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You know I said I disliked Starbucks….?

 

So Starbucks are accused of tax avoidance in the UK – avoidance, not evasion as such. Unfortunately, avoidance is technically legal, just highly unethical. The HMRC are investigating, but a simplified version of events as far as I’ve read, is that they are recording losses every year with the UK (and Irish) Companies House, but then rerouting the profits back to its parent company in the US, and so avoid paying UK business taxes – and then the company officials have the audacity to boast about their profitability.

This is what happens when you spend money with multinational chains – the money does not stay in the local (or even the national) economy.

And the UK economy is suffering, the idiots in government are inflicting “austerity measures” to try and raise funds, schools and libraries are closing, welfare is being cut, and Starbucks hasn’t paid a penny in tax for three years, and STILL charges the taxpayer £3 for a burnt coffee-themed milkshake.

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Starbucks Via and why I should have done a Physics degree

I am sitting in Starbucks again, contemplating the two cardboard cups in front of me.

posterI am here wearing my metaphorical “suffering academic” hat; this is all in the name of research. Somewhere along the line I have gotten myself on the Starbucks UK mailing list, and lo and behold, I received an invite to the Starbucks Via Taste Test. They are launching their new product, called Via, which although has no mention of being “instant” coffee, comes in single-cup satchets and is completely soluable. Yep, they are figuratively – and literally – scraping the bottom of the barrel and selling instant coffee. Three sticks of the stuff will set you back £1.20 (at the introductory rate, £1.45 in a few weeks’ time.), and I am assured it is made from “100% natural roasted arabica beans – the same high quality as all our coffee.” Now, we can “never be without great coffee” thanks to Via Ready Brew – as if I am going to carry sticks of instant “coffee” around in my bag, like tampons or something.

Starbucks “believe Via tastes as delicious as our fresh filter coffee. But don’t take our word for it. Try it yourself.” they beg. The Taste Challenge involved being given two free ‘tall’ cups (that is code for ‘small’ in here, or “not-served-in-a-bucket” to everyone this side of the Atlantic). One contains their Colombian single origin filter coffee, and the other this Via stuff which is apparently made from the same Colombian beans. Could I tell the difference?
Well yes, of course I could.

The whole ‘blind’ test idea was rendered obsolete as soon as the poor barista had to stir the soluable stuff for me, but even if I had attempted this blindfolded, the differences were immediately obvious.
I can’t be sure on this, but I am fairly confident that the process employed to make coffee soluable results in the loss of any natural fragrance and aroma of the brewed drink, and certainly a great deal of the flavour. Consequently, as I mentioned in my recent rant about Nescafe, any aromas that are present in instant coffee must therefore be chemically added back in afterwards. This is exactly how Starbucks Via smells – artificial. My nose maybe going in to overdrive at the moment with pregnancy hormones, but I could smell coffee candles – that artificially sweet scent with vanilla and malt that makes up most coffee-esque air fresheners and scented candles. As it cooled, I swear I could smell powdered vegetable soup as well. Definitely not natural. On the other hand, the filter smelled extremely citrussy and mildly alcoholic, like dry white wine – to my (limited) knowledge of cupping, that implies overly acidic coffee and possibly over-fermented beans where the cherries have been left on too long.
On tasting it, the Via taste liked instant coffee. There are few other ways of describing it. Flat. Smooth. Not incredibly bitter, almost waxy, if that means anything. And no aftertaste at all – it doesn’t linger in the mouth. The Colombian filter tasted very very bitter in contrast – stronger tasting all round, but with an acrid aftertaste – like the flavour you get in your mouth when you smell burning rubber. It also tasted very “thin” which to my mind, most single origins do. But the overwhelming flavour and smell was just BURNT. In my opinion, Starbucks burn their coffee anyway – that is the way they can guarantee the same flavour in every batch of coffee in every shop in the world. They bake the coffee to effectively flatten any nuances in the beans, to keep the flavours consistant. But even so, the filter was especially burnt – the roast was far, far too dark for filter coffee.

