Squeezed Middle: Getting caffeinated for cash

Entering “babyccino” denial.

New Statesman
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

A new café is opening in our local park. It has been several months in construction and the excitement among our fellow middle-class exiles in the suburbs has been building. Word is, it’s a sign the area is “on the up”. It’s not that we have been hitherto deprived of good coffee around here. Amid the plethora of nail bars and estate agents on our local high street, there is a great little Algerian place that does excellent coffee for £1 and croissants for 50p.

But for the squeezed middles that is not enough. We need a range of outlets to cater for our every caffeine-related whim. We need flavoured syrups and babyccinos, pastries and panini, mochas and macchiatos. We need tasteful upholstery, the xx playing on loop, the wafting aroma of freshly baked sourdough. We are being starved, dammit.

On the morning of the big opening, the neighbourhood is abuzz. A steady stream of sleep-deprived young couples pushing Bugaboos is moving towards the park, with all the intensity of pilgrims en route to Mecca. Curly, the kids and I arrive at the café to find a crowd of people with their faces pressed up against the tastefully engraved front window. A few are literally pawing at the glass.

“Look at the coffee machine – it’s a Gaggia!” a man exclaims from deep within a North Face puffa jacket, his eyes alight. “They’ve got . . . muffins!” “It’s a lovely space – so airy, with the skylights!”

A waitress, classily attired in a black shirt and trousers and a white, full-length apron, comes to open the door. She seems slightly alarmed by the desperate-looking crowd. It really is a nice space: high ceiling, white walls, a white trestle table with green chairs. We could almost be in Stoke Newington.

We order two coffees, three croissants and the obligatory babyccino for Larry, our twoyear- old. Curly refuses, on principle, to say the word “babyccino”, despite the fact that it is clearly what he is ordering.

“I’d like a warm milk, you know, for the kid. With a bit of froth on top and some chocolate.” The waitress looks at him patiently. “A babyccino?”

“What? Er, yeah one of those.”

It costs £1.50 and it is about the size of a thimble. Larry knocks it back in one, slams the cup down on the table and immediately demands another. Realising that this is a special occasion and we are likely to bow to his every whim, he also requests an ice lolly: it is handmade, organic, strawberry and horchata flavour. I don’t know what horchata is but it sounds expensive. Sure enough, it clocks in at a breathtaking £2.50. Larry takes one lick and decides he doesn’t like it.

By the time we leave, we have spent a quarter of our entire week’s food budget and I still feel a little bit hungry. As we trudge home past Tommy’s, our local greasy spoon, Curly looks on enviously as a man in a hard hat tucks into a huge plateful of greasy fry-up (£3.99). “The new place looks nice and everything,” he says. “But the coffee was terrible.”