Coffee House

The horror of the ‘fake’ independent coffee shop

3 January 2013

It’s official: this country is going to the dogs. The proof? Tesco has been insidiously infiltrating the coffee shop market with a chain of shops that look independent. The Guardian reports outrage in Crouch End, where customers were ‘duped’ by ‘independent-looking, stripped back coffee shops’. The greatest crime of Harris + Hoole – which has its majority stake owned by the family that founded it – is that Tesco has a 49 per cent stake in the business, but doesn’t plaster its own logo above the shops, preferring instead to fill them with nice furniture and pretty decor. Here’s one quote from the piece:

“I avoid Starbucks because it’s a big chain and it avoids tax,” said Carol Levine, 50, a Crouch End physiotherapist enjoying her lunch break in Harris + Hoole. “Now I find this is Tesco … It looks like a small indie. It is disingenuous. It makes me upset. I feel duped. I don’t go in there [Tesco]. It is taking over the world. If it [Harris + Hoole] had been called Tesco Coffee, I wouldn’t have come in.”

How very dare they, offering consumers a nice-looking coffee shop where they can choose to buy coffee, if they so wish. What an outrage.


Now obviously I’m as much a fan of independent coffee shops as the next slightly irritating middle class person who grows their own pumpkins and has a bread machine. It’s just that quite clearly lots of other consumers aren’t, otherwise Tesco wouldn’t bother going into the nicely-kitted-out coffee shop market. Which is a good thing for Crouch End, is it not, because Harris + Hoole will be employing baristas and other staff. Far be it from a lover of posh coffee shops to stop job creation, or increased income tax and national insurance revenue to the Exchequer.

But what about the truly independent independent coffee shops? Believe it or not, there’s no rule that says you can’t pack out your local independent independent coffee shop with customers if it serves better coffee than a chain can, or has a better range of tasty and wonderfully-shaped homemade cakes. In the West Country there is a small independent chain of coffee shops called the Boston Tea Party which serves the residents of Bristol, Exeter and Bath. They’re not owned by naughty big business, but it’s always a nightmare trying to find a seat in their packed cafes because they serve brilliant coffee. Starbucks is the venue for Boston Tea Party rejects in parts of Bristol.

So what should the enraged residents of Crouch End do to end this duping? Well, they could just continue to buy their tasty coffee at the independent cafe mentioned in the piece itself. Tesco may be clever, but it can’t force them to visit its faux independent coffee shop, after all.

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  • Jonathan Morgan

    Great article! I read one similar recently on Strat-Talking

  • Rental Tablets

    There should be a level playing field. Small firms can’t compete if large firms can play around with their accounts and get huge tax breaks where they end up paying 0.001% tax on their revenue (I say revenue and not income because their income is complete fudged and report ridiculously low figures that have obviously been shifted around).

    If small firms get shut down because they can’t afford to buy their huge tax breaks we’ll be run by a handful of multinational corporations and they will inevitably suck the money out of the country by squiring away all their profits in offshore banks.

    Talking of which, tax breaks should be given to companies who keep their profits in this country and recirculate the money inland. Not give tax breaks who move it offshore.

  • CustomerLoyaltyCards

    Great article on coffee Shops. We work closely with independent coffee shops supplying Customer Loyalty Cards.

  • Christian Guggenheimer

    I so much enjoyed reading this article as it made me forget some of the problems I have to deal with in my country the USA. Not to mention how much I miss living in the Uk and the colourful way every one talks (writes). This place gets to be a bigger bore every day. Good luck with the coffee situation.

  • The LHC

    There is a Boston Tea Party in Barnstaple as well btw…

  • Latimer Alder

    Am I unique in that I go to a coffee shop to buy coffee rather than to display my political beliefs? I travel out and about for work so need a dose of caffeine every now and then.

    My personal favourites are Caffe Nero and McDonalds. They both do good coffee.

    But whether they are partly owned by Beelzebub and ScumSpawn Enterprises or The Mother Theresa Memorial Fund with Save the Cute Donkeys Inc is irrelevant to my choice.

    They are coffee shops. End of.

  • swagv

    When coffee shops own more than one location, where do you draw the line about what makes one “independent” and one not?

