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The coronavirus pandemic has been responsible for wholesale changes across the whole of society, with no sector left untouched. While some may talk about getting ‘back to normal’, for many areas, businesses and people, nothing will be the same again. Cafés and coffee provided a lifeline for many during the Covid pandemic and its lockdowns, and potentially changed the way we view our morning coffee forever. So, have the past 18 months changed UK café culture for good? And what is its future?
For Peter Giuliano, chief research officer at the Specialty Coffee Association, the key is community. “One of the primary consumer-driven trends we’re seeing is the desire for the coffee shop to be a community space, linked closely to a neighbourhood and its residents,” he says. “For so many people today, the home is also the workplace, and having a place to go to for community interaction and good coffee is increasingly important to consumers. This has led to café owners being much more focused on consumer needs and desires, which may be specific to a particular community.”
The trend isn’t wholly attributable to the pandemic, says Giuliano, but it has definitely been accelerated by it. “Many café owners see themselves as committed members of a community, with a duty to provide support and relief to their customers. This has led to an attitude of flexibility and consumer-centrism among those coffee shops that remained open during the lockdowns, many cafés choosing to expand their menus to accommodate consumer desires for more food and beverage options.” The shift also includes an acceptance that while people love going to cafés, they’ve also embraced making coffee at home, which means cafés are now increasingly providing beans, equipment and education to consumers who previously relied on them for just the drinks, and sharing that education and knowledge via social media.
Giuliano’s predictions tie with the experience of café owners ‘on the ground’. Jack Linstead, owner of Jack’s Shack in Warwick, has seen a shift over the past year as customers have got to know their independent cafés better than ever before.
“People now realise that independents by and large are very good and you do get a high standard. People think, ‘Oh my god, independent cafés and what they offer are great. They are putting the time, the research in, the expertise in’. The flip side of that, interestingly, is that people expect a very high quality from an independent. It’s almost like they’ll go to a chain and grab a coffee and a tuna melt and accept that it’s a bit middle of the road. But if people go to an independent they expect a very nice experience – which they should – there’s that expectation that it will be very good.”
That expectation and a drive for something different is making Linstead and partner Michelle Matthews consider everything they do when it comes to both food and drink. “It’s certainly making us think about our menu, what we offer, what’s that little bit different. In as far as the menu goes and what’s on offer, it’s got to be very good. Customers are also becoming very aware of the provenance of their food. We get a lot of questions about whether we make things in-house, or if we use a local bakery. Going forward people are seeing the importance of that collaboration, of local businesses working together.”
Linstead agrees that community is key when it comes to the café culture of 2021 and beyond. “Coffee shops have become the community hubs that pubs once were. People are coming for that social interaction that previously they may only have found in a pub. We are getting more and more demand from people who aren’t necessarily going out and drinking but they want to go out and have a coffee into the evening. I think that will continue to grow so we’re also looking at our opening hours and potentially opening into the early evening.”
Alongside this, there’s the demand from people who want to work from coffee shops, he says – something which is going nowhere – meaning café culture increasingly involves catering for that need, from providing connectivity and plug sockets, to thinking about how your offering caters for people using your café as a base to work from.”
The growing interest from people in where their coffee comes from and how it’s made is connected to what Giuliano calls a global interest in “variety and excitement in coffee”, from diverse coffee preparations and beverages like cold brew.
For Ed Parkes, founder and director of London-based The Gentlemen Baristas, which this year is opening two new locations in central London, Bruton Place in Mayfair and a new flagship store on Piccadilly, individuality is key. Asked what the customer of 2021 wants from the cafés of today compared to what people wanted previously, his answer is simple. “The age of copy and paste coffee house – people don’t want that any more.”
Like many other café owners, Parkes has seen that lockdown caused people to invest more in local and independent and specialist coffee houses. He sees the café culture of the future as drawing on a range of attributes – from an exploration of specialist coffee to that all-important community and customer experience.
“For some people, lockdown has meant buying specialist coffee to drink at home and people expect more. It’s the sourdough effect. They want to buy quality coffee with more people exploring more roasts. We hope this trend will continue.” While Parkes’ focus is on The Gentlemen Baristas’ London coffee houses, there are also plans to expand its roastery in 2022 to meet growing demand as customers explore their love of coffee.
“The new roastery will be the epitome of The Gentlemen Baristas Coffee experience which will be a place for people to come and see what we do – for novices and aficionados. We like to cater for what people like and ensure we have a broad range for everyone. It goes back to day one when we decided to offer a friendly and informative service and fight against what we call baristocracy. What you taste will be different to what I taste. We want to educate people but get their feedback too and converse with people on coffee – it’s so subjective.”
Yet while specialist coffee, education and expanded offerings are all important, for many in the industry it all comes back to experience – and community. “Coffee consumption continues to grow, and it seems that the café’s role as a community centre, as well as a provider of good food and drink, will continue to be important to neighbourhoods of all kinds,” he says.
For Parkes, that element of community is more important than ever in a world still reeling from the events of the past 18 months. “We are all about great customer service and being well-mannered means being friendly to our customers, respectful to our suppliers and generous to our neighbours,” he adds. “It means being upstanding behind the counter and in the community. It means always thinking about others, and this is more important than ever in a post pandemic world.”
Learn more about what’s in store for cafés and discover great stocking ideas by downloading Café Buyer here.