The rise and rise of the indie coffee shop in London is long established. Walk down one road from Oxford Circus to Shoreditch High Street and you’ll pass close to three branches of Fernandez and Wells, Flat White (and its sister shop Milk Bar), Kaffeine, Lantana, The Espresso Room, Prufrock, Workshop (formerly known as St Ali), Look Mum No Hands, Ozone (surely London’s first million pound coffee shop fit-out), a Taylor Street branch and Allpress – just a handful of London’s top chain-with-no-name of indie coffee shops. 
 
This week Taylor St, whose Bank branch is the busiest coffee shop in London, started a huge expansion in collaboration with – of all people – Tesco. Their new brand Harris and Hoole opened its first branch in leafy Amersham with a stated aim to improve the standard of coffee on the high street. What does this mean? The insinuation is that major brands are not delivering on quality. 
 
Once I became aware of the kind of independents listed above I never, ever bought coffee in the chains again, despite being happy to do so for years before. But is a new standard being established that will have serious repercussions in the near future for Costa, Nero and Starbucks or is this a blip, like rising property prices, just contained within the capital? 
 
In order to gaze into the future Substance looked outside the capital to the city often seen as the capital of the North, Manchester, to see how the chain versus indie experience felt away from the London scene. 
 
A friend and I popped into the Northern Quarter’s North Tea Power, a Brooklyn-style shop largely populated by singletons on laptops, and Caffeine and Co., a new, tiny indie that brews Square Mile coffee in the City Centre. For comparison we also drank flat whites (small latte in Nero), ate cake and bought lunch in Costa, Starbucks, Pret, Nero and Eat over the following 48 hours. It had been a while – maybe they’d raised their game?
 
Customer-wise the chains were busier than Caffeine and Co and North Tea Power. The buzz and queues of the London indies went unmatched up north. Perhaps unsurprisingly the coffee was a lot, lot better at Caffeine and Co and NTP than at the chains: smooth, well rounded and delicious at both whereas all their rivals had major issues, ranging from horribly bitter and burnt tasting (Starbucks) to thin and watery (Nero, Costa) and foul, far too strong and pretty much undrinkable (Eat, Pret). 
 
Eating in the chains divided between Starbucks, Nero and Costa where it is pretty awful (were the bland Paninis all made in the same factory?); and the foodies where it was actually pretty good in Pret. 
Overall Caffeine and Co particularly shone in the food department. Our salad of prawns and noodles in a spicy Asian dressing was delicious, clearly very freshly made and felt a notch above all the others. The small Bakewell tart we had to follow was faultless (and baked that morning on site to boot). It was about 10 times better than Pret/Eat and 50 times better than Starbucks/Nero/Costa. 
No surprises there then. 
 
The paradox for the indies is that what makes them great, in short the attention to the product, is inherently inefficient (hand baking tarts – are they mad?) whilst their branded chain competitors are brutally efficient and certainly wouldn’t spend more than a minute making you a coffee or 5 mins toasting your sandwich. 
 
The London shops answer is to charge a premium and the most expensive, Prufrock, charge 2.80 for a flat white, £3 for a larger Latte and £6 for a very delicious Chorizo roll in Fernandez and Wells. There is a reasonable argument for this - buy a better shirt or car and you’d pay a premium price, so why not coffee and lunch? If the customer doesn’t feel it’s a better product there is certainly no shortage of choice. 
 
There is however a business cliché that your price is set by your competitor. London’s indies are not yet directly in competition with the chains, they are far too niche for that, but if a 100 plus branches of Harris and Hoole suddenly popped up across the UK then they would have the tricky challenge of creating the feel and product of an indie across a huge scale and at a price that surely would be tied close to Costa. 
 
Like an underground music scene it seems indie coffee is going mainstream and with billions up for grabs everyone’s up for the fight. Something has to give on the UK high street soon and there can’t be unlimited expansion of outlets offering such similar products. A three-cornered battle is going to take place between the established brands, the indie scene and new players like Harris and Hoole that are a hybrid of the two, and ultimately there must be winners and losers. 
 
Our money is on a squeeze for the established brands, a thriving and expanded indie scene and another Harris and Hoole style brand where big money backs a big indie.

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