A coffee vs commerce conundrum

Jannel Therese Blank Street

“Six pounds for a cup of tea and you don’t even get a china cup!” This complaint was quoted to me some 30 years ago by my friend G; his mum aghast at the price of a cuppa in some National Trust cafe or other. Yet it’s a refrain that auto-plays all too frequently in my head when I pass any number of overpriced chain coffee outlets. Especially in the last two years when the premiumisation of, well, everything has played out in the world’s fashionable metros.

At WatchHouse (below), a new-ish UK coffee chain, you do get a lovely ceramic cup. The chain is notable for its upscale Aesop-esque branding (its design team is headed by a former Aesop designer), superior snacks, well-mannered baristas and several-steps-up-from-Starbucks hospitality area. It’s the go-to pit-stop for the entrepreneurial generation. WatchHouse sells a good range of coffee produced from its own roastery. A cappuccino costs £3.60 and it’s a cashless business. Yes, plenty of businesses are cashless these days (it’s not illegal in the UK), but its non-inclusiveness irks me. I can’t help feeling that coffee compared to, say, a Gucci dress, should be accessible to all.

Watch House Coffee
Watchhouse Coffee Hanover Square
Watchhouse Hanover

While millennial side hustlers and flexi-workers graduate from Starbs to WatchHouse for their pitch meetings, Gen Z has its own new destination coffee spot. Blank Street Coffee, an American tech-bro funded chain that began as a coffee cart is infiltrating the UK, with two dozen outlets planned for London. Its USP? Tech-powered coffee machines that allow staff to focus on “customer service and hospitality”. Its compact pistachio green micro-cafes are located around subways and tube stations, aimed at on-the-go commuters and nano-influencers rather than laptop lingerers.

It’s a good example of a new wave of coffee culture, borne of Gen Z’s syrup-laced iced drinks that are more about the #vibes and #aesthetic than coffee itself. Its merch line and recent collab with TikTok royalty Emma Chamberlain are perfectly suited to the kind of person for whom coffee-drinking is their entire personality.

Blank Street coffee cart
Blank Street Mai Castro
Blank Street Coffee in London - coffee shop counter with pastries

At £2.90 for a takeaway cappuccino, Blank Street is pitched as affordable (for when you just want ‘good enough’ coffee to go). Yet in reality there are mere pennies difference between them and their London chain neighbours. In comparison, the legendary Monmouth Coffee Company cappuccino costs £3.10 and my local indies also charge around £3. Where WatchHouse coffee is actually good – but pricy – Blank Street is unapologetically style over substance. Blank Street has also attracted criticism for its aggressive expansion, often opening opposite (and eventually forcing out) neighbourhood independents and authentic mom-and-pop joints.

But so what? Why should anyone care? Business is business, right?

Well, I care because normalising this mediocre-quality-high-aesthetic approach in which coffee is a mere fashion accessory sets the bar for copycats to come along and charge similarly elevated prices for sub-par product (Blank Street Coffee is essentially a fancy vending machine). Add in the merch line and community marketing and your coffee-as-lifestyle-brand is complete. Indeed, WatchHouse courts its customers as not only members of its community but as crowdfunding investors, seemingly via the email sign-up for its free wi-fi. It’s pretty savvy I must admit. If you’re a fan of your daily caffeine dealer, it’s quite the flex to play investor bro and potentially reap rewards while showing your support.

However, the romantic idealist in me can’t help finding it all somewhat cynical. I mean, compare it with this genuine coffee-and-community story I read on Instagram recently. The fabulous Gene Krell spotted a lone coffee truck in remote Japanese countryside and was compelled to talk to the owner. He discovered Jin-Pei Arakawa, a senior widowed gentleman who was passionate about coffee. “He felt the ideal way to conquer his solitude was to build a coffee wagon and travel the countryside. Making friends, talking to people and above all hearing their stories, it was as though they were extended family. And when he sees them enjoy his coffee, he feels it has given them something to remember.” The whole story is ridiculously wholesome and needless to say, Mr Arakawa’s coffee was really good.

Anyway, my disaster scenario may yet come to pass. According to WWD, the cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation mean 53% of millennials and Gen Z will spend less on non-essentials in the near future. That may mean the end of £4 pistachio lattes and iced chocolate orange mochas. And perhaps a return to decent, but accessible coffee as part of our everyday ritual and not a luxury flex.

WORDS: Disneyrollergirl / Navaz Batliwalla
IMAGES: Jannel Therese; WatchHouse Coffe x 3; Ballupbrian; Mai Castro; Blank Street Coffee
NOTE: Most images are digitally enhanced. Some posts use affiliate links and PR samples. Please read my privacy and cookies policy here

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