#guardiancoffee – Shoreditch Boxpark

August 14, 2013

In my last but one post, a review of Veloton in Tetbury, I made some observations about the power of customer recommendations and the increasing availability and acceptability of comments and reviews. Every café now operates in three orders of space, what you find, what you remember, and what you tell everyone who follows your Instagram or Twitter feed. Many cafés participate brilliantly in the sphere of digital media, using it as a chance to discuss things with customers, share positive comments more widely, respond to criticism, and share in the coffee community. Even when, as in the case of Caffeine Magazine, a new print organ starts up, it must and does maintain a vibrant digital presence and a beautiful iPad application. While there is no substitute for pant-wettingly good coffee, the digital space is somewhere you can enhance your reputation, attract custom, and nurture your and others’ love for coffee.

So that's what goes into my coffee?

So that’s what goes into my coffee?

Having made these observations, I then found myself yesterday walking past the Shoreditch Boxpark assembly. A cargo container temple to transient cool (sometimes the quick turnover isn’t good, as in when the fantastic Art Against Knives moved out), Boxpark is home to a café that surely exemplifies my ideas about customer interactivity in the digital age: #guardiancoffee. I mean, it’s got a hashtag as a name. A rather forced nominative determinism that may be, but there is no doubting #guardiancoffee (I think I’ll be Ctrl-V-ing that from now on) has tried to position itself right into that space, as well as garner some good publicity for the parent company. Now I do read the Guardian, mostly because Jonathan Wilson writes for them, but I wouldn’t say that I am slavish in that choice, or that I make it for some sort of ethical or political reason. I think they have the most astute and imaginative football writers, and if you know me well, you’ll know I have a significant interest in that too. So, I approached #guardiancoffee with an open mind.

It’s fair to say that #guardiancoffee hasn’t been that well received. From first principles though, the coffee was excellent. They are using Nude’s ‘East’ espresso blend and I first ordered a double shot of that. The shot was pretty flawless, actually, with good crema and rounded plummy notes dissolving into a mellow, chocolately sweetness. I was impressed and it is difficult to argue with the fact that, at least as far as supplier and baristas are concerned, coffee is front and centre. I then picked up a piccolo, which was excellent. The milk was well stretched, not too foamy, and the cocoa aftertaste of the Nude wove itself beautifully into the milk. The barista was on her own, which could have been problematic if the place had been a little busier, as she was very good and thus took her time to craft the drinks. But all in all, a big thumbs up for the actual coffee. The space was comfortable, if maybe a little sterile, and the invasive ‘Big Paper’ (as the Fiver football mail-out calls it) branding was distractingly ubiquitous. Naked dangling lightbulbs are also starting to become an incitement to vandalism, but that’s a personal thing.

#guardiancoffee - or alt-3 guardiancoffee on a Mac

#guardiancoffee – or alt-3 guardiancoffee on a Mac

So what of the rest of it? I think it’s very easy to have a pop at #guardiancoffee – after all, there are few things as achingly hipster-tryhard as calling your cafe a hashtag, though again, I do understand why, if you are trying to generate content and interaction. I do want to stress once again that the coffee itself is excellent and the barista deserves praise for both her skill and her patience with her photo-taking customers (mea culpa). But, it’s the idea behind the place, not the coffee, which is my gripe. The infographics of coffee on the back wall are clever and funny and pretty to look at, but most regular coffee drinkers know that information anyway, or can find it themselves if they’re sufficiently interested, so it’s an aesthetic impact achieved, rather than an informative one. The large screen which updates things like numbers of coffees bought, tweets directed to the hashtag (room for jokes there, though there have been questions about the impartiality of the referral system), and information about coffee growing and so on is diverting at best and gimmicky at worst. The whole digital interaction aspect seemed, to my untutored eye at least, to be all surface, no feeling. A hashtag and a few screens do not interactivity make, and while I didn’t attend in the halcyon early days when there was perhaps more genuine interest in the newness of the approach, it seemed, ironically, like a paper exercise in branding rather than a real attempt to deliver on creating genuine social media engagement. That, or a clever parody of a ‘self-facilitating media node’ and I just didn’t get it.

Hmm.

Hmm.

And why does this matter? Well, and not to harp on about it, but coffee is an intensely communal enterprise. It is a drink of conversation, of interaction. I have lost track of the number of times I have been in café and met interesting people and ended up chatting and sharing ideas, in many instances staying friends with those people afterwards. I have experienced this both as a customer and when I worked in a café years ago. The physical space of a café seems to encourage the delimiting of relationships, allowing, within the confines of politeness I suppose, the chance to reach out to the people around you and talk about whatever it is you want. Even the coffee itself is a source of conversation, between customers, between customers and baristas, and between reviewers and bloggers and the wider world. Because the coffee scene is vibrant in the digital space already too, and even as I’m writing this, I’m participating in that engagement. Therefore, I think that #guardiancoffee is an unfortunately reductive attempt to harness this, mostly as a branding exercise. I can’t really see any other point. All the goods things #guardiancoffee is trying to do are being done already without needing a well-meaning prod from the self-declared innovators of digital/social engagement. That’s not to say it isn’t worth encouraging even more, and #guardiancoffee might do that for some people; if so, marvellous. I just hope those people realise they didn’t need anyone’s encouragement or permission to dive into the world of conversation that is going on in every coffee shop in every town everywhere. Instead, try striking up a conversation with the person serving your coffee today, even if it’s just to ask how their day has been. You’ll find it more rewarding than hashtagging anything.

#guardiancoffee, Shoreditch Boxpark, 2-4 Bethnal Green Road, E1 6GY

Website with details

Also on Twitter as #guardiancoffee – the other accounts seem fake, but who knows these days, eh?

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2 Responses to “#guardiancoffee – Shoreditch Boxpark”

  1. Miami Swamp Says:

    Reblogged this on MiamiSwamp.


  2. Definitely sounds like a coffee shop of two halves 🙂


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