Independent coffee shops: necessity or excess?

Friday 22nd May, 2015

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Despite the Starbucks and the Costas, the number of independent coffee shops in east London is rocketing year by year. Upstart met the owners to find out if this is necessity or excess.

The wave of independent coffee shops that has swept over London in the past few years is a unique phenomenon. London has the highest population of Starbucks stores in Europe and this is only growing. But rather than putting them off, the increasing number of chain stores appears to be spurring people on to open up their own place.

Suzzle serves only gluten free products

Allegra World Coffee Portal reported that the UK coffee market had achieved a £7.2bn turnover by the end of 2014, with 31 per cent and 32 per cent of the market owned by branded and independent coffee shops respectively.

When we pass a Costa, a Starbucks or a Caffè Nero every hundred metres, how is it that independent cafés survive against the big dogs?

For the most part, they don’t give it much thought – so they say. Melanie Denyer founded Suzzle at the southern end of Brick Lane after being diagnosed with coeliac disease. She thinks that they possess two distinct advantages over chains – they have character and the support of their community. Suzzle’s products are all gluten-free, lactose-free and soya-free. But Denyer believes it’s about more than that.

“You could sell anything at the north end of Brick lane if it looks pretty because you’ve got tourists coming through,” says Denyer. “You don’t need to worry as much about repeat business. But at this end, you’ll only survive if you get a regular base of customers who keep coming back. For us that is really important.” 

Rob Hurst, founder of Full Stop at the other end of the street, also strives to cater to his regulars, but has noticed the double-edged effect of the chain stores’ influx.

Full Stop on Brick Lane is owned by Rob Hurst

“I think it’s had a positive effect in that it’s brought coffee culture to London and the UK but it’s also skewed people’s opinions of what coffee should be,” he says. “We offer a better product. But that’s not what the customer is used to which is a massive cup of milk with a tiny bit of coffee in it." 

Perhaps more significant than the battle against the chains is competition on the street, or what Hurst calls “oversaturation”. He opened his café in late 2011 and has been there longer than many of the others, if only by a margin.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve lost business since the other shops have opened up, but I would say that we’re at a bit of a tipping point. If any more were to open up, there aren’t really any more customers for anyone else to have a slice of.”

But he appears to be alone in thinking this.

For Kahaila, which sits just across the road from Full Stop, the increase in independent cafés in the surrounding area has been accompanied by even more customers.

Adel Defliaux from The Antishop offers "suspended coffees" for the homeless

“The better they do the better we do,” says Charis Belcher from Kahaila. “It makes it an area people come to because they know there are good independent shops. When Cereal Killers opened two doors down our business actually went up.”

Adel Defilaux opened The Antishop having lived in the Brick Lane area for a long time. He saw early on how much it was changing and wanted to be a part of its diverse makeup. This is helped by a good relationship and regular contact with many of the other coffee shops, Kahaila especially.

“We need to be creative in terms of business,” says Defilaux. “The business approach we all have as independent owners is different. If you look at big chains everything is about profit. Of course we also have to make a profit but people like the idea of giving something back.”