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Once upon a time a café was a place to get a coffee – maybe a cake, too. But the past few years have seen cafés and coffee shops become so much more. From community hubs to popular haunts for hybrid working, as well as social spaces for everyone from colleagues to friends and families, the popularity of the café isn’t just enduring, but growing.
Research commissioned on behalf of the 2018 London Coffee Festival predicted that by 2030 coffee shops would outnumber pubs in the UK and more recent figures suggest things are heading in that direction, with the number of coffee shops in the UK continuing to rise.
But despite our love of all things coffee, food and drink as a whole is facing difficult times, and the needs of consumers continue to change, so how can café owners cater for those changing demands and leverage consumer trends to guarantee success in 2022 and beyond?
Sustainability is front and centre for businesses across the world, with brands who take it seriously garnering respect and trust from increasingly-aware consumers. For cafés, sustainability can vary from simple steps to more innovative solutions. “We try to cut plastic as much as we can and use paper instead,” says Deepak Shukla, owner of Pearl Lemon Café in Fulham, London, where staff are also encouraged to cycle or run to work to minimise the reliance on carbon-heavy transport.
At CAWA, a growing artisan bakery and coffee brand that started in Sheffield and is opening its fifth location in Nottingham this August, sustainability runs through every part of the business. “Even as a small independent business, our environmental responsibility influences every operational decision we make,” says co-founder Galyna Hayat.
“We transitioned from crockery to fully-biodegradable, compostable cups and lids last year which, in addition to the sanitary benefits, dramatically reduced the water usage incurred by frequent washing-up. And of course, only paper plates, straws and wooden knives and forks for our tasty snacks.”
CAWA’s roastery in Sheffield supplies all of its coffee shops, so the company has switched to using 20kg containers to transport their beans in a bid to eliminate unnecessary plastic waste.
“Sure, the containers are plastic – a necessity to preserve the quality and integrity of the bean – but compared to the single-use 1kg bags we used previously, our plastic footprint is a fraction of what it was. And crucially, given our commitment to sustainability, we are determined to fully-electrify our entire fleet of vehicles by 2026.”
Café food may once have stopped at a slice of cake, but the successful cafés of 2022 are those who can cater for consumers’ increasingly diverse needs, from vegan to non-dairy and gluten-free and more.
Lydia Papaphilippopoulos-Snape, owner of Warwick Street Kitchen in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire; Warwick Street Kitchen Bakery in neighbouring Warwick and Saint Kitchen in Birmingham, says it’s about being ‘smart’ in how menus are designed. “We have a lot of customers with very specific dietary requirements. The way we deal with this is to make a lot of our base recipes either gluten-free or vegan.
“Take our brownie – it’s actually a gluten-free vegan recipe. For anyone who just wants a brownie, it’s still a bloody good brownie. But it also means that for someone who’s gluten-free and vegan, we have something for them.” By making a lot of the ‘base menu’ gluten-free, any non-gluten-free additions can easily be removed, making the menu adaptable but also efficient, she adds.
At CAWA, consideration to dietary requirements and tastes goes across the board, whether through different milks, gluten-free treats or vegan snacks. “Operationally, our baking standards and health considerations often surprise onlookers,” says Hayat.
“We’re uncompromising in our gelatine-free policy. Gelatine is a hidden nasty found in many sweet treats, but such is our concern over its health implications that we developed our own speciality marshmallows and glazes. Our prized, highly-guarded recipe is exclusive to CAWA – ensuring our customers can enjoy moments of indulgence free of the gelatine ick.
“As a consequence of our zero tolerance on preservatives across our menu, our speciality snacks have a shorter shelf life than many of our coffee shop peers, but this is a source of enormous pride for us. Our philosophy is simple: if we wouldn’t eat it, we won’t offer it to our customers.”
That focus on quality extends to provenance, with consumers more aware than ever not only of what is in what they’re eating and drinking – but where it comes from. Provenance is something customers can see first-hand at Hampshire-based Hocombe Coffee Co. Founder Paul Taylor started roasting coffee beans in his garage over a decade ago and went on to open his own premises in Hurley, meaning customers know exactly where their beans are coming from.
And he doesn’t stop there. “Where possible, we only buy local produce, for example our oat milk is produced on the farm next door to our roastery. Not only are we supporting our neighbouring businesses but buying local makes us more sustainable, which is something very important to us.”
That provenance and story also serves as a way for Taylor to promote his brand through events – a tactic that can help cafés keen stand out from the crowd. “Events are a great way of expanding a business, whether it’s operationally or in terms of reaching more people and getting your name out there,” says Taylor.
“We’ve been to local food festivals, community events and have been doing lots of corporate lunches which is a great way of showcasing what we do and also helps with further revenue. We’re hoping to introduce evening events like supper clubs and espresso martini nights in the future, which will give us more opportunity to reach new people. Roasting our own coffee on-site is also an event in itself. It’s been a great talking point for people – it’s something a bit different to see when you walk into a café.”
Evening events are something Papaphilippopoulos-Snape has been offering at Warwick Street Kitchen for some time – staging regular tapas nights. “We were getting close to maxing out our daytime revenue so we thought, ‘how do we push this without competing with so many evening establishments out there?’
“Our USP is that everything is homemade and initially we had a lot of Middle Eastern influence in our menu. So, we looked at what would fit in and what would showcase what we did in a way that was different to everybody else in the area.”
Café owners can cover every area from sustainability to staging events, but often the make or break for customers is the simple experience of ordering a coffee. With a staffing crisis dogging the hospitality sector, good staff are hard to find.
For Papaphilippopoulos-Snape, it starts with recruitment. Prospective team members are asked to join a mailing list for when opportunities are shared – giving her a bank of talent waiting to be called upon. The recruitment process involves an interview and trial shift but it’s the team who have the final sign-off, ensuring low staff turnover because staff “genuinely get along”.
“I also make it my business to go around to other local cafés and restaurants, sit there, be a customer and get to know the team. I never poach but I put myself in a position that when they are looking to change jobs I’m their first port of call.”
When it comes to training, Pearl Lemon uses a series of videos. “We have over 40 training videos about customer service for our café,” says Shukla. “We also have checklists of questions that people should ask and require everyone to get five reviews per day on their shifts.” Papaphilippopoulos-Snape takes a different approach.
“People want to be greeted like a friend and want you to be yourself. So I never give people a script, I give guidelines. I also see social media as an extension of customer service and have a team of people who try to respond, again in a friendly manner, in the way we would speak to our customers.”