I have to admit I am now feeling bad about not liking this. Whatever else I can say about this place, the staff are lovely and I kinda feel obliged to enjoy my Third Place experience, or something….Yes, I am weak.
One barista has just said she can’t tell the difference between the Via and the filter!!! I am keenly following other people’s views on this on the Starbucks Facebook page too. There are many, already, who “failed” the taste challenge, and couldn’t tell the difference. This actually frightens me. However, after experiences in Sheffield over the past few days, I am now rekindling my interest in what non-coffee-geek people actually think. I have always tried to avoid customers’ opinions throughout my PhD research because they are just messy, most of the time, and so much has been written on coffee shop culture already. Yet, if I am going to look at ideas of quality, I need to find out if that quality is recognised, appreciated and demanded by consumers. The basic premise of my thesis was that in order to produce high quality coffee, more has to be wasted in the process. But if customers do not actually recognise ‘quality’ and don’t necessarily demand it, then the waste cannot be justified and the extra effort that goes into improving the quality is also wasted. And then we are back to my (now infamous) question at the Ohio conference: Why not let them drink crap if they want to?

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get invited to see Pollards coffee roasters in Sheffield (actually thanks to a throw-away comment on this blog! yay!). hooverSimon, the owner, seems to be a kindred spirit – ie: equally cynical about many aspects of the coffee industry and proved very very interesting to talk to. The roasting is done on a very hands-on basis still, using roasting machines which are “partially” computer controlled. The computer monitored the time, temperature and energy consumption of the roasting beans, and the roast profile for that particular batch was neatly plotted on a graph on the screen in a neat curve. As the beans roasted, the computer plotted another line showing the actual temperatures of the beans – it was pretty close, although with a few extra wobbles – thanks to the proportion of the blend that came from Honduras, apparently. I asked Simon how he had learned to roast, and all the intricacies that go with it (he had also designed a roaster machine that could potentially run off vegetable oil, and made an ingenious contraption out of plastic piping and a hoover to move the roasted beans around the workshop without breaking any – and saved himself £25,000 in the process). He said most of his knowledge was as a result of his physics degree!! NOW I know where I’ve been going wrong, messing around with arts and social sciences for all these years…..

On the subject of academic research, however, Simon is very keen to do the Quality Test. That is, to get a goodly sized sample of coffee drinkers together, and do a taste challenge a la Starbucks, only offering one very high quality coffee and one low quality (based on price of the beans involved from origin – he will do the roasting and it’ll all be espresso based.). Basically, we want people to tell us which one tastes better to them. This should tell us once and for all, if your average coffee consumer actually notices and prefers “high quality”. This could be EXTREMELY handy for me too – not just for my research, but also for the Doc Coffee van. All being well, I could print posters like Costa’s – 80% of people prefer high quality (Costa advertise the fact 7 out of 10 “coffee lovers” prefer Costa. Tested on 174 people. In Glasgow.). And if the cheaper blend is preferred, I shall jack it all in and buy up loads of Starbucks Via for the van…. ye gads I hope not!!! To this end, I am planning on getting something together at the uni – I’ll hire a room there, Pollards will supply the coffees and the espresso machine, I can bring cups and round up coffee drinking students and university staff. We’ll do this over two days, and it would be great to get over 100 people. I’ll be plugging this as much as possible when we’ve decided a time so if you’re at all interested and fancy a couple of free coffees then pleeeeeeeeeease get in touch, come along, and give us your opinions!

On that note, if you’ve done the Starbucks Via Taste Challenge, PLEASE give your views on here! I’d be really interested to hear from you. Thanks all!

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Making sense of the Roaster/Retailer relationships: Caffe Nero

My mission at the moment is to investigate all these ideas of quality and waste in the next stage of coffee production – I’ve seen the farms, now I’m supposed to be visiting the roasters. Easier said than done. I need to know: can roasters improve the quality of coffee? what do they actually do that adds value? what skills are required? What, if anything, is wasted during roasting, and how? what happens to this waste? Finally, and perhaps most specifically, I need to follow up with the retailers of this coffee – why do they choose this style of roast? What do coffee shop owners look for when they find roasters and coffee suppliers? What do they believe is a good quality roast? Is this even important to them?

