A new dawn for independent cafés

21 October 2021, 07:02 AM
  • Ellen Manning finds that, despite the hardship of the past 18 months, the indie coffee scene is determined to come back stronger
A new dawn for independent cafés

This article was originally published in Café Buyer 2021. Download a free copy here.

During the lockdowns of 2020, the sight of people doing their ‘daily exercise’, takeaway coffee in hand, either alone or with a friend, became a regular one and something that meant more than a simple caffeine fix. For many people, their local café became a lifeline, doling out hot drinks alongside words of comfort when we needed it most. Before the COVID crisis hit, research by Allegra World Coffee Portal’s Rise of Independents UK 2019 report revealed that there were 7,022 independent cafés serving up more than 10.5 million cups of coffee each week in the UK, with an estimated value of £2.4 billion. At the time, the report forecast that the sector would grow to exceed 8,000 outlets by 2024. Probably a reasonable assumption, if it weren’t for a global pandemic. Independent café owners will readily admit that they have faced a challenging 18 months, with some wondering whether they’d make it. But for many, the obstacles of the past year-and-a-half have forced adaptations and changes that haven’t just seen them survive, but come back stronger than ever.

Among the many changes brought about by the COVID crisis is a change to the way we drink and appreciate coffee in the UK, says Paul Rooke, executive director at the British Coffee Association (BCA). Research carried out by the BCA before the pandemic, he says, found that 50% of the UK’s coffee was consumed at home, 30% in the workplace and 20% ‘out of home’ – providing a huge contribution in income due to its margins. “The question is how has that picture changed,” says Rooke. “We are hoping to re-do that piece of work, but it’s fairly obvious that that out-of-home sector, whether restaurants, cafés or coffee shops, got hammered in the early stages of lockdown.” Despite that, Rooke is optimistic when it comes to independent cafés, with an upturn in footfall following the lifting of restrictions combined with the pivotal role coffee plays in our lives as well as its flexibility all helping. “Coffee is quite easy in a way – you don’t have to stay in the building to drink it and cafés have not had to worry quite as much about finding people somewhere to sit. Coffee is a social thing, a café is a place to sit and chat, do some work, meet up - there’s a social element and people are keen to get back to that.”

Adapt to survive

They may have benefited from people’s refusal to do without their coffee, but that didn’t mean cafés didn’t have to adapt to survive. “Yes, some businesses had an online presence before March 2020 but a lot that didn’t had one very quickly thereafter and have been quite innovative in how they have managed to retain their original customers or win over new customers,” continues Rooke. The use of online marketing, whether through websites or social media, helped people discover the local, independent cafés that they may previously have overlooked, simultaneously winning those cafés new, loyal customers, he says.

Adaptation is something Lydia Papaphilippopulos-Snape, owner of Warwick Street Kitchen in Leamington Spa and Saint Kitchen in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, experienced firsthand. Asked how it felt when she was first told to close her doors, she is frank. “I can’t put it any more eloquently than it being a case of taking a business that is reliant on people coming into your space in their droves, as many as possible, and not being able to have them in your space. And fundamentally trying to figure out how to get your product to them in a way that still makes sense to you and your business.”

For Papaphilippopulos-Snape, there were several challenges. First, two different businesses in two different areas with different audiences. “Warwick Street Kitchen had its hardcore community and fans while Saint Kitchen was a fledgling business that had only been trading for a couple of months and we were still building that community. That meant we had to go about it differently.” They tackled Warwick Street Kitchen first, basing plans on the assumption that lockdown would last longer than the few weeks originally hoped for. “On day one of lockdown we said, ‘okay, we’re going to have to get on board with a delivery platform, which is it going to be?’” They had previously shied away from such platforms, wanting people to ‘take a moment’ and enjoy the café experience.

But Papaphilippopulos-Snape admits that when faced with the situation presented by March 2020, the question wasn’t whether or not to start using one, but how to do it in a way that would fit with their business and values. “We didn’t want to mindlessly throw food in boxes. We wanted to do it in a way that made us proud.” As well as switching to an online operation and delivery system, there had to be a full re-costing of the menu, taking into account things like packaging and delivery charges. When it came to Saint Kitchen, the first step was to build an audience that didn’t exist. “It was a case of being there for people. Where we are there are a lot of one and two-bedrooms flats, so lots of people living alone who felt isolated. We were on their daily walk, and being open helped them. There were days where it made zero sense for us to be open, the spreadsheets were all red, but I thought, ‘this is why we do this’.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Papaphilippopulos-Snape feels that they have emerged from the pandemic in a strong position – especially for Saint Kitchen which has now built its own community by being there for people when they needed it most. Some changes they were forced to make have become permanent fixtures, from celebration cakes to outside catering as well as more ‘back office’ changes. “Historically we said no to delivery platforms because it wasn’t what we were about. We wanted people to slow down, take time and have a real break. But with this, on a quiet rainy day when people don’t want to leave the house we can still serve them. Why would you turn that off?” Similarly, embracing technology like video conferencing, usually associated with more corporate settings, has allowed them to work more efficiently. The situation has also forced them to focus on the customer experience – sticking to table service and providing people with a really special experience that they’ve been missing for so long, she adds.

For Rooke, the general appreciation of small businesses that has grown during the pandemic has benefited cafés and is something he hopes will last. “I think people at the moment have appreciated small businesses much more and local business and the fact that the high street does mean more to them than perhaps it did 18-20 months ago. How long that continues and whether coffee will outlive some of the other elements of the high street is yet to be seen, but it’s certainly there at the moment.”

Retailer focus

Lorna Jackson, owner of Real Meals Deli & Café in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, experienced similar emotions to Papaphilippopulos-Snape when she was ordered to close her doors for the first time in 20 years.

“You don’t imagine anyone is going to ring you one day and tell you to close your doors. At one point I wondered if we would ever open them again. There’s no manager to ring, no head office to call and ask what to do – it’s just you. Then you’ve got all your staff who are looking to you.”

Like other businesses, Jackson pivoted, supplying groceries including fresh fish and veg to locals who were struggling to get delivery slots. But the coffee machines stayed off. “To turn them on and clean and service them was just too expensive when we couldn’t guarantee an income. Plus we had to furlough most of our experienced staff.” Coffee returned in 2020 alongside takeaway food like quiches and cakes but not everything is back to ‘normal’, she says. “The business has always been like coming to someone’s house - tables in the middle and shelves round the outside, so someone might have to lean past you to look at a sauce or chutney, but that kind of ambience just doesn’t work now.” But it’s not all doom and gloom - with a new opportunity to create outside space helping them emerge stronger. “A partial road closure has allowed us to expand our outdoor seating,” says Jackson. “We used some of our government grant money for bamboo screens, picnic tables, planters, and it looks really good which is attracting people. We’re a seaside town, so if people come here they usually head straight to the beach but now they’re heading here. We’ve always had our own following - hence being here 20 years – but this attracts visitors in a way we never have before. Since Easter it’s been busier than ever.”

Image courtesy of Ritual Visuals

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