  • Rory Sutherland

    There is a distinction between independent coffee shops and chains in how we may use and choose them. In one’s home town or near your place of work you will typically know a family-run coffee shop which is better than one of the chains – but it takes time, trial and error to find it. Hence when away from your home turf you may prefer to fall back on a chain, since although not necessarily “best” it is at least “not awful” – you know what you are going to get. “Maximising” and “Satisficing” are the two technical terms for these behaviours.

    Two other points – there is a very large-number of pubs which are owned by large chains, but which share no overt branding – operating as though independent. This has been the case for years. You can sometimes tell from common details in paint-colour or furnishing, but not through overt signage. Going to a chain pub is widely seen as slightly naff by certain people, hence the ruse. Is this a deception? Not sure. Ariel and Gillette are both owned by the same people, as are Pepsi and Tropicana. You wouldn’t buy Pepsi Orange Juice, I suspect.

    In defence of the chains, you could argue that many independents might not exist had Starbucks and Costa had not first established the practice of paying £2.50 for a coffee in the first place. They can also speed the spread of new variants The Flat White (a NZ or Australian creation, depending on whom you talk to) and the Cortado (as Costa calls it – a Meia de Leite in Portugal) are both welcome to people like me who don’t want to spend the day feeling overfilled with milk like a distended udder.

  • D B

    I used to think that a barista was someone connected to the practice of law.

  • Informed Giant

    The sad thing is, you’d probably lambast the “independent” owners, if Tesco was not involved, as posh rich people earning too much. Get over it.

  • mr.blobby

    What to take to/do in an Independent coffee shop:

    1) Copy of the Guardian
    2) iPad (Mac Book Air/Pro will suffice)
    3) iPhone with ‘Coldplay’ ringtone…
    4) …which you then answer and must, at least once, mention “tory cutz”
    5) Kefiyeh (dog’s tooth check scarf masquerading as kefiyeh doesn’t qualify – sorry)
    6) Kindle touch with the last ten Booker Prize winners you have never read and have no intention of ever doing so
    7) Pretend to ‘work’ on 2)
    8) ‘modern’ haircut
    9) commit suicide if you are over 40 and find yourself in one
    10) ‘Free Palestine’ badge

  • dougnuts

    ” … but it’s always a nightmare trying to find a seat in their packed cafes because they serve brilliant coffee” Not because there are not enough seats then?

  • jasonjapanwhite

    I always
    order coffee when out. Although I far, far prefer tea, restaurant tea is always
    a disappointment. And one does so deplore getting into an acrimonious slanging
    match with the staff. OK, the expression “monkey’s piss” may have
    slipped out.

  • mikewaller

    I have a different coffee-related gripe with Tesco. For years our local superstore had an excellent “fry-up” cafe wherein one could get an excellent full English breakfast for about £4. Now, probably in response to the coming of a new Waitrose, they have replaced the cafe with a wretched Costa Coffee! The irony is that, for not much more than I used to pay at Tesco, I can now get that kind of traditional breakfast at Waitrose with the added inducement of a free cup of coffee. My only complaint is that Waitrose’s very genteel approach of cooking to order (Tesco cooked by batch) means that you have to wait a damned sight longer. Isn’t life hard!

    • Dimoto

      Spot on, bad move Tesco !
      (Note for the plebs – Tesco instant coffee is damn nearly as good/bad as Nescafe, but at 40% of the price).

      • FrankS

        That’s worth knowing – Sainsbury own brand is OK, too, unlike most own brand coffee which isn’t even donating to the office coffee fund.

  • Bison

    Here we have an investor helping a small/medium business operate and grow through their capital and expertise. Substitute ‘Tesco’ for ‘Barclays/other big bank’ in this case and you have exactly the kind of lending the Crouch End comrades have been calling for and castigating the banks for failing to do in recent times. I dare say ‘Tesco Coffee’ did go onto the flipchart at some stage, but one look at the North London segmentation meant it was rightly abandoned in favour of this kind of venture where supposedly informed and community-conscious consumers get coffee in a non-homogenous high-street. The half-baked brand-authenticity arguments that critics bandy around are just hiding that fact that people of a certain mindset can’t tolerate Tesco making money, not just as a retailer but in any investment capacity whatsoever. They need to get over this fetish.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    When it comes to coffee, Tesco should leave it to the masters – Greggs’ and Wetherspoons.