I wanted to start with Caffe Nero, because in some respects I think it would be a simpler process, but also with perhaps clearer ideas of ‘quality’. Caffe Nero are alone amongst the big chain coffee shops in that they are the only chain which does not roast it’s own coffee; instead, Coburg coffee roasters do it for them. Starbucks has its own roasters, Costa has coffee roasted for them by another branch of the Whitbread group which is essentially the same company. Caffe Nero, however, pride themselves on selling ‘the best espresso this side of Milan’, have apparently designed their own secret blend and roast, but pay an independent company to actually supply the goods. I want to know why.

Coburg, (like many roasting companies in my experience so far), remain elusive. Consequently, the following train of thought is based almost entirely on guess work until I can actually get to see them in person.

Something like this.

Something like this.

I am very intrigued by the relationship between Coburg and Caffe Nero. There is a guy who works for Caffe Nero head office who I have spoken to briefly about all this. He is apparently a ‘buyer’ for the company, and has been for nearly ten years. In all other circumstances, coffee buyers are the people who travel out to coffee producing regions, engage in cupping sessions,  and suggest a price based on their judgement of the coffee’s quality. But if Coburg are roasting for Nero (and as far as I am aware, Coburg also import all this coffee, for Nero, their own label, and for other companies- most notably, Mokarabica, which Gusto Italiano use for their independent shop in Sheffield) – and the roast has been designed specifically for Nero which is what they claim, then why do Nero need a buyer themselves? And why do they need to employ one continously for ten years? What does that guy actually do?

Unless of course, Nero change not only the farms from which they buy their coffee from, but also the roast profile they/Coburg use for the Secret Nero Blend, on a regular basis. This then gives the buyer something to do, but it throws up more questions – do they change it because the coffee harvest varies so much? Can people tell if they have changed the coffee? I’ve never noticed, but then I do notice if it has been made well or badly, or just differently to usual. Am I tasting a difference in the skill of the barista in making the espresso, or a difference in the roast and origin of the coffee itself?  Essentially, I still need to ascertain how important the roasting is to the taste of the final product. Does roasting well or badly, enhance or decrease the quality? And how exactly do you roast badly anyway?

As I said, so far, I haven’t heard a squeak out of Coburg, despite repeated attempts to go visit them. So, I turned my attention to figuring out what Caffe Nero managers actually know of the roasted coffee they serve every day. When I worked at Durham’s Caffe Nero branch, I askedthe manager where the coffee came from. He told me a company called Rizzi roasted it, and he reckoned it came from the Isle of Wight. This worried me a great deal when I first started this project – how on earth was I going to research on the Isle of Wight? Could I commute from Darlington?? I also found virtually nothing during google searches for “Rizzi”, and especially not when looking for links between coffee, Rizzi and Isle of Wight. In fact, it is very nearly a googlewhack. The only reference is to a Mr Mike Rizzi, who is a member of the Isle of Wight fencing club. And even more bizarrely, judging by the dates, I may even have met the guy when I used to fence at competition level. Utterly surreal. But aaaanyway….

By the time I worked at Darlington’s branch of Caffe Nero, I’d been promoted to Shift Leader. I asked the Darlington manager if she knew where the coffee came from, and she told me to just have a look when I had to open up the shop and take deliveries the next morning. Coffee arrived: in unmarked silver sealed bags, in an unmarked box with only the Use By date stamped on it. Not helpful. Further digging eventually led me to discover that Rizzi IS actually a coffee roaster, but it hasn’t existed as a company for many years. It is now owned entirely by Coburg. And they are not in fact based on the Isle of Wight, but on the Isle of Dogs – ie: Woolwich. Much easier to get to. The manager of Durham’s Caffe Nero is a Geordie, and I guess anything that far south is indistinguishable and Foreign. But it does not suggest a particularly close relationship between Nero’s retail staff and the roasters.

