Harris + Hoole, Crouch End Broadway
December 11, 2012
Harris + Hoole are an insidious attempt by a supermarket chain to steal our coffee affections. Harris + Hoole are democratising coffee and elevating the quality of ‘high street’ coffee. Harris + Hoole are somewhere between an independent and a chain and will sink in the confusion of their own, slightly nebulous identity. These are just some of the opinions which have been posited in the wake of Tesco’s decision to finance and keep a forty-nine per cent stake in Harris + Hoole, a coffee chain set up by the family behind Taylor Street. The opening of the chain’s first enclave in Amersham attracted more than the usual level of interest for the establishment of such a venture: see the Guardian’s piece here, for example. The place of independents and chains in the affections of community stake-holders received a certain amount of attention with the Harris + Hoole development, as well as the Totnes Costa battle, and caused a degree of thinking here and elsewhere about the nature of cafés and coffee purveyors. And so I thought it only fair to suspend judgement until I’d visited. And lo, an H + H sprung up in my very own Crouch End, and it was decided.
It is only fair to address the coffee before discussing anything else. I had my customary double of drinks, ordering an espresso and a piccolo, as I felt that would be the closest approximation to how I like to drink a macchiato (the semantics of coffee nomenclature in this one drink being a spectrum of confusion, depending on where you are). The chain uses Union’s hand-roasted Guatemalan Finca Montanita, a cheery, fruity blend which tends work fairly well with milk, but sometimes seems a little shy on its own. The espresso was well-made, immediately drinkable, indeed almost a little too cold if anything. The crema was thick enough though the body felt a little insipid, which I think is a fault of the roast, not the barista. The piccolo was a little too foamy on top but the fruity accents of the blend held their own well. The milk was well stretched and warming, and it was a superior drink to the espresso. There is a board behind the machines which lists details of extraction times, temperature, and weights, which I think is marvellous (for those who care: 25 second extraction at 93 degrees on an 18 g in the basket, 29 g in the cup drink). The public acknowledgement of the complexities of good production is a most welcome sign, as is the information that all baristas undertake a four day, pass-or-fail, course to hone their skills. This is where the Taylor Street chaps and chapesses come in, providing the know-how. And, all things considered, they’ve done a good job. The coffee is not amazing but it’s significantly better than your Starbucks etc. Indeed, if somewhere like Prufrock is a ten, and Starbucks is a one, then H + H is six and a half, creeping to seven.
If Taylor Street are bringing the coffee, Tesco are bringing the financial muscle and, probably, the ethos. The layout of the venue speaks of genuine quality. This is not a musty, damp Starbucks, seats stained with the sweat and spillages of countless tourists (yes, New Oxford Street branch, I’m thinking of you when I say this), but very clean, warm, and artful – like a Byron for coffee, perhaps. There are two new machines and two new, large grinders, and the investment is obvious. Staff levels are more on a par with independents than chains, too. There are around seven or even eight people serving and all are friendly, chatty, and happy to talk coffee. The venue may be fairly new, but there is still a palpable sense of enjoyment at working there among the staff, which is more akin to most independents (perhaps the consistently über-serious Monmouth aside). But, and here’s the crucial point, from everything I can see and infer from the way Harris + Hoole is structured, independents are not their primary competition. Under the details of how the coffee is made I quoted above, there is a statement: “Quality – this is what sets us apart from other high street coffee shops.” To my mind, that phrase suggests that Nero, Costa, and Starbucks are the competition. Arguably, the independents might suffer from a well backed, higher quality competitor, but I don’t get the sense that Harris & Hoole is out to displace that sort of venture; indeed, it would be odd that Taylor Street would collaborate if H + H were (though James Daunt did jump to Waterstones, so who knows?).
My feeling is that Tesco saw a trend, that independents were increasingly shaping demand among certain segments of society when they came to buy their coffee. People have come to expect higher standards, standards not delivered by Nero et al. when compared to the Prufrocks and Vagabonds of this world. They have also come to associate good coffee with friendly baristas, fun and interestingly-designed venues, and a sense of community which none of the chains have ever, in my opinion, delivered. Harris + Hoole seems like a deliberate positioning to grab people from the high street chains who want better, but were maybe put off by the unfamiliarity of some independents: consumers build relationships, which is why people still go to Starbucks, even when it’s crap and they know there’s better out there; they default to what they know in case the grass isn’t actually greener. Harris + Hoole can achieve a market penetration, with Tesco’s help and the numerous vacancies left on high streets all over the country by the recession, which allows them to become that familiar face (the tax evasion uproar won’t harm them either). This is, I suspect, why the independents won’t be badly affected. And if more people are exposed to better coffee, to a process which acknowledges the skill of a barista and the work behind a good drink, then some will start to venture further afield and feel comfortable with menus that don’t include frappucinos. And that is no bad thing.
Harris + Hoole, 9 The Broadway, Crouch End, N8 8DU
Also on Twitter: @HandH_CrouchEnd and @HarrisAndHoole