Welcome to the Independent Era

27 August 2020, 07:47 AM
  • Trading is tough, but a wave of support for independently-owned cafés can help your business
Welcome to the Independent Era

Have you ever wished your café concession had the buying power of Costa, or the advertising clout of Starbucks? If so the last few months may have given you cause to rethink your ambitions. After all, while Pret a Manger is cutting up to 1,000 jobs and Cafe Rouge is closing branches, plenty of independently-owned cafés are reaping the goodwill from communities changed by Covid-19.

Indie spirit
“People want to see a small business grow and succeed,” says Edwin Harrison of Artisan Coffee, explaining how his own business pivoted to retail when the closure of his clutch of cafés in Ealing, East Sheen and Stamford Brook left him with a surplus of home-roasted coffee beans. His Curious Roo brand of beans was an emergency answer to a cashflow problem, and sold from the back of Edwin’s car, but reopening the cafés post-lockdown the artisan team has met plenty of support. “What we have seen is customers are very, very keen to support their independent local businesses right now. They’re almost buying things because they know it’ll help. The spend for our average takeaway transaction has actually increased post-Corona. That’s been great, and surprising. People are really proud, in a funny sort of way, to be involved in the recovery.”

Indeed, Covid-19 has been a wake-up call for many communities faced with losing their most precious amenities: the cafés and coffee shops that service their addiction to caffeine and café culture. The figures are clear: three out of five consumers actively chose to support local businesses during lockdown, according to data from Deloitte Digital. Research from Funding Circle shows that two thirds of consumers believed lockdown helped them realise how important independent businesses are to their lifestyle. Anecdotally small businesses talk of an outpouring of appreciation for their services; it’s funny how a few weeks without professionally-steamed milk can sharpen customers’ loyalty to their local café.

People power
Your business will never have the HR churn of a Caffé Nero or Coffee Republic, and good thing too. The value of your team – the relationships they build and the skill they deploy – has never been more important for helping your café get back to busy-ness. The bond between barista and customer is neatly illustrated at Artisan, where Edwin and wife Magda have found appreciation for their staff expressed in sterling.“The biggest fear we had when all this was first kicking off, before the furlough scheme was heard of, was ‘What are the team going to do?’” explains Edwin. “We set up a website and said ‘Donate what you like and you’ll get a bag of our coffee beans - all the money will go to supporting our teams’. Between the four shops the customers raised £20,000 to support the teams. That goes to the heart of community loyalty; people really wanted to support their local independents. And, specifically, the people who worked there: the person who has greeted them with a smile for the last two years, who knows exactly how they like their milk steamed. Before furlough customers realised those people were at risk and they dug deep, they really did.”

Provenance and premiumisation
Of course, a café attached to your fine food business is the perfect place to showcase your products, and let customers taste the difference between artisanal ingredient and the deeply mediocre offering to be found on the high street. And, with micro roasteries popping up in so many postcodes there’s never been a better time to offer customers a real taste of the region. Best of all, using professional equipment that few homeowners can stretch to is a great way to keep the loyalty flowing. “Coffee is a beautiful excuse to get out of the house,” says Edwin. “People working from home escape their one-desk loft space for a breather, but also some beautifully steamed milk – that silky microfoam texture you only get out-of-home. Anyone can make great filter coffee at home; I think it’s the cappuccinos, lattes and flat whites that people really come for. And when you have your own roastery there’s an excitement that comes with it. People buy our beans for home, recommend us to others and give our beans as gifts.” Coffee, after all, is a habitual behaviour strongly linked to an individual’s ‘personal myth’ – the stories they tell themselves and others about who they are. “We see the same people every day,” says Edwin. “We get to know their order before we know their names. People missed their coffee and they’re now they’re queuing to enjoy it again.”

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