I have been contacted by someone who works at Caffe Nero, and has managed the seemingly impossible – visited the Coburg roasters. Given her current position, I will keep her anonymous. But interestingly, she was not very impressed. I quote:

“The guy that showed us… round, really didn’t know his stuff about coffee, he knew about prices, and what they were doing, but not about taste,seasonality, blends etc. I thought as a roaster, who stocked and roasted … he would be more knowledgeable on it. … I do know that Nero make up at least 75% of their [Coburg’s] business though. … their own brand coffee is pretty poor, and I don’t think they sell that much as only a small part of the warehouse is dedicated to its storage.”

She went on to say that the Nero coffee is roasted very quickly at extremely high temperatures (“blast roasted”) and can then be stored for up to a year before arriving at the Nero stores. Neither of these two facts suggest excellent quality to my knowledge. Sure, Nero prides itself on its ‘Italianess’ which usually means roasting the coffee to espresso strength, which is very dark, but it shouldn’t mean burning it. I was also taught (during the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe’s roasting workshop) that master roasters identify flavours within different batches of coffee – based on the altitude and year and geographical location – which can then be brought out and highlighted by roasting in a specific way. Even if Nero’s coffee is not blast roasted exactly, surely it should not be all roasted in the same manner, given that each batch from each harvest would be subtly different?

I cannot verify any of this yet until I actually visit Coburg for myself. Until then, I can only learn through comparisons. I know for certain that the independent roasters, Pumphreys in Newcastle, consider coffee roasting to be a highly skilled art. I’d love to know what they think of large scale roasting for a large chain, as with Coburg and Caffe Nero. What do they do differently, and why? For further comparison, there is of course, Starbucks, who do have their own roasting company within their vast empire. If Coburg are being so elusive, I imagine I would have major problems trying to visit Starbucks; instead, I can quote from Joseph Michelli’s exceedingly unctious book “The Starbucks Experience – 5 Principles of turning Ordinary into Extrordinary”:

There is no hidden inferior material at Starbucks. On the contrary, Starbucks epitomizes a company that has acheived amazing success by not compromising on quality. … The mission statement asserts that Starbucks partners will “apply the highest stardards of excellence to the purchasing, roasting and fresh delivery of our coffee.” To that end, Starbucks do what is necessart to meet or exceed their quality standards… The leaders are constantly researching and developing technologies and systems to improve the consistency of the company’s roasting process and the freshness of their coffee.

But that is it. That is the only reference to roasting in the whole book (and yes, I did actually endure reading the entire, excrutiating lot of it.). Roasting at Starbucks is performed, somehow, to high quality standards. Apparantly. But what those standards are, and how you actually go about acheiving them is not mentioned. Maybe roasting is such a skilled art, that to preserve its magic, it has to remain mysterious? We shall see!

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in Central America

(And the prize for best title goes to…sadly not me.)

I bought a wonderful book in  Rare and Racy, my most favourite book shop of all time, last summer in a fit of Must-Spend-Money-On-Something-Other-Than-Giant-Boots consumption-frenzy. It is: 
The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America by Michael Taussig

Not only am I extremely keen on that title, but the content is pretty good too. Today I finally got round to reading it, while sitting in Caffe Nero, supping espressos to refuel after a gym session. Along comes Grem. “Buy us a coffee??” he says. “Fat chance!” I reply. Pretty much the same opening lines that we use every time we meet. Greetings (!) dealt with, he then picks up my book. I have to explain that commodity fetishism does not mean what he thinks it means. It is not, or at least, very rarely is it “kinky.”. Grem looks disappointed. Next question: “What the fook’s “Cosmogenesis”? I mentally calculate whether the length of time it would take me to explain that would be longer than his attention span. Very probably. Sigh… this was not going to be a productive afternoon.

***

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in another cafe, drinking espressos as well. Only that place was Cafe Central in San Jose, Costa Rica. It is still very strange to think of it like that. In some ways I feel like I’ve been back for ages, but then, I don’t feel I’ve been away from Central America long enough yet to miss it too much. It both amazes and scares me how easily I seem to have just slotted back in to life in the UK – university work, home life reunited with Long-Suffering Husband, the smell of Ferret, mad, over-ambitious plans and my usual impatience – no place for Tiempo Nica here. And the more mundane stuff: gym sessions, entertaining teenagers, coffee in Nero.

