The coffee-house trade has reacted with sympathetic amusement to last week’s claim by the pub trade that pubs are now selling more coffee than coffee houses.
The claim, which led to such headlines as ‘UK’s pub chains are the top sellers of coffee’ (Caterer and Hotelkeeper) and ‘Pubs selling more coffee than cafes’ (The Publican’s Morning Advertiser) came in an announcement from the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, which issued a statement saying that ‘Britain’s national pub chains have now become the country’s number one coffee seller, with over 3.6 million cups sold each week’.
The coffee trade is usually very encouraging towards the pub trade, and has done a great deal to help move many pubs away from ‘stewed on a hotplate’ coffee to espresso-based beverages of a very good standard. There is even a current prediction by the coffee trade that gastro-pubs will move towards very high-quality filter coffee next year.
However, the claim that pubs are the UK’s top sellers of coffee, and that they sell more coffee than coffee-houses, caused astonishment in the hot-beverage trade.
The ALMR was invited by the coffee trade’s news magazine, Boughton’s Coffee House, to quantify its claim, but strategic affairs director Kate Nicholls replied that her figures are confidential, coming from the association’s own survey of five major national chains. She added: “The figure on the largest provider of coffee in the UK came from annual results presentations from the major coffee shop/fast food chains. Costa is widely reported in the financial press as selling 3.1 million cups.”
Although some parts of the coffee trade said quite directly what it thought of the ALMR’s figures (one player referred to ‘a shambolic, back-of-a-fag-packet attempt to grab headlines’), others were sympathetic to the general cause, and continue to be encouraging about the pub trade’s new attitude to coffee.
“Pubs are definitely making a lot more of coffee,” acknowledged Jeffrey Young of Allegra Strategies, the researcher who brings out the main annual set of figures on the British coffee house trade. “By virtue of having 50,000 outlets, most of which are morphing into food outlets, of course they are selling a lot more coffee. But in terms of putting this against coffee shops in general, this is too rich a claim!
“If you include all the independent coffee shops, all the chains, and all the other serious operators who now classed as ‘coffee houses’, then the answer is simply ‘no’ – I think they haven’t done enough homework.
“They are certainly right to highlight that pubs are doing much better with coffee – they’ve just been too enthusiastic with their figures. Three and a half million cups a week is certainly a good figure for pubs, but it’s only part of the story.”
At Lavazza, marketing director Barry Kither has been involved in several projects to take espresso-based coffee into pubs – he was heavily involved in the successful project to take JD Wetherspoon’s sales to over half a million cups a week.
“There is no doubt that the pub sector is getting its act together and taking a larger slice of the coffee market but, as usual in foodservice, there are no hard numbers to back it up,” he remarked. “The claim is a bit flimsy because if Costa sell three million, then Starbucks plus Caffe Nero must be at least another three million.
“I doubt the pub sector sells more cups than the coffee shop sector – but I think that it is possible that they will at some point in the future.”
At Kimbo Coffee, another active supplier to pubs, managing director Angus McKenzie was even more sympathetic. The problem with the ALMR’s claim, he suggested, might be in the difficulty of identifying players in both the pub and coffee sectors.
“Notably, ‘pub’ is the widest applicable term for a catering establishment that exists! There are tiny spit and sawdust boozers, great local community drinking pubs, gastro pubs, trendy night circuit bars, urban dining, family friendly food-led pubs, rural traditional destination pubs, and all the rest.
“In all my experience however, across the board, it is hard to consider an average number of cups anywhere near that figure. And I’d wager that a minimum of 10 per cent of coffee in pubs is still instant coffee. However, the big pub guys are certainly getting their ‘real coffee’ act together, and they are also buying more coffee equipment than any other sector, so I actually think the numbers could be right in that 3.5 million cups of real coffee for the big pub companies does become closer to being almost the same as Costa at 3.15 million!”
That, suggested several players in the coffee trade, is where the headlines have been mistaken, and the pub trade has been a little loose in its claims.
Allegra Strategies’ figures are split between ‘branded’ coffee shops and ‘independent’ coffee shops, not counting the other kinds of caterer who aspire to coffee-shop status (such as bakeries with significant sit-in coffee areas). The number of what might be reasonably termed ‘coffee houses’ is generally agreed to be well over 10,000, heading for 15,000 in a few years.
Of the existing ten thousand, it is necessary for all but the smallest to sell approaching a thousand coffees in a week to survive; inLondon, three thousand a day is not unknown. Therefore, even the specialist independent coffee industry’s weekly figure is likely to be well above the pub association’s estimate, before we consider the figures of the three major chains. Those chains will not allow us to use their figures, but we have the unofficial and quite restrained comment: ‘the three of us together sell a lot more than 3.6 million a week.’
Had the ALMR suggested that the major pub chains are now selling between them almost as much coffee as the country’s major coffee chain, say several players in the coffee trade, the pub trade would have had a reasonable point for discussion.
And that in itself is pretty admirable progress for the pub sector.