Cafe branding needs designer difference

When UK designer Mark Landini returned briefly to London earlier this year after a year away in Sydney, Australia, he said the thing that he most noticed was the rash of coffee shops around the place. The explosion of fastish branded beverage outlets, selling coffee, soup, juice and now tea, is one of the high street phenomena of the late Nineties.

The opening this week of Van den Berg’s Design House-designed Ch’a only adds to the competition. The fact that Nestle is following suit, suggests that the rash Landini perceived is spreading.

If you couple the boom in beverage drinking with developments in book retailing over the past year or so, with high street brands Waterstone’s and Borders broadening their offer to include cafes and seating, you might assume that we’re returning to our literary roots. But you don’t find many people reading more than a horoscope as they lap up their latte in a coffee shop.

Alternatively, we could be aping the Continental cafe society. But while the latter might be true of the cappuccino bars largely frequented by the gay community in areas such as London’s Old Compton Street, these new branded establishments tend to have more to do with convenience than character. Like McDonald’s, they’re predictable and safe – you know exactly what you’re getting in what kind of environment, regardless of location.

Branded cafes aren’t new. Apart from small local chains attached to bakeries or stores such as the old Littlewoods, there were the legendary Lyons Corner Houses in London, renowned for their “nippies” – waitresses in black, with sensible shoes and starched white aprons and hats.

The big difference now is price. While Lyons was the poor person’s alternative to, say, Fortnum Mason’s or the Ritz, both in London’s then fashionable Piccadilly, today’s hot drinks and juice bars sell their wares at premium prices. Personal service was previously also an issue, whereas now it’s about branding, with customers settling for paper cups and plastic sandwich boxes even when their purchases aren’t takeaway.

The trend has been good for design, and some of the chains have successfully blended restaurant with retail. Din Associates’ scheme for Soup Opera in London’s Canary Wharf, for example, won Design Week’s retail award earlier this year. But on the whole it is branding run riot.

We can only hope that unbranded independents fight back, using design to point up their differences rather than give them the superficial gloss of a nationwide chain.

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