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18 December 2000

Cappuccino colonises the first world

. . . but those disposable cups are crappuccino for the environment, reports Gideon Burrows

By Gideon Burrows

The first Welsh Starbucks opened on Cardiff’s Queen Street last month, serving the country’s first espresso roast with steamed milk, vanilla shot and grated nutmeg. Brace yourself, Wales, for the forthcoming Charge of the Cappuccino, the invasion of the infusion. The branded coffee chain has arrived.

Second only to mobile phones, high-street coffee houses are the UK’s fastest growing industry. Power-suited execs struggling to gulp a grande are a familiar sight in urban spaces. Groups of coffee chains cluster together on major high streets, the fledgling shops supporting one another like infant siblings before a brutal race to colonise the town begins. “One coffee shop on its own does not work, but when a few are clustered together, they all seem to do better,” says Rod McKie, the managing director of Coffee Republic.

Over the past few years, 700 branded coffee shops have opened in the UK, a figure that is expected to rise to 1,866 by the end of 2001. Costa Coffee, the UK’s largest chain, expects to have 240 shops by the new year, bringing in around £50m. Starbucks wants 300 shops by 2003, and has full-time staff searching out new sites. Coffee Republic has 64, Aroma has 37, Cafe Nero has 38 . . . and counting.

Kenco is launching a range of branded coffee shops on university campuses; Nescafe has coffee bars in internet shops; Costa Coffee is served in Abbey National banks, on British Airways flights, in branches of Waterstone’s, on the London Eye and in the Millennium Dome.

“The beverage is just a vehicle for crafting an experience, so that people walk into our stores and feel better about themselves,” says Howard Shultz, the managing director of Starbucks, who feels millions of pounds better about himself since he founded the chain. Shultz is an expert at spouting coffee marketing speak, or what might more accurately be termed “talking crappuccino”.

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“We’re in the business of creating an experience around coffee and culture and the sense of community,” he says. “If we can reach kids at a young age and provide some inspiration, I think we’ve done our job.”

Coffee-chain marketing follows the same ideas that are behind the Big Mac theory of conflict prevention: no two countries with a McDonald’s have gone to war with each other. Aroma is the new cure for social ills; Costa, the new community centre. Close down the welfare office, abort that young offenders scheme and cancel your Guardian subscription. What the destitute and deprived really need is a good cup of hot, strong coffee in a tall plastic cup. That’ll be £1.40, please.

The government has embraced the coffee chains with open arms. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown posed together outside Starbucks at London’s Charing Cross last December, praising the company as a model of Third Way business practices and a perfect employer. But it is not the rabid colonisation of the high street or the proliferation of cloned coffee brews that make protesters in Seattle, Washington and Prague want to take bricks to shop windows.

Critics complain about workers’ rights, environmental damage and the exploitative coffee-producing industry.

Employment is generally part-time, low-paid and demoralising. Staff at Costa Coffee begin on £4 an hour, and 75 per cent of them are part-time. Starbucks pays new staff £4.25 an hour, while Coffee Republic’s London-based baristas are paid £4.50 an hour, with a generous 25p increase after “tests” are passed. Shifts are planned around busy times, and sometimes they are just a few hours. “Having the right baristas working at the right time is the key to delivering service which brings guests back daily,” says Amanda Wilson, the human resources manager at Coffee Republic.

Some coffee chains now send their staff to coffee college for a week or two to learn the “art” of coffee-making, customer service and, presumably, the delicate skill of talking crappuccino. Asked about rights for the company’s workers, Wilson replied excitedly: “When baristas graduate from our training, we send them to Milan to see our beans being roasted.” When I told her I was thinking more along the lines of union rights and contracts, she urged me to “put those kind of questions in writing”.

According to the market strategists Alegra, 2.9 million cups of espresso-based branded coffee are served in the UK each week, using between 160 million and 200 million premium disposable cups in 1999. With serviettes, cardboard sleeves and takeaway bags, that’s a mountain of waste produced just so we get our daily hit. In a nod towards environmental responsibility, Starbucks does encourage “guests” to recycle their paper cups – although what that seems to entail is buying another coffee in the same cup. It also offers money off a drink if you bring your own receptacle. Ever wondered what was in that Blair family mug when the Prime Minister met the press after the birth of Baby Leo? Eco-warrior Tony saved 10p.

Long live the greasy spoon, an institution that continues despite the crummy coffee, fatty air and hand-written signs barking: “No change for the bus!” Shultz has said that he wants people to go into Starbucks and “feel like they’re at home”. Branded chains may have gentle music and cheap art on the walls, but homes are individual and idiosyncratic, not identikit and clinical.

When I’m avoiding work, the greasy spoon is where I hide, supping a plain white coffee from a ceramic mug.