Photo credit: Bem Coffee/ Sept 2020/ https://www.instagram.com/Bemcoffee/
The last few years have seen a boom in the number of independent cafes and coffee shops opening in our local villages and towns, even despite the obstacles created by COVID-19 such as lockdowns. Following a survey by Café Culture, John Richardson — a business advisor — commented: ‘Despite the relentless growth of ten large chains, there is still substantial growth and confidence within the independent sector with plenty of scope to take the large chains on, regardless of what is often claimed.’ It is understandable why- they come with a homey, friendly, unique vibe and offer more of the coffee experience which people now favour over a more grab-and-run approach.
The success of these businesses is illustrated in statistics also. In 2018, independent stores enjoyed higher sales in the UK than chains, and the UK was the number one in Europe for growth in branded coffee outlets. It was estimated that in 2020 there would be over 30,000 coffee premises in the UK, with the market worth about £9 billion. ‘The Rise of Independents UK 2019’ Allegra World Coffee Portal’s report was the first dedicated to the UK independent coffee sector and argued that these stores face difficult challenges in the UK’s toughening retail climate and highlighted some interesting figures. Over 7,000 independents operated in the UK at this time, with an estimated value of £2.4 billion, serving over 10.5 million cups of coffee every week. A 4% annual outlet growth was also reported, representing an estimated 260 new sites. More than 70% of independent café consumers surveyed purchase coffee to drink in-store, compared to 56 per cent of branded chain customers. Allegra CEO Jeffrey Young said: ‘There’s no doubt independent coffee shops face an uphill struggle compared to scaled competitors [including Costa Coffee and Starbucks]… but those independent cafés defined by razor-sharp menu quality and seamless, highly personalised hospitality face a very bright future indeed. I’m highly excited to see what the innovation a new generation of independent businesses bring to the market over the next few years.’
UK Independent Coffee Shops in Numbers/ Allegra World Coffee Portal/ https://www.worldcoffeeportal.com/Latest/News/2019/July/Independent-Cafes-Fly-the-Flag-for-UK-Coffee-Innov
So what is it about independent cafes which are now making them more respected over branded chains that often compete on location, convenience and price? The first is a personal experience. There is something really special about café staff remembering your name and order and being able to have a friendly chat with them instead of the factory sort of manner that is usually the case with busy chain stores. Smaller cafes have found unique ways to elevate the experience, making you want to come back and have their coffee as part of your mourning routine. Through several reports and surveys, it has been ascertained that modern consumers are happier to pay more for better quality coffee. Those who work at the coffee shop will also be people from the local area, with a vested interest in the population and care for its people. The local community will likely be the majority of their income, so they must strike up a good relationship. Locally owned businesses have more freedom to make decisions and are therefore more likely to be able to cater to their customers’ needs. These stores will also likely have unique, relaxed décor, making you want to meet up with your friends or family for a few hours and share a piece of cake or have lunch. The better service and relationship they have with people, the better their business does.
Bem Coffee, found in the heart of St John’s Village in Woking (Surrey), pride themselves on their ‘friendly, relaxing atmosphere and the best locally roasted coffee’. The village was founded in the 19th century and is found alongside the Basingstoke Canal. Its amenities include a pharmacy, small supermarket, restaurants and other small businesses including a pottery painting café and St John’s Lye, an open space for leisure use. Bem (deriving from ‘good’, as the owner grew up in Rio de Janeiro) is perfectly situated right in the village centre, close to the green spaces. They offer loyalty cards and an online scheme - a free coffee after purchasing 10 – with people travelling many miles from around to get their coffee. They also have a ‘regulars’ section on their cash register meaning those that come in regularly and order the same thing have a faster checkout service. This helps create a real sense of community, as groups of friends meet almost every morning for a couple of hours. It has been described by customers as a ‘Gem of a place in St John’s’ on TripAdvisor, illustrating how well-loved and how much of an integral part the café plays in the village community.
Coupled with these coffee shops caring deeply about the local community, they are often also champions of the environment. As such, they choose to run their business in a more sustainable way, including biodegradable takeaway cups, selling reusable cups (sometimes offering a discount if you bring your own) and using fairtrade or local coffee beans. They also typically consume less land, locate closer to residents and create less traffic and air pollution as they are a walkable distance for many. All of this leads to less crowding, less habitat loss and a reduced impact on the environment. For example, Bem uses CoffeeReal blends, a company that works with coffee farmers from prime growing areas worldwide and moulds valuable, mutually beneficial, relationships with the families that grow coffee. BEM is also undertaking several local environmental initiatives, including turning the used ground coffee into fertiliser and recycling milk cartons separately.
Small, independent cafes play an integral part in strengthening the local economy. Their investment creates job opportunities, and since most employees will be from the local area, this automatically comes with a level of care for the area and its people. The local businesses will likely help each other, for example, by advertising through posters or business cards. Bem does this, promoting the local hairdresser and tattoo studio in their space. They have also raised money for local charities, for example, as of September 2022, they raised over £1,500 for Woking & Sam Beare Hospice (which delivers palliative and end-of-life care to people in northwest Surrey) through their collection tin donations. They also have a book exchange, where local people can trade books, with donations gratefully accepted. In the past, Bem also held evening book clubs, another way for the local community to be brought together. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the coffee shop stayed open for takeaway or outdoor seating when restrictions allowed as there was such high demand for their business, indicating again just how integral the café was to the local community.
When asked on this subject, the staff at Bem said: 'Bem is one of many small, independent businesses in St John's. Our customers are our community, so serving them right is very important to us. We strive to provide a safe, comfortable and welcoming space for all, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic; nowadays, people apprecaite much more the importancce of connecting with friends, family and their communtiy. We do our best to make Bem a placve that makes this possible'.
To finish, it is essential to support local businesses such as the resident coffee shop, as not only do they have excellent coffee, cakes and food, the money spent there will go back into the community, helping support programmes important to yourself, your family and those needing assistance. The products are likely less travelled, reducing the carbon footprint, better for you as they are not so mass-produced, and expertly tailored to the local communities, changing with the seasons and the needs of its people. Therefore, please do support these businesses where you can.
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