A few weeks ago, I was at the cooperative that supplies some of Caffe Nero’s coffee, specifically, CooproNaranjo, who sell Nero the Costa Rican Peaberry coffee that they sell in bags in the stores, rather than the stuff that goes into their cappuccinos.See the bottom of the Caffè Nero Buy Online page. I’ve bought bags of those beans from Nero before, and it was pretty good. But on the farm, it was EXCEPTIONAL. Completely different tasting, and soooo much better. It could be due to the fact that the coffee hadn’t been transported halfway round the globe, and was very fresh indeed; but then, Nero buys it in green, and it is all roasted in the UK. Green coffee shouldn’t go stale during transportation – that is the point of shipping it green. So, it should be at least partly due to the roasting. In which case, I hope to be able to grill people (pun fully intended – sorry) at Coburg (the roasters) about it when I visit them this summer.

But the same applies to Starbucks too. I tried the coffee on a few of the farms that supply Starbucks, and it was Infinitely Better. Caffe Nero’s coffee isn’t great, but it’s not that bad either. Starbucks, in my opinion, is truly terrible. But it is not that they are buying in low quality coffee. Some of that stuff is world class. So, it all begs the question, What The Hell Do They Do To It To Make It Taste That Bad???

Methinks, they just burn the hell out of it. I have heard several coffee professionals refer to the place as “Charbucks” for that reason. My knowledge of coffee roasting is limited, but I do know that to mask the flavour of low quality coffee, you can just bake it – roast it at a lower temperature but for a longer time, which effectively flattens it all out. It gets rid of the bitter flavours of bad coffee, but it also kills off all the complex variations of good flavour in high quality arabicas. This is also why Costa Coffee’s ad campaign promoting their “slow roasted coffee” amuses my cynical little mind….

The people I met in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica moved me by their obvious passion for their coffee, and the pride they took in their work. But this was not the same thing as my own passion for coffee – they were talking about growing the absolute best coffee plants they could; about organic practices that protected and nurtured the plant and the soil, about harvesting techniques that boosted their crop yield, about working with cooperatives to provide for their families, or about branding their coffee so people would associate their name with high quality. Essentially, it is fetishised. But it was never about a passion for drinking the stuff. Coffee consumption was another world away. And that is exactly what I feel like right now. I am having real difficulty bringing my experiences in Central America together with sitting in Caffe Nero judging Stacey’s barista skills. “Coffee” means something so different depending on where you are, that it is hard to believe I am talking about the same little brown beans.

I do wonder if some of the farmers I met have any idea where their precious crop ends up, or any concept of barista championships or chain coffee shops or a decaf-one-shot-grande-white-choc-mocha-with-cream-and-no-syrup. In his book, Michael Taussig tells of Colombian sugar plantation workers who make a pact with the Devil so they can produce more sugar cane to make more money. This arises because sugar cane is a cash crop – the workers do not own the land they work, instead they are making money for someone else. They cannot subsist off their labour, because you cannot survive off sugar alone, and you cannot eat money. These farmers would prefer to grow food crops for themselves rather than farm sugar to make money to buy food from other people. It is far more logical, if you think about it. Capitalism is Satan’s banking!! Ahem. But having found themselves in this difficult situation, they makes deals with the Devil to try and improve their lot. Taussig’s accounts of this are literal – they visit sourcerers to help make these pacts and summon up demons and so on. Fascinating stuff.

Of course I am going to argue that some of the coffee farmers do the same. I never found any diabolical dealings in Nicaragua (sadly), but metaphorically, coffee farmers share the same plight. Coffee is still a cash crop, you can’t eat it. When coffee growing is fetishised to such an extent, when the farmers are so proud of what they do, do they worry that their precious crop ends up in Nescafe Instant or in an over-roasted blend in Charbucks? Or do they just want to sell it to the people who pay the most? (Probably not Starbucks either…) Is selling wonderful coffee to people who will burn it, like making a pact with Lucifer himself?

Incidently, when I started working at Caffe Nero, someone – probably Grem – pointed out that if working at Starbucks was akin to selling your soul to the Devil, then what does that make working for Nero?;

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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Old news is still bad news for Starbucks.

