February 22, 2004


Great contribution from Dave Stelfox to the great caff debate. Dave's point about the standardization of desire and aspiration is absolutely right. And he's correct to highlight the class dimension: McDonalds and Burger King might be blandly homogenizing, but, at least, unlike Pret and Starbucks, they're not hawking a bourgeois agenda with their rocket and strawberry mocha. (Incidentally, I'm sure I heard somewhere that Pret sandwiches in are as unhealthy as McDonalds' cheeseburgers.) Starbucks is like the Waterstones of coffee, its insufferable griduate brasseratis as haughtily superior as the Waterstones' wannabe Cecil Day Lewis's.

Posted by mark at February 22, 2004 09:41 PM | TrackBack

now would be a good time to mention that i have worked in both starbucks and pret a manger. what shocked me more than aything else was finding out that pret use Hovis to make their sandwiches!

Posted by: luke at February 22, 2004 10:23 PM

There's a Pret near where I work, and its always full of total wankers at lunchtime, looking so smug, self-satisfied, self-loving, as they pocket their loose change (not much left from a tenner), knowing deep down inside that somehow they are more stylish, more intelligent, more evolved than the shellsuited neds in the McDonalds opposite, buyin their 69p burgers. Its like 80s winebars isnt it, the assumption of 'class' in a stale form of one-upmanship. Winebars tried but could not kill the pub, and Pret won't ever kill the pure joy of a bacon roll from a caff. They will go the way of Sock Shop and Tie Rack.
(And if you are ever in Glasgow, Dinos in Sauchiehall Street is the best for sausage-in-a-bap)

Posted by: Baal at February 22, 2004 10:33 PM

So Luke how long did you stick those jobs, then?

Posted by: mark k-punk at February 22, 2004 10:38 PM

" Starbucks is like the Waterstones of coffee, its insufferable griduate brasseratis as haughtily superior as the Waterstones' wannabe Cecil Day Lewis's"
i just wanted to say mate i think this is the most OTM thing i've read all year.


Posted by: scott at February 23, 2004 08:34 AM

i was in starbucks (parnell, auckland branch) for about a year and a half, best job i ever had as it goes. ransacked money from the till, sold weed over the counter, distributed free drinks to my mates, made lots of friends most of which i'm still in touch with, came in tripping, drank beers from 'venti' paper cups (pint size) flirted with perfectly groomed housewives from the affluent suburbs and their vixenish daughters, inhaled the nitrous oxide they use to charge the cream cannisters, yeah, basically the perfect job for when i was a young lad. pret on the other hand, i stayed there for two weeks. that was in london. that is a very bad, very hard place to work and theres lots of evil rules, very evil place. how about this-one person is late for work, the whole 'team' loses their bonus for the week? lots of fucked up things like that.

Posted by: luke at February 23, 2004 09:59 AM

Cheers Mark. Just added to that rant that Pret is actually owned by McDonalds...

Posted by: Dave Stelfox at February 23, 2004 11:56 AM

Gosh, Starbucks is generally seen as totally downmarket down our way, they're like something out of a shopping mall. No self-respecting bourgeois brasserati would be caught dead in one! Awful coffee, too.

Posted by: Angus at February 23, 2004 12:16 PM

I find all this "in the good old days we ate hot gravel and liked it" class-warrior flouncing very goofy. I go to Pret in Angel for coffee bcz they make coffee how I like it: I wish there was somewhere close that did decent takeout coffee in Hackney - ie a Starbucks, it wd be handy. It is a million times easier to get eatable quick food and drinkable coffee now that it was when I first moved to London. The 60s were SO bleak and grim for food in the UK - NO TAKEAWAYS!! - though I guess "bleak and grim" is part of the poseur appeal :)

They use Hovis possibly because it is excellent mass-produced bread.

Posted by: mark s at February 23, 2004 06:32 PM

Atkins is the Lenin of this particular struggle btw

Posted by: mark s at February 23, 2004 06:34 PM

I used to work at Waterstone's ;) Guilty as charged too... I ruled the 'Classics' section with a rod of limp iron.

Posted by: Philip at February 23, 2004 06:39 PM

incidentally cf the lindsay anderson doc on this compilation, abt the Covent Garden fruit and veg market 50 years ago: there's something abt his dream of the lost blood-system of the whole of the nation, lorry-pulsing in and then out of this central heart ("apples from oxfordshire, mushrooms from kent, oranges and lemons from the western ports"), that's fantastically evocative, even if it was possibly more than half anderson's own wistful projection

Posted by: at February 23, 2004 06:59 PM

(lindsay anderson post by mark s obv)

also here is alexander cockburn giving r.hoggart a retroactive kicking for taking the stelfox position long ago (except by that by virtue of fashion's turnings in the decades between, hoggart was AGAINST italian-immigrant milkbars as the pret of their day, being new and bland and hip and cosmopolitanising)

Posted by: mark s at February 23, 2004 07:21 PM

Another point: in days of yore the high streets of UK town-centres were in fact full of (mostly chain-run) tearooms famed for their genteel insipidity and stale cucumber sandwiches cut in naice triangles (ie the food was terrible there also) => these have vanished almost entirely (even in my hometown of shrewsbury), and i kind of suspect that the new chains on which all this daft venom is being wasted are in fact supplanting the genteel tearoom, where people went BECAUSE they were bland and culturally undemanding and didn't intrude on you as you read yr book during lunch with their SWAGGERING HARDCORE CHARACTER and STREET-CRED. Timid people have a right to eat too.

