There are five Pret a Mangers between the Houses of Parliament (Westminster) and the Royal Courts of Justice (Temple). I know because the other day I walked between these two buildings - a distance of just over one mile - and counted. That's about one Pret for every 400 metres. The proliferation of Prets might just be a London phenomenon: around 250 of the approximately 300 Pret outlets in the UK are London based. Nonetheless, citizens (and indeed tourists) throughout the UK will notice the abundance of the 'big four' coffee shops: Pret, Starbucks, Caffè Nero and Costa (whilst maybe also appreciating the ambiguity of the term 'coffee shop' and the fact these chains don't just serve coffee). There are 50 Costas in Manchester alone for instance.
Perhaps there's nothing problematic about the noticeability of the big four. Surely these chains wouldn't be so abundant, were they not very good? Maybe customers are drawn in and kept there by their claims. They produce the "freshest" coffee around that is of course "organic" and "ethically and sustainably sourced". They are on remarkably intimate terms with the coffee growers they use, despite the exotic and remote locations the growers reside in. They can with some justification boast about their Corporate Social Responsibility efforts. It's not just the customers that approve. Some petrol stations are so enamoured that they claim to be "proud to serve Costa coffee."
But the banality of the free market idea which says we must passively accept the choices of adults because otherwise they wouldn't make them ignores that we will often go to one of the big four because of their convenience and omnipresence, rather than their quality. They are there, near our work, or on the route home. All adults are susceptible to succumbing to what's around them, even if they might like the idea of an independent shop. I certainly am frequently guilty of this. What Alain de Botton writes about advertising could be applied to coffee chains: "we are all fragile in our commitments and suffer from a weakness of will in relation to the siren calls of advertising." Convenience numbs the desire for novelty.
It's also pretty tenuous to argue coffee chains are anything but underwhelming. The coffee is often hideously overpriced. Usually, they suffer from a lack of power points so no chance there to charge your phone or laptop. Despite the diuretic capacities of caffeine, a solitary loo that is often pretty rancid serves the whole shop. People frequently stroll into a Starbucks solely to go to the loo. Long ques form, bladders are squeezed, and when the door is opened to let someone else have their turn, an odour of toilet fumes shroud unsuspecting latte sippers.
It would be puritanical indeed to say that the aesthetics of our surroundings are an irrelevance for our soul and wellbeing. Many local coffee shops have their own style, layout and feel. When in a Costa or a Pret, a Nero or a Starbucks,their bland uniformity means you could be anywhere in the country. An appreciation of a sense of place, of local identity, is lost. Certain parts of the UK have distinct identities partly because they've managed to eschew the coffee chain behemoth. Kemp Town in Brighton proudly boasts many fine local coffee shops. Its quirkiness might be lost if a Pret popped up. The beautiful Shambles in York (a.k.a. Diagon Alley), which boasts a few fine independent cafes, would be ruined if a Caffè Nero emerged. Sherborne high street has some splendid local coffee shops (though a Costa has manged to sneak in). Compare these to the high streets of historic towns such as Tonbridge or Windsor, that have been saturated by coffee chains (as well as other numerous chains) and with it a part of its local distinctiveness lost.
An independent coffee shop can generate a sense of community that is a lot harder (if not impossible) in coffee chains. Members of the public often talk each other. Rapport can be built up between customer and shop owner or barista. The owner of Coffee Wake Up in Clapham is an utterly wonderful Italian man who recently stamped with frenzy my loyalty card to make up for closing a few minutes early to collect his mum from the airport. The value of such places goes beyond the coffee and can't be quantified in narrow monetary terms.
Coffee is growing in popularity in the UK. A nation famed for being reliant on tea is now increasingly taken by coffee. People are spending more time and more money in coffee shops, even if overall coffee consumption isn't growing. According to Berenberg, five years ago, one in nine people visited a coffee shop daily. Now, it is more like one in five. The coffee shop sector is one of the success stories of the UK economy in recent years, and it will continue to expand.
Four mediocre coffee chains are threatening consumer choice and undermining room for creativity and dynamism within this growing industry. This isn't some anti-capitalism rant. It's about fairness and quality. Growth of coffee chains isn't contingent on the quality of the coffee shop service provided - as it should be - but instead assisted by the various business advantages they enjoy: their spread is facilitated by hordes of accountants they can employ that facilitate tax avoidance. Starbucks paid no corporation tax between 2010 and 2012 and is still undertaking disreputable tax activities. Caffè Nero paid no corporation tax in 2013. This skewed competition undermines the capacities for independent, local coffee shops to set up and thrive.
It should be emphasised that chain coffee shops are still in the minority, both in terms of number of outlets and accounting for less than half of the turnover. But if the coffee shop industry continues to proliferate, this raises the question of whether there are to be even more Prets, Starbucks, Neros and Costas. It's often claimed that public space should be value neutral. But this ignores the impact businesses have on their surroundings. Would we rather coffee shop chains which perpetuate uniformity and individualism? Or local coffee shops which are unique, that can generate community and local identity? There is a clear decision point which can be identified: businesses must apply to councils to set up coffee shops. Councils should give preferential treatment to local businesses, rather than acquiescing to coffee chains.
The coffee shop has a romanticised place in history. It's been claimed of coffee that it helped spread the Enlightenment, as newly intellectualised tradesmen and entrepreneurs discussed new and subversive ideas in coffee houses. What positive change could be generated in the UK if there were more local coffee shops? A common disappointment in the UK is a loss of a sense of community and networks among citizens. Could the humble local coffee shop help to reverse this trend?