Friday, July 01, 2005

You fu coff-ee?


I visited my brother’s cafe today.

I like cafes.

Which is just as well, given that I grew up over one.

My family have been running cafes in the same part of London since the mid 1930’s, and for another twenty years before that in a different part of London.

It’s in the blood.

My grandfather opened a place on Stamford Street just before the last War. Given that he was of Italian extraction, he was drafted to drive supply trucks rather than go into combat when the War started. Though I never asked him whilst he was alive, I’m sure that he wasn’t too torn up by that.

Anyway, he drove supply trucks whilst my gran kept the cafe open throughout the War. There probably was a connection. And when they retired and sold-up in the 1960s, my Dad opened a smaller place a few streets away. My brother runs it now.

My brother is the last of the line. I don’t think we’re going to make our centenary. The glory days of the London owner-operated cafe are long past.

Which is a shame.

In their heyday London was dotted with hundreds of them. Each a small kingdom, ruled by a deranged moustachioed Saddam Hussein look-like, dispensing fried breakfasts, individualistic behaviour and bizarre dialogue in equal measure.

Every cafe owner had his own favourite humorous catch phrase which would be repeated time and time again until the luckless recipient finally got the joke or, at least, smiled weakly and pretended to. My parents’ own personal favourites included:

‘Are you having it here or having it away?’

and the timeless

‘You fu coff-ee?’

and so on.

My own favourite catch phrase comes from another London cafe where the owner still asks unsuspecting punters…

‘Do you want butch chips or bitch chips with that?’

It even took me a while to figure out that he was talking about thick cut and French fried, so pity the poor hapless tourist, fresh into town.

Pity also to those customers who challenge the divine authority of the cafe owner.

Years ago my Dad went to mail a parcel at the post office round the corner from his cafe. He was served by a new member of staff who pushed the parcel back to him with the stamps. Accustomed as he was to courteous service from post office staff who were also his own customers, my Dad was a little put out...

Dad:Why are you giving me the parcel back?’

Clerk:So you can put the stamps on it’

Dad:Why can't you do that?’

Clerk:You might have an infectious disease or something’


Fate was kind to my father. A couple of days later the very same clerk came into his cafe and ordered a take-away sandwich. My father put two pieces of bread, a thick slice of cheese and a knob of butter on a plate and shoved it across the counter to his latest customer

Clerk: ‘What's that?’

Dad: ‘A cheese sandwich’

Clerk:What am I supposed to do with that?’

Dad:Make it yourself and if you don't like it, well, why don't you just FUCK OFF!!!’

Which was most entertaining to everyone else in the shop at the time, including me; as none of us had the faintest idea what was going on.

No sirree, you just don't get that level of autonomy and job satisfaction working for Starbucks.

But cafes weren’t about passing trade. Cafes were about regulars coming in to have their usual in a place where everyone knew your name. Like the bar in Cheers but with tea.


A couple of years before he finally retired, my Dad confided to me in one of his more pensive moments...

'I'm not up to this anymore. It's a young man's game. I can't handle all this new technology and new-fangled stuff. I don't know what people want anymore.'

He wasn't referring to installing a WiFi point on his premises or anything like that. He was talking about putting avocados in his sandwiches.

Times changed. Tastes changed, or rather were changed. The old generation of cafe owners got older and more out of touch with the times, and their shop decor, painted when Al Pacino was young and David Bowie was in the charts, aged with them.

And then Starbucks, and all those Starbucks clones appeared.

Credit where credit is due though. I wish my Dad had figured out a way to con people into paying three quid for a cup of coffee - I’d be typing this on yacht somewhere warm now.

And what does buying ludicrously expensive cups of coffee get us?

Thousands and thousands of identical stores; same furniture, same product, same minimum-waged, bitch-slapped staff.

They have the profit margins, the marketing, the economies of scale and the infrastructure to sweep the board clean of all opposition. My poor brother in his poxy little shop hasn’t a hope – taxes have gone up, regulation has increased and the overall level of bullshit required for one person to run a small business in this city is verging on the insurmountable. The game is weighted in favour of the big companies and that didn’t happen by accident.

It’s not just cafes though is it? And it’s not just other types of small businesses either. The days of the McTeacher, the McNurse and the McPoliceman are at hand and nobody seems to be doing very much to stop it.

And who benefits from the growth of the big at the expense of the small and individual? It’s certainly not the employees. The customers don’t do so well out of the deal either (three quid for a coffee???) and the suppliers get rogered wholesale.

Well, it must be the shareholders then.

Have you seen the kind of dividends those big companies pay out?

They’re not very large

And, if you fancy a giggle, buy a few shares in the company of your choice then see if you’re allowed access to company property or honest information about the company you supposedly part-own.

Nope. The tiniest handful of people benefits from all of this creeping gigantism. That tiny, self-selecting minority of people who manage those vile, cancerous organisations, and we are all their bitches.



"...and if you walk to the end of the block, there sits a Starbucks. And directly across the street -- in the exact same building as that Starbucks -- there is... another Starbucks. There is a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks! And ladies and gentlemen, THAT is the end of the universe." - Lewis Black

(category: other stuff)


Ellie said...

hello, I just want to let you know I really enjoy reading your posts and I can totally relate to this one on cafes and starbucks. It's not just cafes, it's almost everything else isn't it?

rahid said...

Not sure where you got the Lewis Black quote from but i like it.
Here a link to a slab more DailyShow clips and wot not - bit US-centric as you would expect, but still.

Stef said...

@Ellie: Thanks and yes, it is and it's only going to get worse. Much worse

@rahid: thanks for the links - not having visited the States recently, I miss the Daily Show and grab whatever I can, whenever I can