    The only thing those other chains are good for are, as others have said, is to keep Guardianistas away from the rest of us and have their mindwankfests out of earshot.

    • M. Wenzl

      Greggs?? Wetherspoons??? Each to their own but.. Jesus..

      AMT coffee is surprisingly good.

      • Hexhamgeezer

        Try both’s straight black.

        Then come back with your leftist sneering.

        • M. Wenzl

          So you guess what people’s political beliefs are based on whether they like the coffee sold by two outlets?

          Also, I drink my coffee black.. so am back to sneer, leftistly, that it’s still not what you make out.

  • Madame Merle

    Quelle horreur! The professional class of Crouch End have been duped into buying dish-water meant for the lower orders.

    Perhaps Isabel is just having a laugh.

  • HooksLaw

    This chain is still 51% owned by the original investor. If there is any problem its because the original owner sold the stake. And that is their business.
    Location and quality are the main criteria for use surely?

    But in any event this does confirm my opinion that we seem to be running an economy which survives on us selling cups of coffee to each other.

    It makes ‘growth figures’ meaningless.

  • HFC

    I hold shares in Tesco. Should my name be over their doors?

    • hexton

      I’m in the process of acquiring a small stake in a local independent café. Should I demand they redecorate the place to blue-with-unicorns, as a condition of investing? To be consistent, they should also be selling my books instead of food and drink. I must have a word with the owners…

    • Geoff103

      No. It should be on the charge sheet of the Guardian’s tricoteuse.

      Shareholder indeed. Rapacious capitalist grinder to the faces of the poor into the dust (as well as coffee beans).

      • HFC

        I’d bet some of your pension fund is/was invested in Tesco and other blue chips. Anyway, they looked like a good recovery stock to me when I bought in June 2012.

  • jordan ash

    What does it say about the “value” of the brand when you have to hide the name of the brand from users of the product


      Pretty irrelevant comment. This is a majority family-owned chain of coffee shops. It isn’t Tesco’s in anything other than a minority shareholder sense. Therefore why would it be branded with the Tesco logo? It isn’t Tesco.

      • jordan ash

        It was so irrelevant you felt forced to comment on its irrelevance and Tescos irrelevant 49% minority shareholding.

    • ButcombeMan

      The anti Tesco remarks seem to show one clear thing, that under Terry Leahy, reputational management of the Tesco Brand, in the UK, was terrible.

      That poor reputational management straddles everything Tesco does and did. It has seriously damaged shareholder value. So bad is it, that recovery will take 20 years or more.

      • Dimoto

        What a load of bollocks.
        And you are offering consulting services I suppose ?

    • Dimoto

      What it says is that the TESCO brand is toxic to that tiny number of Hampstead
      luvvies (‘cos Tesco bought their local Europa Foods), ‘right-on’ journos, and their dupes, but is very successful with 30% of all consumers and very many professional investors (providing that Clarke bloke gets his act together).

      • Latimer Alder

        Yep. Tesco is such a force for evil that nobody goes there anymore………


  • TomTom

    It is so much like those apparently “independfent” sovereign states that are really little more than fronts for the EU Commission

    • TomTom

      Take a look: -Quanta have manufactured for HP, Lenovo, Apple, Acer, Toshiba, Dell,
      Sony, Fujitsu
      * Compal have manufactured for Acer, Dell, Toshiba,
      Lenovo, HP/Compaq
      * Wistron have manufactured for Dell, Acer,
      Lenovo, HP
      * Inventec have manufactured for Toshiba, HP, Lenovo
      Pegatron have manufactured for Asus, Toshiba, Apple, Dell, Acer
      Foxconn have manufactured for Asus, Dell, HP, Apple
      * Flextronics
      have manufactured for HP

  • jazz6o6

    I think that the Spectator should start a chain of coffee shops.
    Why not ?

    • June

      No I think the Guardian should start one (a chain of coffee shops) seeing that it finds anything run by Jews upsetting and tends to be read by people who boycott those businesses.

