Coffee without the froth, please - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

3 December 2012

The other day a friend was in a coffee shop – the business shall remain unnamed but suffice to say it was a rather complicated establishment. The product being sold is seemingly so advanced that some members of staff choose to wear lab coats when handling it and the coffee-making equipment being used would look more at home in a school science classroom than a local café.

Having negotiated the obtuse menu and ordered his drink, my friend asked where he could find the sweetener. Rather than point the customer in the direction of condiments and milk, this particular barista scoffed at the request stating that in New York, coffee shops prefer to keep it organic so raw sugar was the only option.

While sweeteners may be saccharine and artificial, there’s nothing authentic about the wave of artisanal coffee shops that define themselves more by attitude than assistance. Now almost as populous as the chain stores they sought to provide an alternative to, have some of these independent coffee shops become just a little too precious?

Recently I bumped into the owner of an independent and well-known men’s shop in San Francisco. He was in town for the weekend and clutching two paper cups of Starbucks coffee. As he hails from one of the most exciting culinary cities in America I was surprised that he had chosen to buy his afternoon pick-me-up from the country’s ever-expanding coffee giant. However, after sharing stories of the affected and convoluted service that many smaller coffee companies now allow to define them, his choice didn’t surprise me.

While Starbucks may face criticism from everyone from Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue to those tired of having their name incorrectly scrawled on their coffee cup, there’s clearly something to be said for the company’s reliability. We might scoff at the opening of a new branch on our street but joining a queue out of the door of an alternative artisanal brewer only to be met at the counter by surly service and theatrical coffee-making also soon loses its appeal.

Many of these independent brewers should be careful to avoid falling into the trap of becoming defined by their grandiose alternativeness instead of the quality of their flat white. Perhaps they should take a look at the chains that manage to maintain customer loyalty even while serving an inferior product. Instead of ostentatious barista performances, snobbish service and superfluous branding, small coffee shops should focus on what they are perfectly poised to offer: friendly, local service that will tempt even those with Starbucks loyalty cards. And if they could only focus more on getting to know their regulars rather than futuristic pouring methods, they wouldn’t even need to ask what name to write on the cup.


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