Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Cafe's: Dens of innovation OR Starbucks: where it went wrong

The other night I went to hear Brian Eno and Steven Johnson give a talk at the ICA about technical innovation. Of all the things I thought I would learn that night, I did not expect to discover that I am in fact facilitating innovation. I am providing the environment and the drug for new ideas to flourish.

The legacy of coffee houses as connective hubs and incubators of innovation goes back to the 17th century. After the Great Fire of 1666 while the Royal Exchange was being rebuilt, coffee houses became de facto trading houses (one of which became Lloyds of London). People from all walks of life would sit at communal tables and talk, sharing ideas and engaging in political and intellectual debate. And unlike taverns, which for centuries had been the place to socialise and do business, the drug being abused at coffee houses was a stimulant rather than a depressant - much more conducive to innovation.

When I worked on innovation policy in my public service days it always felt a bit trite to suggest that putting a café in the foyer of shared office spaces would encourage entrepreneurs from different disciplines to meet, exchange ideas, collaborate and innovate.

But now I see it first hand everyday with our regulars and customers at Lantana. From the organised meetings like Cwoffee (a changing collection of planners and ad people who meet fortnightly), to the freelancers and start ups who use Lantana as a temporary office space (hey Moolis), to the workers in the areas (predominantly in creative industries like advertising, media, restaurants and design) who come to Lantana for a coffee or lunch break, there is constant networking, animated conversation and information exchange. Customers discuss bands and the news with the staff and strangers start talking to each other in the queue as they wait for takeaway coffee or as they sit together at communal tables. There’s a creative buzz - fuelled by caffeine.

And this leads me to Starbucks. Which is what I originally wanted to write a blog post about as for some time I’ve been thinking about it’s ‘demise’ and what it means for cafes in general. It is easy to say that Starbucks is suffering because it serves crap coffee and isn’t cool. But there has to be more to it than that. Doesn’t there? There is plenty of crap served in this town in uncool places and they are still doing business as usual.

What is interesting is that over the past year or so while Starbucks has been feeling the squeeze, London has seen a number of new independent cafes emerge and prosper.

Two of the three ‘underperforming’ Starbucks stores that have closed in London are in very close proximity to two of these independent cafes – Taylor St Baristas near Spitalfield Markets and us, Lantana in Fitzrovia.

Sure, this could be a coincidence but even Starbucks is not so quick to dismiss their small indie competitors with plans to ‘debrand’ some of the Starbucks stores to make them feel less homogenous and bland.

This proliferation of independent cafes is being labelled the third wave of coffee, which, as Gwilym Davies, current World Barista Champion is quoted as saying, is ”all very uncorporate”. Its about passion, freshness, sourcing the best coffee beans and extracting the best flavour.

I agree, it is about the coffee, but more importantly, its about the coffee house culture that independents create. With their eclectic furnishings, unpolished finish and other idiosyncracies they provide environments which are creative, quirky and unique. They reflect the peculiarities and passions of the owner and the local community.

Taste of Bitter Love near Columbia Rd Flower Market

Tina We Salute You in Dalston keep track of their loyal customers on their cafe wall
This is why it all went wrong for Starbucks. They reduced coffee to a commodity and forgot about their customers and the coffee house culture. Carloyn Steel said it well in her book Hungry City “Starbucks outlets are stage sets, designed by marketing executives thousands of miles away to appeal to our fantasy metro-chic lifestyles. Add a mouse with big ears, and you might as well be drinking in Disneyland.”

Long live good coffee and the dens of innovation.