      • Thomas Paine

        Ridiculous. The first thing anyone with a brain thinks of when ‘Tesco’ is mentioned is ‘cynical, rapacious, monopolistic, supply chain abusing mega-corporation which should have been stopped in its tracks years ago by regulators’. How can a huge PLC be ‘Jewish’ in any meaningful sense anyway?

        No the interesting thing about this is that for the first time we see Tesco acknowledging its brand is tainted. Should we expect it to do a Windscale shortly?

        • Fergus Pickering

          Do you know, Thomas, I don’t think any of those things. I just think goody, another suermarket full of things I want.

  • LondonStatto

    The failure to understand majority ownership is quite shocking…

    • TomTom

      True…but numeracy is uncommon in journalism

  • chan chan

    Congratulations Tesco! A well aimed retail cruise missile to take out the pretensions of superannuated hippy lefties! Oh, I do hope no free trade coffee was harmed during the making of the independent coffee shops…

  • Sarah

    If Tesco doesn’t put its brand name to the shop then it is behaving dishonestly and manipulatively. It is well aware that many people object to it driving small and local suppliers out of business, so to do so under the guise of being a small, local supplier is the height of cynicism. Customers feel duped because they have been.

    • Archimedes

      Yeh, well, people don’t object to lower prices. I object to apple stalks, but in my infinite wisdom, I’ve come to appreciate that they come with the apple and there is bugger-all I can do about it if I want the apple.


        So this independent coffee shop, which is majority owned by an independent family, is at fault because of what? It hasn’t labelled itself with the logo of the minority shareholder?

        Should every company have to display the logo of every minority shareholder from now on, just so that various idiots can be offended by one of them?

        I always drink in Costa’s in Waterstones in Maidstone. The coffee is fine but the staff and ambience are outstanding. There are lots of independent coffee shops, generally they are more of a squash, and don’t serve such reliably OK coffee.

        Just because a coffee shop is independent doesn’t mean it is any good.

      • Dimoto

        Don’t forget to chew up all your pips, because they contain more nutrition than the rest of the apple (including the stalk), put together.

    • chan chan

      Nonsense. Tesco can do what they want. An independent coffee shop near me, widely regarded as being excellent around here, is owned by a guy who’s a slum landlord. He has eastern europeans stacked into his houses like sardines, regularly violates local planning laws, and has even threatened to kill neighbours who objected to his planning applications – but darling, his independent coffee and cake is wonderful! Consequently, the Guardian readers keep piling in.

      As long as it’s poncy, build it, and they will come. Maybe Tesco’s mistake is this place isn’t poncy enough?

    • HJ777

      There are hundreds of companies out there that sell products under dozens of brand names.

      Are you saying that they should drop the brands and sell everything under the name of the parent company?

      I’m no great fan of Tesco, but what you are saying is absurd.

      • TomTom

        Wow. There are only 4 laptop manufacturers making the guts of laptops and then fitting pretty plastic cases with different brand names……..but people have no idea

        • HooksLaw

          This website

          ‘These National Brand companies purchase their laptops from an ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) such as
          Clevo, Compal, Asus, MSI, Quanta, Wistron, Mitac, Arima and Inventec.
          The ODM’s design & manufacture the machine and sell it to these
          National Brand companies as a barebones system. The National
          Brand companies then customize the system with a Processors, Hard Drives, Ram, DVD Drive, Wireless, Bluetooth along with other internal accessories, then install a Microsoft Operating System’

          Thats 9 manufacturers as a minimum and then various other components are added by the ‘national brand’.
          This is not unusual.
          A car manufacturer will source say its entire dashboard component from an outside component manufacturer and then simply assemble it.

          This is why the car industry supports so many other jobs not just then ones in their own factories and of course why its highly unlikely that there would ever be a positive vote to totally leave the EU and its single market.

        • Sarah

          And how many of those laptop guts manufacturers have policy of putting plastic case manufacturers out of business?

      • Sarah

        The point you are missing is that this is a deliberately dishonest strategy on the part of Tesco to sidestep the massive controversy there is over their small-supplier-killing ways.

        It’s like a white rhino poacher disguising himself as a white rhino sustainer to attract donations for a white rhino horn hunt.

