Tesco's "indie" coffee shop should worry defenders of capitalism

Free markets rely on informed choices, and those seem lacking in the case of Harris + Hoole.

There's been a lot of chatter about an article in today's Guardian (by which, I guess, I mean that I've been talking about it a lot). Headlined "Customers criticise 'indie' image of the coffee shops part-owned by Tesco", it details the reaction of customers in North London to their discovery that Harris + Hoole, an independent-looking coffee shop, is actually part of a ten-branch chain, of which 59 up to 49 per cent is owned by Tesco.

Rupert Neate writes:

"I thought: 'That's very brave, opening up next to Starbucks,'" Bridget Chappell, a full-time mum, said of Harris + Hoole, a new coffee shop in north London next door to a branch of the US behemoth and four doors down from a Costa Coffee.

"I like to try independent shops, and it was really very nice with great coffee," she said. "But when I got home, I looked it up and discovered it was a chain."

The people who are shocked to learn that they've just had a pleasant cup of coffee at a shop part-owned by Tesco have come in for a fair amount of criticism. After all, they clearly don't care about anything that matters, otherwise they'd have been unhappy before they learned the technical fact of the shop's ownership.

More to the point, this is supposed to be what capitalism's about, right? Tesco has identified a desire that customers have, and joined forces with a coffee chain to provide that desire. As the lead barista tells Neate:

We try to be independent. We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.

The question which no-one seems to have addressed is what it is that the customers actually desire. If what they want is an independent-feeling café, with mismatched furniture, blackboards for the menus and stacks of hand-made sandwiches, then Tesco can fulfil that need. But if what they desire is an actual independent café, then Tesco can't profit from that desire without the customer being mislead.

That's not to say that Harris + Hoole is necessarily to blame for those customers' mistake. As its chief executive tells the Guardian when asked about Tesco's stake:

If you Google it, you'll find it. Go to our webpage – it's not hidden. Putting it any more prominently would not reflect who we are as a business.

We can't know conclusively whether customers do desire independence or an independent feel, but my hunch is the former. That's certainly what the three interviewed in the Guardian piece claim, anyway.

The problem is, if you desire independent coffee, that's a relatively tricky desire to satisfy conclusively. You could research the corporate ownership of every coffee shop you go in to, but that would get difficult the first time you needed coffee in a strange city with no internet access. As a result, people have developed proxies to work out whether somewhere is part of a chain or not. Blackboards, mismatched furniture, hand-cut food: these things don't normally scale to a big chain, and so are usually a good indicator that somewhere has at most a couple of branches.

It may not seem that important, but it's pretty key to the claims free markets have for being an efficient way to run things that, when people think they are handing over money for a specific reason, they are in fact doing so. That's why we ban calling something organic when it's not, or slapping a union flag on Danish bacon. That even stretches to things which, in your opinion, may not be a choice that matters. Homoepathy is bunk, but it still would be bad for capitalism if anyone could put "approved by 90 per cent of homeopaths" on their sugar pills without that actually being the case.

But unfortunately for these specific customers, Harris + Hoole didn't mislead them. Purposefully or not, making yourself look like an indie coffee shop is not the same thing as telling customers you are an indie coffee shop.

If ethical consumerism is your bag, you're going to have to start putting a lot more effort into making sure you're doing it right, because these things are only going to get more common.

Baristas take part in a latte art competition. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked

The journalist moved into a house of meth addicts to investigate the drug. Within a month, he was using, too.

“I got a story, a very good story,” writes the young Australian journalist Luke Williams in the first chapter of his new book, The Ice Age. “Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting.” For three months in 2014, he lived in a house of crystal meth addicts in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, to investigate the drug. Within a month, he had forgotten why he was there. He had become addicted himself.

What follows is a dizzying retelling of his experiences, which veers between stories of Williams’s psychotic episodes and facts about his drug of choice. His descent into addiction happened in a nondescript house in Pakenham, a suburb to the south-east of Melbourne – “one of the most badly affected meth areas in Australia”.

Williams, now 36, grew up nearby and went to school there. He already knew two meth users in the area well enough to rent a room with them – an out-of-work labourer called Smithy and his live-in ex-girlfriend Beck. It was they who gave Williams his first shot of crystal meth, less than three weeks into his stay.

The crystal form of methamphetamine, also known as “ice”, is an addictive and powerful stimulant that causes euphoria. It heightens alertness, energy and arousal, with comedowns that can lead to aggression and violence.

It has gained cultural significance in recent years because of the US television drama Breaking Bad, in which an otherwise mild-mannered and law-abiding chemistry teacher “cooks” and sells crystal meth. Yet not much is known about the long-term effects of the drug, which in some countries – such as the Czech Republic – is a graver problem than heroin. In the UK, crystal meth activity is low and mainly linked to the gay chemsex party scene, where drugs are used to enhance group sex experiences.


Photo: Scribe

The drug is linked to severe psychosis, which Williams experienced first hand. Detailed in his book in a neat little list, like a morbid twist on a teenage diary, are Williams’s delusions, entitled: “My psychotic ideas”. Some are harrowing. His conviction that his parents are trying to poison him, for example, which results in him threatening to kill them “with my bare f***ing hands”. Others are amusing: he abandons his journalistic endeavour almost immediately in the belief that his calling is to become a famous rap star.

“I think that I could maybe do spoken word, but rapping? No, no,” he chuckles, when he speaks to me via Skype from Nepal, where he is researching another story. He says that he wanted to investigate crystal meth use partly because he was bored. He had left journalism to work at a law firm, and his life “lacked a bit of kick”.

Although he describes himself as “white, middle-class [and] educated”, he was fixated by the characters from his youth on the city’s outskirts. “I missed [them] in the middle-class world; it seemed so polite and clean . . . I looked forward to getting back there, living cheap, and when I saw the state some of my friends were in, I was very curious to know what was going on with them. Nobody was writing about the working class and the underclass.”

Williams quickly shifted from observer to addict. In alarming and frank detail, his book tells of marathon masturbation sessions (his record was 16 hours), physical altercations and a thick fog of paranoia. He would search his name online and become convinced that anything written by, or about, the name “Luke Williams” involved him.

He became so obsessed with the memory of an ex-boyfriend called Nathaniel that he believed that Smithy had turned his ex “into a transsexual, so that he and his mates could have their way with the new female Nathaniel”.

After three months, Williams was kicked out of the house by an aggressive Smithy, who thought the journalist was stealing his cannabis (he wasn’t). The nearby hospital gave him no help, so Williams ended up on the streets. After a lot of persuasion, he eventually returned to safety with his parents. He has been recovering ever since.

There is talk of a crystal meth “epidemic” in rural and suburban areas of Australia, which has among the highest usage of the drug in the world. The number of people using it there tripled from 2011 to 2016, and 7 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 have reported using amphetamines or methamphetamines (in the UK, it’s 1 per cent).

Although Luke Williams’s story is an insight into one of the world’s most dangerous substances, it’s also a lesson in doing your research. The first time Williams took crystal meth, it was injected by one of his housemates and he believed that it was no different from powdered meth – more commonly known as speed – which he had been using occasionally to give him the energy to write.

The group called everything “meth”, regardless of what they were taking. “Our lingo just didn’t differentiate,” Williams tells me. “People don’t really understand the difference. I got the opportunity to say in the public domain that [crystal meth] is different . . . It eats away at your inside.”

The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction by Luke Williams is published by Scribe.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era