The spirit of 60’s London café racers lives on
To the morning crowd picking up their espresso on their way through Covent Garden, something’s stirring at Starbucks. More than a new identity and store design, there are additions to the menu… Starbucks Reserve, the new concept café on Upper St Martins Lane, introduces evening light dining, coffee… and, alcohol as part of the experience. It might seem strange to have a glass of wine or beer at the same place that you pick up your morning coffee, but Starbucks have clearly done their homework. Café culture – coffee, light food and drinks – is a staple on the continent. Five years of experimenting with the concept in the US and UK, has convinced Starbucks they’ve got the balance right. Not the only ones to spot the opportunity to extend operating hours and service, a growing number of independent and smaller cafés across the capital have also been experimenting.
Tesco-owned Harris+Hoole last year gained licence for three of its cafés. ‘The motivation came from our customers who were saying it’s a pity you are closing at six o’clock at night, this would be a lovely place to have a glass of wine’ said chief executive Nick Tolley.
Gracelands Café in Kensal Rise reports a roaring trade in Bloody Marys at the weekend, and has started offering the occasional evening session for locals. Closing at 5pm most days, the focus is not on drinking – ‘it’s more about lovely food and socialising’ said owner Nick Stylianou. A mix of coffee shop, casual out-of-office workspace, and place to socialise – the success of these cafés rests on not attempting to be pubs, bars or restaurants. The appeal is to a new demographic who are drinking less, from young professionals wanting to wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed and students staying on track with their studies. Cafés are providing a more inclusive, relaxed environment where drinking is optional, and light food available – a far cry from the classic British boozer. What could this mean for the brands they sell? A clear space for experimentation is in coffee cocktails and mixers (not yet on the menu in Starbucks!). A drop of Baileys Espresso Crème in your coffee wouldn’t go amiss this winter, or perhaps the aroma of mulled wine could tempt you in. For the more adventurous, the subtle notes of citrus and fruit of some more unusual coffee blends are perfect to experiment with. Even the coffee making equipment, reminiscent of craft distilling, looks as if an experienced mixologist or barista could have some fun with it – while the customer enjoys the show.
Beyond the possibilities for new products and experiences, a bigger picture is becoming clear. As pubs across the UK are closing, coffee shops are opening. With them a new cultural occasion is appearing. A restaurant will expect everyone at your table to eat. A pub or bar serves well for nights out, but the loud music and focus on drinking is not for everyone. These cafés provide a different experience, they are fulfilling a desire for early evening socialising – a lighter, relaxed, drop-in atmosphere. Pernod Ricard are paving the way by focusing on four key consumption occasions – night out, premium socialising/luxury, get together, and aperitif/meal occasion. ‘We’re no longer specifically loyal to one single brand, but to a repertoire of brands linked to a range of drinking occasions’ says Alexandre Ricard. While it’s still early days in the UK market, in the US the Starbucks concept is rolling out to more than 70 locations. The heyday of 60’s London Café Racers, when Ton-Up Boys dashed between cafés, might be over – but it looks like something of their spirit remains.