        You’re all just being contrary.

        • HJ777

          I don’t think so.

          They are only a minority shareholder and Tesco is simply not a very upmarket or stylish name for a coffee shop. Brands have what are known as ‘brand values’ and those of Tesco are simply wrong for a coffee shop.

          I am no fan of Tesco, by the way – I avoid them like the plague, but they are entitled to go about their business provided they do so within the law. If people prefer what they offer to what small suppliers offer, then whose fault is that?

    • an ex-tory voter


    • Fergus Pickering

      Do you know, Sarah, I don’t care about any of that when I go into a shop. I just go in to see if there is anything there I want.

  • wrinkledweasel

    I suspect that the act of regularly drinking coffee that you did not make yourself is, in itself, an unnecessary, expensive and wasteful exercise. I don’t work in an office, but if I did I would have my own coffee-making equipment. If out, I take a flask. If in I have a very nice, bean-to-cup machine that makes coffee just the way I like it, since I can program it to do so.

    And by the way, I can ask myself for a coffee and have it delivered to myself in about a tenth of the time it takes to queue up at a counter and make an attempt to speak in pidgin English to somebody who just got off a plane, or have to spend vital moments learning the language of coffee in order to get one that I actually want. What’s the difference between a flat white and an Americano anyway? Probably a lot of irony and marketing.

    • Dan Grover

      I appreciate you were being somewhat flippant, and this response will probably “prove your point”, but you really couldn’t have chosen a worse comparison than an americano and a flat white. It’s like asking what the difference between a white chocolate and 95% cocoa chocolate is. I mean, they’re both chocolate, right?!

      For what it’s worth, they both have espresso in, but that’s about where the similarity ends. One is wholly comprised of milk, the other of water. If you’d compared a latte with a flat white, I’d agree entirely – but that you compared what could charitably be referred to as the two most distant coffee-based drinks on most coffee-shop menu’s suggests that, perhaps, if you expanded your horizons slightly, you might be able to programme that fancy machine of yours to even better fulfil your taste buds!


        I don’t often queue up for long in the Costa’s in Waterstones in Maidstone. It is usually busy but the staff are very efficient and supremely friendly and accomodating. They remember me and what I want to drink. I don’t know that I could ask for more?

        • Dimoto

          How about decent coffee ?
          Costa was excellent when it began, all those years ago, but has long since gone the way of all chains/franchises.
          Still, looking for a good cup in bloody Maidstone, where any decent retail outlet lasts not more than three months ?
          You have my sympathies.

      • wrinkledweasel

        I feel duly chastened. My machine, a De Longhi bean to cup, does either espressos for me or cappucinos or, and this is the wonderful thing, just ordinary coffee, in a cup, with a bit of milk in it. It may do more, and indeed, it claims to do so, but the idea of pressing a button and getting real coffee, having chosen the beans, the strength, the temperature and the quantity, all by myself, is still a novelty. Purists of course, will insist that I go on a course in Italy, but I feel life is too short. I am 58.

        • Dan Grover

          If you like it, you like it! And of course there’s nothing wrong with that – but there are also those out there that do genuinely have a preference for flat whites over Americanos (or, indeed, lattes), and I think it’s great that we have that niche filled.

    • HooksLaw

      You need to get out more
      What you are effectively buying with your cup of coffee and granola bar is a seat at a table to natter to your friends in a convivial atmosphere and to also partake of the local free wifi for your ipadthingy and do a bit of work / social networking.

      This is in fact not much different to the original 17th century coffee shops where you put your tuppence on the counter and got to read the local news sheets and gossip with your cronies..

      • TomTom

        17th Century Coffee houses were closed down as centres of sedition

    • Madame Merle

      But one simply must be seen prancing about with a cardboard pint of brown stuff, it’s the last word in fashion accessories, don’t you know?

    • Dimoto

      I empathise with your logic, but you do come over as frightfully “Guardian” in this post, (wink).

  • Archimedes

    Oh, it’s awful.

    What really annoys these muppets is that their tastes are not so refined that a brand manager couldn’t figure them out and dupe them. Ha!

