Does the increase in ‘working from home’ mean an end to the UK’s cafe culture? …

Posted 16th Sep 2020

The rise of the coffee-drinking café culture of the UK started in the mid-nineties fueled by two super-important factors; the popularity of ‘Friends’ (the TV show my wife and daughter still can’t get enough of to this day) and the burgeoning age of the internet. However, this wasn’t the first wave of coffee shops in the UK. Coffee houses first arrived in England in 1697 when it became a popular drink at Oxford University. Its popularity quickly grew but thanks to a campaign of propaganda against coffee consumption and the growth of tea imports, the capricious English (later British) public turned to tea.

The second wave of the coffee shop phenomenon didn’t arrive back on these shores until a mere twenty-five years ago (or thereabouts). The cultural impact of the sit-com Friends’ re-popularised the concept of café drinking. At the same time an industry quickly started to evolve around the internet and its endless possibilities, which included a more flexible way to work. The quickly-accepted cliché of the tortured writer drinking endless coffees while staring at a blank page on a laptop arose from this new café culture, as did many others. But this highlights the lightening rate at which Britain’s embraced the coffee house and the result is that it’s now firmly part of who many of are. As an integral part of daily life in the UK, coffee shops serve customers who work from a table, people who like the informality for meetings (myself included), or people who just want to hangout, or grab a coffee on the way to work.

Now for some stats: 

  • Currently 80% of UK adults visit a coffee shop every week and 16% visit daily
  • Ninety-five million cups of coffee are drunk daily in the UK
  • 92 percent of coffee shops closed throughout the initial lockdown and with 26,000 coffee shops in the UK, a lot of coffee went unappreciated as a result of the Coronavirus

The Coronavirus has impacted all us of and now we’re getting used to the new normal, coffee shops have had to reopen to a new reality. About two-thirds of UK-wide coffee shops/cafés/coffee houses have reopened compared to pre-lockdown numbers. That means more than 8,000 social destinations haven’t reopened and unfortunately may never. The impact is felt by the employees, the owners and the customers…and to a greater or lesser extent, no doubt each have suffered financially, emotionally and indeed socially.  

With more of us, for now, forced to or able and choosing to work for home, the need for human interaction will remain an essential element of our working lives. Civilisation blossomed from the cooperation of mankind and without this continuing in the modern commercial landscape, we would be arrested where we are today with only dreams of what could be. Working from home, but sacrificing our morning stop off at our favourite coffee shop on the way to work or a lunchtime get together / working lunch at the nearby sandwich bar, may be a more than comfortable trade-off for many of us. Let’s face it who really relishes the daily commute (another topic for debate when considering consumer support of the transport economy), the subsequent time lost through travel and of course the additional expense. A cup of java joe at home is significantly cheaper than the one that’s lovingly poured for you with a leaf skillfully placed in the froth by the barista, but then if it was down to cost we’d rarely if ever visit a coffee shop, much like your beloved local pub (if you have one). Moreover, it’s about the experience, the ambience, that place to work generally interruption free, but with the bustle of human company on hand, or just the cheerful daily greeting from your regular barista, great tasting coffee and their appreciation of your regular custom and so subsequent small contribution to their livelihood.

The Coronavirus may have had an initial impact but the end is not nigh for the coffee shop. Cafés have become more than just a place to buy hot drinks, they are community spaces that provide essential work areas and meeting points for every strata of society, allowing barriers of class, gender, and race to be forgotten and for an inclusive community to grow. An excellent research piece titled “Space of community: exploring the dynamics in the café industry” explores the importance of coffee shops in the UK; unfortunately I don’t have time to explore the detail here, but I recommend it for further reading.

So you see, the café/coffee shop/coffee house is vital to Britain, to our workers, to the sanity of the nation, and most importantly, our baristas must be allowed to indulge us with luxuriant drinks that fill us with joy. That little brown bean is roasted, ground, compressed, and dribbled on so that we can continue to enjoy our lives. Let us never forget the bean and let the café culture live on!

Photo by Michal Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Recent blogs