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The Buzz of the ’Cappuccino Community’


Just five years ago Britain’s coffee houses were in a sorry state of decline. Today, and confounding many pundits’ expectations, coffee houses are springing up across the UK’s cities, towns and villages in the form of latte-serving cafes and coffee shop chains. But, what is everyday life like in these new public places in the city? And is Britain’s new cappuccino community livelier than the traditional pub crowd?

Researchers, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and based at Glasgow University have spent three years exploring Britain’s burgeoning cafe sector. “Britain’s coffee house phenomenon is under-researched,” researcher Dr Eric Laurier points out, “and what we wanted to do was take the time to examine, patiently and attentively, what is actually happening in these cafes.” To this end, researchers used a variety of methods ranging from video recording to serving coffee themselves to investigate the relationship between cafes and our everyday life.

In their findings the researchers documented how cafes are a vital part of our public life where we encounter people who are neither our private family and friends nor our colleagues from work. They examined how the barista has emerged as a new form of public personality who de-anonymises our daily life in the city, as well as being a skilled maker of espresso-based drinks. In our ever more mobile lives they investigated the cafes role in providing places for resting but also places for working. Relatedly they took up the importance of scenes in the city, be they business, literary or social and the cafes part in hosting those ephemeral but essential features of our restless urban life.

Above all the researchers found them to be places of hospitality, enjoyment and encounter for a very wide variety of people. It is not that cafes are all about cosmopolitanism, they also provide particular gathering places for particular groups of people such as business people congregating for informal meetings, groups of women with newborn babies sharing experiences or shoppers taking a break from the High Street. Each cafe has its crowd and each cafe generates an ambience, a ‘buzz’ for that crowd. And, in today’s newly reinvigorated cities, the value of the ambience and daily eventfulness afforded to city residents, daytrippers, tourists and others by both the staff and those already customers seated in the cafe should not be underestimated.

Does the rising dominance of the cafe spell the end for British pubs? “One of our most striking observations,” Dr Laurier explains, “is the remarkable variety of activities and events – from childrearing to insurance-selling – which cafes host. Clearly it is hard to imagine many of these activities being welcomed and nurtured in the traditional British pub. However, many pubs have responded to ‘cappuccino culture’ by changing to become more like cafes themselves during the day. And, as the success of cafes is due, in part at least, to additional spending power and increased willingness to dine out, it seems unlikely that pub trade will suffer due to the growing popularity of cafes.”

So is this ‘cappuccino community’ here to stay? Over the centuries, cafe culture in Britain has ebbed and flowed while remaining far more constant among European countries such as France, Italy and Spain. As a result, coffee house chains such as Caffe Nero found it difficult initially to attract funding for the UK as investors feared interest in exotic coffees to be a passing fad. But, confidence in the longer term security of Britain’s coffee house may now be justified, say researchers. Reasons range from women’s greater disposable income to an increasing number of returning holidaymakers who wish to replicate their experiences of drinking high quality coffee abroad. Most importantly, perhaps, the British peoples are enjoying the buzz that we get, not from the coffee, but from being in a place with people we have things in common with and people we don’t. The buzz of an intimate occasion that makes the collective space of our cities into a place that is temporarily our place.

Alexandra Saxon | alfa
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