  • John Hannen

    thing is, this isn’t tesco acting as a retailer – it’s tesco acting as a bank and won’t be the only investment in business made by tesco as a bank. Many “independent” coffee shops will owe money to or will have sold equity to larger investors and will do so without making public statements of this fact. They’ll be effectively owned by banks and businessmen as ruthlessly capitalist as tesco are and you won’t be able to tell by just looking at them

  • Louise McCudden

    Call me cynical but this whole thing is excellent free advertising for these Tesco coffee chains!

    I like my local indie coffee shop and I must admit I’d be a bit saddened if they turned out to be owned by Tesco! But I still love their delicious coffee and homemade cakes so would probably still go :)

    Also, they are so awesome and lovely and ethical that they deserve to become a big coffee chain…. if it ten years they were as successful as Starbucks I’d be pretty happy for them.

    • Archimedes

      Yeh, because now everyone knows that Harris + Hoole are so good that you can’t even tell the difference between it and an independent. I’m intrigued. I want to try one.

      • Dan Grover

        It begs the question of what “independent” really means, though. The article suggests that the majority shareholder is still the original family that started the business. Presumably, therefore, they have control of the business and, as a limited company, did not have personal liability for the business anyway. If someone that wasn’t Tesco – say, their next door neighbour, or one of the Dragon’s – had invested in them to the tune of 49%, would they still be considered no longer independent?

        • Archimedes

          I think, in order to put things into perspective, one has to remember that the original article was in the Guardian, and that these quotes were sourced by the Guardian. What they object to is the profit margin – that there is one, that is.


            How many ‘independent’ coffee shops in Maidstone are actually and effectively owned by the bank? What is different? This family runs the business and owns the majority shareholding. How would it be different to any other business being depedent on bank funding?

            • Archimedes

              I wouldn’t get too excited. Most of the left-leaning people I know that read the Guardian dislike it precisely because of these kinds of articles – they just don’t know what else to read.

              The Guardian is successful only in so far as it has convinced the country that the general theme of it’s opinions are held by more than a tiny minority. Credit to it for that, but the right should probably not pay so much attention to it’s idiocies.


                Should the Spectator just be responding to things printed in other newspapers, especially the Guardian? Why not do some original thinking, researching and writing. There are plenty of important topics that no-one at the Spectator seems willing to cover. You would have the field to yourself.

                • Dan Grover

                  I don’t think there *are* many articles in the Spectator responding to silly Guardian articles, are there? I haven’t seen one in quite a while, at least. This is a blog, though, and like comparing a book to a film adaptation, one should appreciate that different formats have different strengths. The depth of emotion from a book may be harder to reconcile in a 2 hour film, but likewise the mind of the film maker may actually depict a scene in a more visually interesting way than a reader’s own imagination. It’s about playing to your strengths.

                  And one of the strengths of a blog is that easy-to-update (and therefore respond), more combative, instantaneous nature. It’s a different thing to a magazine (which in turn, despite them all comprising primarily of words, is different to a thesis which in turn is different to a non-fiction book). If that’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine – but moping about what “The Spectator” does on The Coffeehouse is akin to complaining about the foreward to The Hobbit’s new print run whilst leaving the cinema having watched its new film release.

              • Michael990

                They could always become the second Independent reader.

        • Fergus Pickering

          It doesn’t beg any question, Mr Grover. Mind your effing language.

      • dalai guevara

        Yes, and we now must ask ourselves this: was Harry paid for advertising the failing gambling den that is Las Vegas?

  • Boule De Suif

    Well, I shall have to try the Boston Tea Party coffee shop in Bath (and stay out of the pub!).

  • The Red Bladder

    “Hurrah for coffee shops”, say I. They keep no end of the bores and other assorted dross out of the pubs.

    • Julian F

      Agreed, but unfortunately pubs nowadays seem to be little more than creches, especially at weekend lunchtimes. It would help if we had a government that was prepared to repeal the ridiculous smoking ban.

      • The Red Bladder

        I am not sure that would help but I do agree with you about children – pubs are no places for them, especially the slightly older ones who drink lager!

      • kevinlynch1005

        yes, i’ve noticed that as well. A well placed outstretched leg and foot under a table tends to sort out the more boisterous kids as they charge by, however

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