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.


Will said...

Thanks for the shout out. Cwoffee's been terrific - thanks for your continued patience with us.

Just occurred to me I buggered off without paying this morning. Very sorry.

Shelagh Ryan said...

Hi Will, Always a pleasure. Don't worry, we hit up one of your friends for your unpaid bill. I'm sure he'll let you know how much you owe him. See you soon, Shelagh

Dale McCready said...

don't forget Gwilym's spot in the new store Present in Shoreditch High Street. Now there's a mighty fine cup of coffee, but interestingly as you can't sit down inside it means people stand around waiting for their coffee but this informality might create it's own vibe and scene too

sameer said...

hey Shelagh, indeed Lantana has been our office for many months so thank yoU! very insightful post - Starbucks started out as a 'third space' but ended up being a terrible place. :D

Anonymous said...

Great youtube story - but what's with the English accent Shelagh?

Shelagh Ryan said...

c'mon Viv, mate, you reckon?

catty said...

hiya Shelagh,

This is catty from and - you sent me a DM on twitter to get in contact to place a face to a name. I'd actually like to chat to you about an idea I have.. can you please drop me an email at


LondonRob said...

Hey - great blog, just discovered it. I am a big fan of Lantana, more so since I sat in and sampled your amazing Bert sandwich. So good - I blogged about it:
Keep on fighting the good coffee fight!

sıralı otogaz sistemleri said...

Thanks for the shout out. Cwoffee's been terrific - thanks for your continued patience with us.

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mathew said...

cheers to Lantana and the other revolutionaries that make my day a lil brighter.

Tom and Laurel said...

well done for closing down starbucks shelagh!!

Carters said...

Great post. It's given me two more places I want to visit for coffee that I didn't know about. Which made me think... What are the best coffee places in London? Is there a guide? If not, I'll start the ball rolling with Lantana (of course), Flat White on Berwick Street, Monmouth at Borough Market and Covent Garden, Vergnano on Charing Cross Road. Honourable mention to Ottolenghi on Upper Street because they also have stupendous cakes.

Shelagh Ryan said...

Carter you should check out the London coffee map of good coffee

Also, There are a few suggestions from the comments after my blog post on bad coffee in London

The knife said...

hey Shelagh, coffee shops are still reasonably new in India. the branded equialents of Starbucks rule the roost here.

There are very few indy shops. At least in Mumbai where real estate is very expensive.

Branded places can still make a difference if there is a human touch to them. My wife works in an ad agency. They have a coffee shop in their compound which is like a second office to them. Though the shop is a part of a chain, the customers and sthe staff know each other. For example, they know me as her husband, if you know what I mean

I am sure we would both love Lantana

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