Over the years the UK has begun to catch up with its coffee obsessed neighbours. It is a competitive market and Leeds has more coffee connoisseurs today than ever before.
With the rise of independent coffee shops, are the big chain shops on the back foot?
A series of PR disasters has brought poor service into focus. Catherine Skelton visits three coffee houses to check out the competition.
Having worked for global coffee chain, Costa Coffee, for two years, churning out endless cappuccinos a day, it makes me wonder; what makes such chains remain so popular compared to independent competitors? Although this rushed, impersonal service may suit some, for others, the experience as a whole is more important.
American coffee house chain, Starbucks has faced media criticism following a string of incidents with baristas leaving offensive messages on customer’s cups. Earlier this year, Starbucks hit the headlines when 22 year old customer, Rosie Anderson, discovered ‘virgin’ written on her coffee cup. Despite arguing it is light hearted, the occurrence of these mistakes may be a sign of poor customer service which is surprising from such a well-established chain.
I have personally been amused by the barista’s interpretations of my own name many a time.
I am sitting in Café Latte, an intimate coffee shop on Otley Road run by husband and wife Asad and Dilnaz Shah. Although, Café Late is a UK franchise business, each coffee shop has its own intimate and personal feel. Located next door to global chain Costa Coffee, I was intrigued as to how it retained business.
I was immediately hit by a friendly atmosphere when I walked through the door. A mixture of students and workers are chatting, reading and tapping at laptops. Owner, Dilnaz 26, made my coffee herself and brought it to the sofa where I am sitting, a nice touch.
She claims that their good prices and discount offers set them aside from competitors, along with their more personal approach to look after customers.
“We moved to England from India almost three years ago with hopes to start a business in hospitality. The idea of a franchise ticks all the right boxes and has allowed us to be independent whilst having security.”
A stream, of what are clearly regulars, pour into the coffee house.
“We are on first name terms with all our regulars, something that I think sets us apart from chain stores. We want to be a place where people can relax whilst working and socialising. Each and every customer is important to us and our aim is to make them feel welcome.”
Co-owner and barista, Asad 33, stresses the importance in investing in the smaller, less well known coffee houses in Leeds. “We care about coffee and delivering it to customers with the best service, something you will struggle to find in large chain coffee shops.”
My experience here has been far from rushed. Staff greet every customer as they walk in and when I eventually left, the Baristas made a point of acknowledging my departure.
In 2015, coffee shop giant Café Nero were slated by the media after making a profit of £23.6m and not paying a penny in corporation tax.
Dave Olejnik, Owner of Leeds most loved independent coffee shop, Laynes Espresso, made £200,150 profit in comparison and believes focus should be on quality rather than profit.
Laynes Espresso is situated on New Station Street in Leeds city centre, perfect location for commuters, shoppers and coffee lovers. The unique style screams coffee fanatic and when
Dave and Carl Olejnik opened in 2011, they only cared about two things; coffee and milk.
I am immediately hit with the rich, creamy aroma of espresso. Tall tables and stools line the room, giving it a unique coffee bar feel. The standard of coffee making is impressive, with time and effort going into every cup.
Owner and coffee expert, Dave Olejnik, describes himself as a ‘coffee nerd’. “To me, big coffee chains don’t represent what coffee is all about. They are poor value and poor quality.”
He opened his pride and joy, Laynes, six years ago with the intention to not only deliver good quality coffee, but to educate those with an interest in it.
“Every Sunday we run a range of coffee classes to let people into the secrets of the industry. Ranging from coffee tasting to the home barista class, they cost between £20-£60 and always sell out in advance.”
This is something chain stores such as Costa Coffee and café Nero do not offer, perhaps in fear that the home barista will threaten the industry.
When the topic of big chain competitors arose, Dave told me there is no competition because Laynes couldn’t be more different.
“We try to be unique by introducing different flavours and coffee blends. Leeds in a vibrant city and I think the coffee shops and cafes should reflect this.”
The coffee plant was discovered in Ethiopia in the 11th century and coffee beans travels a long way before reaching our favourite Leeds coffee houses. I came across Balinese coffee in the Ubud jungle earlier this year and believe, like Laynes Espresso, coffee lovers should be educated in what they are drinking.
Famous American comedian, Lewis Black makes Starbucks the brunt of his sketch when he jokes about two of their stores facing each other on a high street, referring to it as “the end of the universe”.
Tasty Kitchen and Coffee is as independent as a coffee house can get. Situated in Leeds suburb Oakwood, they source their products locally from Yorkshire farms and prepare it fresh for every customer. A long side Tasty Kitchen, they offer an intimate and personal catering service for local parties and events, setting it aside from competitors.
Despite serving a balance of both food and drink, the small, family run business pride themselves in serving good quality freshly ground coffee.
On a Friday afternoon there is standing space only but customers seem happy to wait as the staff make a considerable effort to acknowledge and accommodate them. Although I was keen to stay, I voluntarily ordered my coffee to go which was followed by a sincere apology from the young waitress for the lack of seats.
Co-owner Paul tells me how thrilled they are with the success of Tasty Kitchen and believes this is due to its intimate and friendly charm.
“I would always invest in small local business rather than large chains. It’s important to the community of small towns and I couldn’t thank our loyal customers enough that keep up going.”
Like my other coffee experiences this week, I received top quality service from Tasty Kitchen and I am looking forward to returning to social, work, and most importantly drink coffee.
So as it becomes more normal for people to buy coffee before work or socialise in a local coffee house, competition is increasingly fierce.
The reliability of every hot drink is what keeps the coffee chains going however, independent cafes are also on the rise, delivering equally as high quality coffee and service.
By Catherine Skelton