the country’s coffee organisation said.
The coffee trade received news of two big acquisitions in the space of eight hours. Following the purchase of the Coffee#1 café chain by the Welsh brewer and pub chain S A Brain, the Irish roaster Bewley’s announced that it had acquired the Darlington’s coffee business of London. Bewley’s is the influential roaster which has dominated the coffee scene in the Republic of Ireland for many years, and Darlington’s has been operating in London since the early 1990s, and has a strong business in restaurants of various kinds, significant pub companies and food chains.
The acquisition of Coffee#1 by Brains was considered a significant step in the growing interest of pubs in business other than alcohol. The SA Brain business has pubs through Wales, and also several just across the English border. The purchase of Coffee#1 brought the brewer fifteen cafés in England and Wales with a combined turnover of £5 million.
It was reported that Costa planned to open 75 drive-thru coffee stores, having trialled the format during the summer. The sites were said to begin opening over the coming 12 months, but Costa has continued to make no comment on the matter.
This month’s silly stories turned to coffee. An American barista working for Starbucks gained worldwide fame by broadcasting a comic song about his experiences, and posting it on YouTube. Starbucks, of course, was not amused. It was a clever song, and the barista in question said that he recorded it to provide some ‘comedic relief’ for his fellow baristas after a typical stressful shift. He took his dismissal very gracefully.
England’s only tea plantation, Tregothnan in Cornwall, became a partner in an unusual twinning venture – it ‘twinned’ with the entire Indian growing area of Darjeeling, the region which produces ‘the champagne of teas’. Unlikely as it sounds, the two areas actually do share similar topographical and weather conditions – valleys and mists, relatively warm nights and dewy mornings. The two apparently compete to see which gets its first Magnolias to flower – big early blooms mean a good spring flush of tea.
Nestlé announced the investment of £110 million in its Tutbury site in Derbyshire to create a ‘world class coffee manufacturing facility’ which would involve twelve new high-speed production lines to manufacture coffee pods for sale around the world. The prime minister, David Cameron, said that the development illustrated ‘an economy where we’re making and selling the products the world wants to buy’. One of the UK’s leading craft roasters, interviewed about the matter on Radio 4, made the comment that he ‘regards the high street chains as the primary schools of coffee’.
Beyond the Bean, the specialist wholesaler of coffee-shop items and operator of the Sweetbird and Zuma brands, celebrated its 15th year in business by opening an office in Los Angeles. The company, which launched as Espresso Essentials, has been selling in America for two years, and said that more American distributors are now looking for products which are free from various ‘nasties’. Beyond the Bean’s products are generally approved by the Vegetarian and Vegan authorities, and a Sweetbird Smoothie recently won a ‘best new product’ award in America.
The winter Tea and Coffee Festival at London’s Southbank centre drew 40,000 visitors. The event does of course benefit from a location which experiences a lot of passing visitors, but organiser Yael Rose said that perhaps half of those who were counted at the stalls had come specifically for the event.
At Starbucks, chairman Howard Schulz fulfilled his own prophecy of a business beyond coffee – he paid $30 million for the Californian juice company Evolution Fresh, and spoke of a new Starbucks-owned chain of juice bars. It will launch on the West Coast of America, and the juice-bar feature will probably appear within certain existing Starbucks cafes.
That was your year in the life of the UK café bar industry. We wish you all a Merry Christmas and look forward to a news packed and prosperous New Year.