September 20, 2012

Tea-shop vs Coffee shop - What's the difference.

Regular readers of this blog will remember a week or two back that I posted an entry proclaiming the reaction in the village when a branch of a well known UK coffee chain opened there.

over coffee In the intervening weeks I have had the opportunity to chat to a number of people about their feelings. They have ranged from "Love it!" to "I can't believe they've let them open that. It'll ruin the village" to a reaction I want to talk about in a little more detail today.

A good friend of mine has been chastised for visting this coffee chain given that there are already a number of 'tea-shops' in the village "You're taking business away from the local employers" she is being told.

What nonsense!

I see there being two distinct markets in the village for these shops.

In my mind a 'tea-shop' is a place you go when you want to enjoy a snack with a beverage. It is also the place where you can go for lunch. As a rule the drinks tend to be cheaper (hence smaller) and not particularly tasty.

A coffee shop is a place to go to relax, to chat and to enjoy stout caffeine-based beverages. The whole set-up is completely different. For a start they employee trained baristas rather than people who either own the tea-shop or are there to earn a bit of extra money after school or on the weekends. Secondly they provide a decent drink. They provide a beverage which is sturdy and prepared according to certain  standards. In my experience tea-shop tea is usually weak, insipid and not worth writing home about.

Secondly coffee shops provide a certain ambience. They have easy chairs and sofas, wi-fi and places to sit and relax. In a tea-shop there are usually a few small tables (often with gingham or cheque tablecloths) and the main reason for you to be there is to eat and/or drink and leave.

Thirdly coffee shops provide a good selection of possible drinks. You can have your espresso's, your latte's, your cappuccinos, mochachinos, flat whites, a selection of cold coffee-based drinks as wall as a basic filter coffee. These come in caffeinated, decaffeinated and with various 'accessories' such as syrups, toppings and added shots. You can also have it to drink in or take away. In your tea-shop you can usually get a coffee or a tea. They might do a latte' or a cappucino. And you might get decaf.

Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed many a drink in a tea-shop. I have a friend who seems to be compiling a definitive guide to tea-shops in the area and she has visited many of them, dragging me along with her. Who have consumed endless vats of tea and Victoria Sponge in garden centre tea-shops, high street tea-shops and tourist attraction tea-shops at the seaside and in far-flung places of interest. They have all had their own charm and appeal.

But none of them were coffee houses.

Remember, the origin of the coffee house dates back to the start of organised commerce when traders and merchants would congregate in a coffee house to transact business. They would almost use the coffee house as an office, arriving early in the morning and spending all day there. This is still something that can happen in today's coffee houses. I recently spent the best part of 7 hours in a local Seattle-based coffee chain establishment writing and having meetings about upcoming projects. Sure, I bought several drinks (both for myself and for the people I was meeting with) and I used their wifi for the whole time I was there, but I snuck myself into a corner seat and took up as little room as I could, thereby ensuring I didn't block several tables and chairs at busy times (and boy, did it get busy!).

I cannot imagine doing that in a tea-shop. The business model of the tea-shop appears to me to be "Get as many people in the door as possible. Provide food and drinks in an environment where people are encouraged to consume and then leave, and charge as much as possible for it". If you are on a long day out hiking in the hills of England and happen upon a tea-shop in a local village, it is an ideal place to rest, replenish your carbs and head out again. But it isn't a place to finish your day and spend hours dissecting the hike.

Don't think, either, that I'm only taking about the big coffee chains. In my experience there are a number of smaller shops who have embraced the ethos of the cafe society and produced excellent establishments which fulfil all of the criteria I expect from a coffee shop: Nice ambience, good drinks, comfy seats, wifi (optional) and a lack of hassle. Indeed, if my local village had one of these I'm sure I would have frequented that rather than having to get in my car and drive to the next nearest chain outlet.

So people who say that visiting a coffee shop is taking business away from tea-shops are like people who say visiting a high street clothes store is taking business away from local farmers.

It isn't.

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