The great drain robbery | The Sun |News

Have a looksee at that, dear reader. It may be tabloid sensationalism but it is still pretty shocking all the same. (I haven’t read the Sun in years, and to be honest the simplicity of the language in it surprised me more than the content of the article – but I admit I am turning into an Guardian-reading intellectual snob very quickly!)

So, they leave taps running constantly so that “germs do not breed in the tap”. Riiight. It makes me wonder why the person who came up with that is allowed out in public really. I thought nowadays, there was help for people with that level of germ-phobic OCD.
Flippancy aside, it does defy logic. Does anyone who turns a tap off at home then risk catching … I dunno, typhoid (?) from all these evil bugs in the taps? What about bugs breeding in the constant puddle of water that must collect in the sinks under these taps? Are Starbucks now going to be responsible for a UK outbreak of malaria?

If you extend this train of thought though, what about the other machinery in a coffee shop which use water? Are the dish washers to be in constant use, in case water stagnates in the pipes at the back of them? And what about the coffee machine itself? Those are plumbed directly into the mains, and water is drawn into the tank and heated until it is used in coffee. As the tank empties, more water is drawn into it. Presumably even Starbucks closes for a few hours a day – to stop germs breeding inside the coffee machine, minimum-wage baristas should be employed 24/7 to continually pull water through the tank! Just in case!

Ye Gads, people….

All coffee shops have a lot of waste, mostly organic waste too. Everything from water waste (even without idiotic policies like that, there is still a lot of waste water; at our Durham Caffe Nero, we had to hand wash dishes, and then put them through the glass rinse as well to make sure – we did not have room for an industrial dishwasher!) – to waste coffees when the baristas made mistakes, to branded packaging, to throwing out un-sold sandwiches and pastries that are still perfectly edible, to wasting 10-15 kg of used coffee grounds per shop, per day – which could all be composted but usually ends up in landfill. All these forms of waste are usually an accepted, or at least, unquestioned part of coffee shop life.They only become an issue – they are only labelled as ‘Waste’ with all the word’s negative connotations, when people outside the coffee shop become aware of it. For those working there, it’s just ‘what you do.’

For example, here Starbucks Responds To Water Waste Criticism In China
– it is the same issue, someone found out about Starbucks leaving the taps running all day, criticised the company in the media, and Starbucks then tries to justify it with their imbecilic healthy and safety policy. But more significantly, LOOK AT THE DATE OF THE ARTICLE: October 2007. The Sun’s expose is not actually a new revelation, but more significantly, it means that Starbucks have carried on wasting this water, even though there were public concerns about the issue a full year ago.

For me, the issue is not just the unjustifiable, unethical waste of water, it’s the fact that Starbucks are so big, they think they are beyond criticism. They continue with their wasteful practices because the company is arrogant enough not to take any heed of the views of its customers. I avoid Starbucks anyway, but I am in the minority. If what I’ve written here has affected you – vote with your wallet. Just don’t go there!!

****

Update:

Oo, guess what? They’ve decided there might just be other ways to wash things up other than leaving taps running…

That’s big of them…

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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Caffeinated Musings from the Teenage Fanclub

I have spent a significant amount of time in the last year trying to avoid Customers. For me, coffee shop customers are not really relevant. One of the main concerns and trains of thought within the Waste of the World programme is waste as part of the production process – often integral to production, and not just the end result of consumption. Therefore, I am interested in what, if anything, gets wasted as coffee beans are processed into the branded caffeinated-beverage-of-choice in UK coffee shops. Customers consume; they are not part of the production process, although, admittedly, they are the reason for the production process.

However, with some not so subtle persuasion from my supervisors, I have been convinced to do a few focus groups with customers in the cafes I am studying. Customers can create waste in their own way. The most obvious way being, if for whatever reason they do not like the coffee they are served, they complain, and the coffee drink is wasted. There are also more indirect ways in which the customer is responsible for waste. I am trying to argue within this project that very high quality coffees are more wasteful to produce. Therefore, if the customers demand high quality coffee, then more has to be wasted in order to supply that demand. In some cases, I would also suggest that the level of skill involved – not just by the barista, but by the farmers and roasters as well, is wasted on the customers who just want the caffeine content for instance. Then there are other even more subjective things like wasting time in coffee shops, and wasting money on overpriced fashionable coffee brands. And so on and so forth. Eventually, they wore me down, and I agreed to interview some customers to find out, essentially, how fussy they are.

