Coffee shop comedowns

1 Feb

When I go out to eat or drink, I always favour bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants with character. The food and drink is of course important, but if I can enjoy that with professional service in a beautiful or interesting building, taking in a fantastic view or soaking up a friendly, lively atmosphere, then I will happily pay a premium for doing so.

So when I developed a serious taste for coffee a year or two ago, I started to seek out the independent coffee shops near where I lived. I dabbled in tea shops too, but quickly discovered that doilies and frills are really not my thing. Unfortunately I found that whilst lots of places can produce good coffee, finding a coffee shop that met my exacting standards – and I really am hard to please at times – wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I always seemed to be let down by something; ultra slow service, dirty seats and tables, lipstick stained coffee cups, children running riot. As I said, I’m hard to please. I got so desperate a few months ago that I wandered in to a Costa.


I say wandered in, but I was actually lured in by the massive biscuits I could see through the window. One of the aspects of coffee drinking I enjoy is the accompanying food – biscotti, cake, pastries, and of course, because I live in England, a nice biscuit. However, no sooner had I selected my sweet coffee accompaniment (a giant custard cream) than I realised I’d made a mistake. To be fair, the coffee was okay, it was everything else that was awful. Filthy floor, cheap chairs covered in crumbs, tables left uncleared, sultry staff, newspaper racks with half of yesterday’s Daily Mail and a two day old Sun for your reading pleasure, and to top it off, sanitised Bob Marley cover versions being piped through some tinny speakers. Not even a big biscuit could make up for this miserable coffee experience. I vowed never to return.

Giant custard cream

Big biscuits are not enough

Then towards the end of last year a few things piqued my interest in Costa. The first was this advert:

It appeared Costa were re-inventing themselves, showing a playful, creative side. Then I started seeing articles in various marketing magazines, like this one:


It seemed pretty clear that at a time when decent coffee was starting to flood in to the UK, Costa were trying to differentiate themselves through their staff, or what they would call baristas.  Because Costa, with its big custard creams, represents such an authentic Italian experience, right? Anyway, pretentious use of barista aside, could this investment in staff mean not only an improvement in service, but also clean tables and chairs, and regularly swept floors? Staff can’t do a lot about soul-less buildings and head-office approved easy listening, but a well run chain cafe is better than a badly run chain cafe.

And then Costa opened a new coffee shop between the train station and the office where I work. So a couple of weeks ago I gave them a second chance.

The people in charge of the Costa chain clearly aren’t stupid. The new branch I visited is in a freshly developed area close to a major train station with very little competition, lots of new student accommodation and plenty of nearby offices. Not surprisingly, it was quite busy when I visited. And whoever was managing this Costa had decided that the best way to make the most of this prime location and huge demand was to have two members of staff on duty. That’s one to take the money and one to make the coffee. No one to clear tables, no one to sweep the floor, no-one to re-stock the fridge, in short, no-one to care. I selected an excessively chilled sandwich from the three on offer, got in line and waited. When I reached the money taker, a dripping wet tray was retrieved and a plate was thrown on top for me to put my packaged sandwich on. Coffee was ordered, and quickly made, and that was that. The staff were efficient, but miserable and clearly over-worked. You can probably guess how the experience went from there. I couldn’t find a clear table, so cleared one myself, and ate my bland, cold sandwich, drank my coffee, tried not to listen to Jack Johnson, and left. This time REALLY vowing never to return.

Now I realise a bad lunch experience isn’t the end of the world, but all of this reminded me that far too often there is a huge gap between the marketing hype and the reality of goods and services we receive. I don’t blame the staff in Costa. I’d be just as miserable as them if I was dropped into a busy lunchtime shift with not a manager in sight. If a company puts their staff at the centre of a marketing push, they really ought to start investing in those staff and giving them a reason, or reasons, to care. Some will argue that with minimum wage you’ll always get minimum effort. I’m not convinced by that. There are more ways to motivate people than with money, and one of those is creating a pleasant and supportive working environment. Personally, if being a customer in Costa is such a grim experience, I imagine that working there is several times worse.

Anyway, my Costa mis-adventures are soon going to fade into distant memories, as I’ve found two wonderful alternatives for my coffee fixes. The first is Hot Numbers. Great coffee, good music, lovely building, friendly atmosphere, delicious cakes and just as importantly, a well managed business with staff who smile and care:

And if all else fails, then I’ll stay at home where at least any mess is my own, the music will be good and I can invite who I like. This experience can be enhanced with tasty coffee from Tim Peaks, fronted by the brilliant Tim Burgess who serves up daily breakfast bangers via Twitter (@Tim_Burgess) and coffee with biscotti at the delightful With all of that on offer, I’ll happily for-go the giant custard creams.


Cheers Tim!


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