In 2002, I visited a community café in Market Rasen in Lincolnshire – I was helping to set up something similar in the Cambridgeshire Fens at the time. The entrepreneurial organisers of the café – Arena – had recently paid £2,000 for an Italian coffee maker (a machine, not a barista) and I’m not sure they didn’t have to import it direct from Italy.
I use their purchase – a bold and costly investment at that time – in marketing courses as an example of a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) that differentiated Arena from the other two cafes in the town – a greasy spoon and a teashop with doyleys. (If you’re too young to know what doyleys or greasy spoons are, look them up). They made excellent coffee at a time when that was hard to find, particularly in a market town, and people used to travel from far and wide for Arena’s continental offering. But that wasn’t all; the baristas taught their customers how to use the machine and had them judge each other’s brews. ‘Barista of the Week’ posters adorned the walls of the café.
I’m sorry to report that the Arena Café closed in 2009 after the best part of a decade, so it looks like their USP had a limited shelf-life.
Of course, excellent coffee wouldn’t be such a strong USP these days with coffee shops on every corner. The theory goes that everybody now has to make great coffee because customers expect it, right? And all the competition means cafes have to look after their customers or they close, right? And the best coffee shops are local and independent, right?
Well, no – not in my experience.
All I want from a high street coffee shop is decent coffee (but I’m easy to please…) and somewhere I can relax with no hassle from staff – so passive, reactive customer care does me fine. Which is not easy to find in many popular coffee and cake outlets where they want to get you out as quickly as possible once you’ve stopped spending. I once heard that a famous burger chain tilted their seats forward slightly to discourage customers from staying too long, but that may be an urban myth.
So, I’m happy to commend a chain of coffee shops – Costa – for treating their customers like adults, and for being friendly and laid back. My day-job means I meet enterprising young people for 1-2-1 advice sessions on a regular basis. A coffee shop is ideal – a public place where they can relax, stay out of the cold, and get a hot drink. Costa coffee shops are particularly suitable because they’re ubiquitous, accessible, usually have enough space and, above all, the staff are relaxed about me staying all day to meet a steady stream of visitors.
In practice I introduce myself when I arrive and explain what I’m doing. They seem to be genuinely interested – one manager wanted me to take a look at his business plan (part of my job) for a new venture, another offered commiserations when two young people failed to turn up. In every location I’ve been to, the staff have let me set up a tab and I pay for all the drinks when I leave. They haven’t learnt my name yet or started making my regular drink (medium Americano in a takeaway cup since you ask…) as I walk through the door, but that might come with time.
Another way to build your reputation is through consistently good service (assuming you have a winning formula). A recent return to a Costa coffee shop was just as I’d hoped – the manager welcomed me; said he remembered me from last time (I bet he says that to everyone) then left me well alone until it was time to pay.
Afterword: Yes, I know the chain is run by a hospitality conglomerate, I know that their coffee shops are franchises, but I still want to drink to their continued success.