My first ‘focus group’ – and I use the term very loosely in this sense, was with the self-defined ‘Teenage Fanclub’ – that is, a bunch of teenagers who I knew from when they used to take up space and not spend anything in the Voodoo Cafe, but who very kindly followed me to Caffe Nero when I started working there instead. They all do still go out to coffee shops of varying sorts, they all knew each other even if they didn’t know me, and they will talk for hours and hours with little prompting. So I thought they would be a good group to start with.

Having co-ordinated with “the first official layabout of the cafe” and told him to meet me in Nero and “bring friends”, we took over the back of the cafe, ordered eight different drinks at once which annoyed the barista until she realised how much it all came to, and then proceeded to ramble on about anything that came in to their heads about coffee in the full knowledge that I was recording this for vaguely sensible purposes. The one thing I’d forgotten in all of this is how tiring controlling the conversation of a bunch of over-confident, raucous adolescents is. I used to do this on a daily basis, whilst simultaneously cooking and making coffee for them, six days a week. That part of my life seems an incredibly long time ago now. I can’t decide if I actually miss it.

Most of the "Focus group" being "rewarded" with Nero coffee

Most of the 'focus group' in Darlington's Caffe Nero

In amongst the idiocies (and there were plenty), this bunch did actually say some useful things -especially about why they went to specific places:

Grem:

Well you know I tend to go to In Arcadia but if you’re gonna go to one the old high street chains in Darlo then I tend to go to Coffee @ Elliots cos they don’t pretend to be Italian and you can go in there and say “I’ll have a large black coffee please and you’ll get a Large Black Coffee. No bloody Frenchy americano or whatever it is.

Although they did appreciate that customer service was important, they did not appreciate conspicuously being sold a brand:

Bel: Has anyone ever been to Starbucks in Darlington?
Grem: (very quickly) NO.
Timmus: Yeah…
Vince: Yeah, it’s terrible
Rose: Really overpriced
Sadie: I wouldn’t have but other people dragged me in.
Grem: That one (pointing at Meg) dragged me in to a Stabucks in Newcastle
Meg: I’ve not been to our Starbucks, not when the cappuccinos are nearly twice as much
Grem: Yeah but once when we were out in Newcastle –
Meg: Yeah but there were other people there telling us to come in…
Grem: Yeah I suppose
Bel: So would you see Neros are being better quality than Starbucks?
Grem: Yes.
Vince: And better value for money as well actually
Bel: Really?
Grem: Yeah, Starbucks in really expensive and you get a tiny little cup
Vince: I used to order Frappuccinos quite a lot and Starbucks give you like, ice cream! It’s just a milkshake, and you’re like, “I could’ve gone to McDonalds for that!””

They also admitted that often, it was not just the coffee they went in for:

Sadie: I think I’m just lazy. By the time I’ve walked all the way in to town, I just want to sit down somewhere. Coffee just comes with it!

Surprisingly, (for skint teenagers) they all said that they would pay more for high quality coffee, and good service:

Rose: Well you see them do more here.
Grem: Again, it’s all about selling the brand. If you see them do more here, you think, well, you tend to think you’re getting your money’s worth, it must be good! Maybe it is worth paying £2.90 for a big coffee!
Bel: So if you see them doing things you’re more likely to pay more?
Grem: If there’s more effort then you pay more money
Bel: Ok
Vince: You get a better quality too
Grem: yeah. If it looks classy and presentable then..
Vince: And if they look presentable as well…
Grem: Would you really go into a coffee shop where it’s being manned by a bunch of fat ugly sweaty slobs?

