When businesses get big

Photograph by Emily Wilkinson. Coffee in Birds Cafe, Cape Town.

I was surprised to hear a friend talking about the social conscience of Starbucks the other day so I googled the Radio 4 interview with CEO Howard Schultz, who joined the company in 1982 when it only had 3 coffee shops to its name, to listen and judge for myself whether I should change my view of the mighty coffee emporium.

I already had a post about customer service in coffee houses in mind but couldn’t have found a more perfect comment from Schultz to illustrate it.

He said: “The challenge for any company that gets big is how do you get big and stay small? How do you maintain intimacy with the customer and the people that work for your company… as well as constant levels of innovation?”

Exactly. Tricky.

While I was in Cape Town I became a regular at new-ish coffee shop/ venture Truth Coffee Cult in Green Point. Not only do they do great flat whites, have free wifi and were just round the corner from where we were staying, but I liked their ethos (coffee as a religion), approach (including flat pack, eco-friendly tables) and interest in their customers (asking for feedback about how to make things better).

I have to say this with a sense of context – in Africa people greet strangers and customers in a far more friendly way than I’m used to in London where everyone seems to have I’ve-got-so-much-to-do, no-time-to-delay, lives. Dare to forget the “Hello, how are you?” in Africa and you’re instantly the foreigner.

Anyway, it was at Truth while talking to the *friendly* barista that I found out that Britain’s best barista used to make my morning flat white at his stall on Whitecross Street in London. I was in Borneo at the time of the award, but how typical that I should find out so far away from home and nearly a year later.

The Whitecross coffee stall is the epitome of a friendly morning coffee experience. Gwilym (best barista winner 2009) knew me (I write in the past tense as I don’t work near there anymore so am rarely in the neighbourhood to pop by for a coffee) as the girl on the Pashley and noticed straight away when I got my new bike. Everyone who works at the stall always stops for a chat regardless of the lengthening queue or not. Customers that are in a rush and aren’t coffee snobs don’t last long.

One of the baristas said when I returned one morning after being away for over 5 months, “you’ve been away”, and I don’t think it was just my tan that gave it away! In a large city like London, feeling like you’re part of a community is so important. A coffee cult. I think someone’s already snapped that one up!

Schultz talks too about the sense of community you get from coffee shops, saying that Starbucks provides for people what pubs in the UK do – a third place between home and work.

In London, my other, local, independent coffee house/ brand is Monmouth. Fabulous coffee. Beautifully served. Great location in Borough Market. Fun experience. Not that big and not a corporate chain, but usually busy. Yet, do they recognise me or any of their other regular clientele and stop for a chat? Not that I’ve seen or experienced. Is it their size? Attitude? Busy-ness? Business? Perhaps they have just got that bit too big without keeping the small guys’ intimate approach.

To me, being the best coffee house isn’t just about getting the right temperature for the milk, perfecting coffee art, knowing your blends and sprezzatura (my new favourite word thanks to Seth Godin), it’s also about staying small no matter how big your brand gets.


As a PS, the following coffee shops deserve special mention for fellow coffee snobs:

Dose, Smithfields

Whitecross Street Market, Barbican

Federation Coffee, Brixton Village

Fernandez & Wells, Soho

As for Starbucks, I can’t make a recommendation. I never touch the stuff.


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4 Responses to “When businesses get big”

  1. Emily Wilkinson Says:

    Nice post George. I second the shout-out for my local Federation Coffee! I like all these smaller independent chains that are concentrating on a really, really good product and amazing customer service (and not much else).

    Coffee at Bird’s was possibly my number one coffee experience ever, and so beautiful I nearly wept.

    Also is the world is finally coming to it’s senses and realising that coffee should be served in A SMALL CUP not a paper pint glass?

  2. georginacombes Says:

    Totally agree.

    It’s the art of the coffee making that matters not the ridiculous quantity of milky froth.

    I’ve just remembered what Lucy W said last Friday about Gwilym taking atmospheric pressure readings to determine how much to heat the milk…

    Perhaps it should be about the science of coffee making too!

  3. Emily Wilkinson Says:

    Yeah and Nick from Federation Coffee was talking about a course he’d been on just about the milk and how much to heat it! Definitely an Art, Science, Philosophy and Religion….finding the world in a cup of coffee hmmmmmmmmm ideas

  4. liz Says:

    Agree with you guys – Federation Coffee is outstanding and a real hit for Brixton. They ‘get’ coffee and make amazing drinks – i travel there every saturday for my coffee hit!

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