Joanna Blythman: Will the coffee bubble ever burst?

Demand for coffee is booming, but will it last? With three new cafés opening daily in the UK, Joanna Blythman contemplates how long this can go on for.

Eight white cups filled with different types of coffee

Fancy going for a coffee? You’ll have no problem finding one. UK streets are lined with coffee bars, around 23,000 of them, with three new ones opening daily. And we haven’t necessarily reached ‘peak coffee’ – it’s estimated that by 2030 there will be more coffee bars than pubs in Britain. As someone who doesn’t drink booze unless there’s something nice to eat with it, you’re more likely to find me in cafés than pubs, but I can’t help thinking this caffeine-fuelled surge has got out of hand.

I’m dismayed by the steady encroachment of coffee chain branches, popping up seemingly overnight where the bank, butcher, greengrocer, or newsagent used to be. Thank heavens for hipsters, I think, when a new coffee place that isn’t a franchise opens – at least independent cafés bring some diversity to monotonous, clone town streets. Maybe greasy spoons needed some de-greasing, but more and more I find myself thinking ‘not another one!’ when the latest smart coffee place appears.

There’s the cost for a start: the UK coffee market is split between cheaper chains that claim to democratise the coffee-drinking experience, and indie outfits of varying quality but uniformly branded as exclusive as soon as they open. I understand that if you’re young, living in a cramped flatshare, and can’t afford a pension or mortgage, you’re more inclined to buy so-called ‘small, affordable luxuries’, like supposedly superior coffee in cool surroundings. But the other day, I met a mate for such a coffee, shared an unexciting brownie and was presented with an £11 bill! I’m not up for repeating this exercise often; we’ll have coffee at home next time.

White coffee cup filled with beans

I appreciate that a job in a fancy coffee shop is a lot more appealing than one in a factory or call centre – you get to call yourself a ‘barista’, a term that bestows an automatic aura of cool. It does not, however, guarantee a living wage. I’ve heard of young wannabe illustrators and actors taking poorly paid barista work so they could add the words ‘artisan’ and ‘craft’ to their CVs.

I know a few home bakers who supply coffee bars with carrot cake, Victoria sponge and the like at £1 a slice, which the proprietors then sell for £3 a pop; no wonder everyone wants to open a coffee shop! The profit margin on a cup of coffee is an estimated 63-85%, and coffee bars also have lower costs than other food outlets, such as delis. They can get away with employing the bare minimum of staff without irritating customers, because people seem strangely resigned to waiting patiently as some over-burdened barista works through the orders.

Surely the bubble must burst. The café trade certainly expects that to happen. The industry’s trade journals regularly report complaints from local authority councillors that coffee shops are taking over high streets to the detriment of an evenly mixed retail environment. For now, whether you’re talking indies or chains, Britain’s coffee scene seems unstoppable. But it is a patently overcrowded market, and many things lose their gloss when they become ubiquitous – even coffee.

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Joanna Blythman - Behind the headlines

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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4. 

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