Posted by: mark s at February 23, 2004 08:32 PM

Steady on Mark ---- how has this discussion got turned round so that caffs = street cred and have 'poseur appeal'? It's the LACK of fashionableness of caffs that we were celebrating them for, I thought.
'Daft venom': there are many reasons to object to Starbucks --- the viral aggression of their expansion strategy (forcing many other high street shops out of business because they can't compete with the low unit cost of Starbucks' 'goods' ), this ensuring an increasingly tedious homogenous high street; the fact they've forced the prices off coffee stratospherically high (another advantage of McDonald's over Starbuck/ Pret- the low cost of its food/ drink); and last but not least, the vileness of its coffee. This is a question of taste, of course, but for me, it just don't cut the mustard.

Posted by: mark k-punk at February 23, 2004 10:21 PM

i thinks he's just in a grumpy mood hence the wilful misinterpretation of everything anyones said, i wouldn't take it persoanlly. i was shocked that pret uses hovis not because hovis is bad bread but because it didn't seem to fit in with the company image, the french name and poncey ingredients. i, anive as i am sort of assumed they have their own french guy working exclusively for them, baking fresh bread all day to an acient Breton recipie handed down through the generations. there's nothing wrong with starbucks coffee as i said earlier, but it is monsterously overpriced and the same goes for pret sandwiches. i'd rather eat a brie baggete than processed cheese in cotton wool bread, or a starbucks espresson than nescafe instant just like any other sane human being but they (Pret) treat their staff pretty shabbily.

Posted by: luke at February 23, 2004 11:24 PM

Homogeneity = not having to take gamble (eg when yr in a hurry). Being prepared to take a gamble = cultural bohemianism = "fashionability" (a gamble bcz you can't tell with an unfamiliar formica-surface-type caff if it's going to be great or terrible, noisy or quiet, welcoming or scary, quick or slow blah blah blah). I totally don't buy that the success of Pret is to do with aspiration: it's to do with the hurried pleasures of the transient casualised clerical classes (ie me) (you can't eat egg and chips while data-inputting at yr computer screen) (hot food is often not allowed in offices at all). As a world expert on sandwiches which come in plastic boxes I also in fact think the food at pret is GOOD NOT BAD, which rather undermines Dave's argt (ie that since the food is poor ppl can only be going there for the swank value). The swank value is zero: it's all ordinary supermarket food (M&S is mainly who they're competing with, probbly). The wider economic argt against Starbucks is the strong one: that by economies of scale they can put GOOD coffee shops out of business (good coffee or good ambience or good price or whatever you liked abt em) (ie same as the argt against supermarkets) (except for ambience). But there were NO good coffee shops in most of the UK for most of my lifetime: so maybe I am just in a cargo cultish delirium. Coffeewise, Starbucks is such a MONUMENTAL AND TITANIC improvement eg on the National Milk Bar or haha the Golden Egg c.1976 (also ambiencewise, but I wd concede that Shrewsbury has never been the world capital of ambience so THAT may not be a fair comparison...)

Posted by: mark s at February 24, 2004 12:00 AM

gah i have been trying to write abt tudor-era education policy in a concise and entertaining way, so less grumpy than tormented and mental

Posted by: mark s at February 24, 2004 12:04 AM

mark s's right -- these idealized caff culture reveries are horribly paul welleresque... honest working class autodidacts reading colin mcinnes over a full english breakfast and a cuppa with just the right amount of (white) sock showing.... too close to a bloody style council lp cover for my liking.

being an old geezer i lived thru the golden egg years and can't get all indignant about starbucks -- it's fake and corporate and the drinks are better thought of as warm dairy concoctions than coffee but I'm with james howard kunstler who sez:

"Starbucks provides something very simple, in short supply: agreeable public space. They provide a nice place for you to hang out, and you pay an excessive to ridiculously high price for their coffee product, for occupying space in their business. You pay $3.50 for their stupid coffee concoction, but you stay at their table for an hour and a half. There are so few places that Americans can go, especially real public space, not a mall, so little real public space, that if you put in this artificial substitute, it's wildly successful. Starbucks is selling a public gathering place. Coffee is the enabling mechanism."

probably serves the same purpose in england as i remember. can't say the same about pret though -- they're so grotesquely fake I can't even tell what they're supposed to be an approximation of...

Posted by: Lord Marmite at February 24, 2004 03:04 AM

"forcing many other high street shops out of business because they can't compete with the low unit cost of Starbucks' 'goods'"

I've never been to a Starbucks (I don't drink coffee), but elsewhere their prices are described as "stratospherically high." So they don't seem to be under-cutting the competition.

Posted by: mwanji at February 24, 2004 03:22 AM

i guess i might as well quickly point out the flaw in the marmite boys argument-space is not public if coffee is 2 a cup. the high prices act to filter out the riffraff. the caff performs that function a lot better as tea is between 30p and 60p a cup meaning everybody can go.

Posted by: luke at February 24, 2004 09:53 AM

>"forcing many other high street shops out of business because they can't compete with the low unit cost of Starbucks' 'goods'"

>I've never been to a Starbucks (I don't drink coffee), but elsewhere their prices are described as "stratospherically high."

It's the price of coffe relative to the price of other goods that is the issue. Point is the cost to Starbucks of a cup of coffee is minimal and the mark-up is huge - so their profit margin is enormous. Other types of high street stores find it difficult to compete - Starbucks can afford higher rents, which forces the price of property up.

Posted by: mark k-punk at February 24, 2004 10:49 AM