However, having said that, they didn’t really seem to realise what skills the barista actually has to possess:

Timmus: erm, make coffee?
Vince: Blend the beans correctly, erm, make sure it’s the right temperature and all of that, quite a lot really.
Bel: So, you mean using the machine…?
Timmus: Know how to make milk froth!
Vince: Put all the extra bits on make sure it looks right
Nelson: Know how to make coffee stylish!
Vince: Yeah, know how to make coffee in style for the customer

They were also all perfectly prepared to complain when their coffee wasn’t made right:

Vince: Serg.
Nelson: Serg made terrible coffee
Bel: Oh Serg! oh I see
Grem: He managed to burn filter coffee.
(laughter)
Grem: I don’t get how! It’s impossible! That is fool-proof! Vince could do it!
Sadie: Aawww. Poor Vincey.

Most were very politically aware of Fairtrade issues, and agreed that they would probably pay more if they knew the farmers were getting a fair price for their crops. They were also convinced that FairTrade is fashionable, and that most brands could sell Fairtrade coffee if they wanted to:

Vince: Most places now say they do fairtrade
Grem: – but really they don’t
Vince: Yeah
Grem: (cough) Starbucks!
Sadie: They can’t justify not having fairtrade cos it’s not that much more expensive compared to the amount they add on to the price of the coffee in the first place!

When I explained that Caffe Nero claims to pay ‘better than fair trade prices’ for its coffee, but doesn’t have the official FairTrade mark, they were not impressed: “I feel scummy now!”
They also had some endearingly naiive views on Fairtrade coffee plantations:

Grem: I think so, cos fairtrade farmers are getting more money so they can put more back in to it, to improve the quality of the beans, improve the quality of the harvesting machines, prevent against losses and bad weather and floods and stuff.
Vince: The extra money’s like an investment, isn’t it? The more money you put in, the more you get out of your investment
Grem: Yeah, with that little, whatever it is, -when they sign up to Fairtrade that first little bit of money that you get, they can maybe get a new harvesting machine or hire a few more members of staff, then they get a larger crop next year, and then they can sell more, and get more, and it expands at an exponential rate!

– I didn’t have the heart to explain that it doesn’t quite work like that.

I came away from this group very grateful to them for being unusually helpful. It was only when I listened to the recording over, and over, and over, and over, and over again in order to transcribe it, that I noticed how utterly silly they can be at times:

Bel: Ok! Great! Well, again, is there anything else anyone wants to tell me at all?
Nelson: erm.. Noooo.

Bel: Alright then! Well in that case, thank you very much-

Grem: Oh yes!
Bel: Go on then
Grem: Scientists might be creating a Black Hole with some particle accelerator or something.
Bel: Thank you for sharing that.
Grem: Well you said anything else!!
Bel: Groan.
Grem: They probably all drink loads of coffee, it’s probably why, they’re all trying to find the Tiny Little Coffee Particle!
Bel: Do you think they could make espresso through a particle accelerator?
Grem: What happens if you fire a tangerine, and a Malteaser through a particle accelerator?
Vince: It’d just go whiizzut!!!
Grem: You end up with a Terry’s chocolate orange!
[General groaning]
Grem: You see these are the kind of things you think of when you’re fuelled up on caffeine!
I am not on ANY kind of drugs today, thank you very much!
Oh! And that’s being recorded!

In all honesty, I think this material is actually more valuable for market research for when I open my own cafe than it is for my PhD research. When I open Dr Coffees, I must remember to sell Big Black Coffees, not grande americanos, I must provide “big slouchy squashy sofas that you can sleep on!”, I mustn’t upsell cakes at the end of every order, coffee must be strong but not burnt, I mustn’t make teenagers feel uncomfy if they sit for four hours in the shop having only bought one coffee, hot chocolates and mochas must be topped with as much cream as can be physically fitted in to the cup, and the whole place must be staffed by “fit” waitresses. And dying the coffee pink always helps too.

I have several more of these focus groups left to do, and I have a feeling that other, older, less caffeine-sensitive customers may have very different views.

One more quote from the Fanclub:

Vince: You should put it up as a podcast, it’d be hilarious!

In the relatively safe knowledge that no-one is going to bother downloading all 20MB of this file other than Grem himself, here is the podcast:

Teenage Fanclub Podacast 5th Sept 08

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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