Is Starbucks Killing the British Tea Hour?


Jan. 28, 2007 — -- During the early stages of the Starbucks revolution, there was an illustration in the New Yorker which aptly described the phenomenon. It showed two display tables in a bookstore, books piled on, and shoppers passing along quite indifferently. One read "second hand," the other "latte-stained."

This is the generation of the coffee shop, of the extra shot, of the chai to go, of the rise of the paper cup and the paper-cup sleeve. In every neighborhood, residents see coffee shops emerging, and the trend is more global than we think.

Britain, the country of the "cuppa tea" and afternoon tea parties, is now the world's second-largest market for coffee chains. Of the over 2,700 American-style coffee bars in the United Kingdom, Starbucks is of course in the lead with 530 stores, closely followed by Britsh-owned chains Costa Coffee and Caffé Nerro.

If analysts agree that the trend started in the '90s, it has infiltrated the British lifestyle in the past five years, finding grounds to develop where tea ceremonies couldn't. Coffee shops have opened in bookstores and even clothing stores like Esprit and high-end department stores like Selfridges, offering drinks, snacks and wireless Web surfing.

For tea consultant Ellen Easton, the tradition of tea is still there, but it just couldn't follow.

"Due to time constraints," she explains, "the traditions of home entertaining have now been reserved for weekends, special occasions and business functions."

To retail analyst Jeffrey Young, of London-based Allegra Strategies, the multiplication of coffee shops is driven by a newfound inclination to indulge ourselves, to take ME-time, but take it quick.

"Spending two pounds (approx. $3.90) per day on coffee is quite a chunk of change at the end of the year. Yet it is an indulgence we are willing to spend on," he explains.

Even businesses like the real estate brokerage Foxtons put coffee shops right inside their offices. Foxtons started in 2002 in its London Park Lane agency. Today, in almost all of its agencies, potential clients discuss the first stage of negotiations with their agents over coffee.

"If you're sharing important information, going through a divorce or committing your personal savings, it's nice to do it in a relaxed way, where you're not as easily overheard," says Foxtons representative Rosie Nagle.

Despite Britain's long tradition of tea drinking, the coffee-on-the-go formula has thrived where tea ceremonies cannot. Besides, there is just not the same buzz around tea.

"The smell of coffee, the retro look of the espresso machine, the sound of the grinder, all give an atmosphere that is highly attractive," explains Young. And it pays for coffee chains, which open around 250 new shops every year.

Britain's No. 2 chain, Costa Coffee, has grown to the point that its parent company renamed its famous contemporary book award the Whitbread, now calling it the Costa Book Award -- a change much discussed, and resented.

Giles Foden, who won the 1999 Whitbread Book Award for his book "The Last King of Scotland," writes in his blog: "It was an honor at the time, and has been since; but if it happened to me now, I'm not sure I'd want the award to be mentioned on my book jackets."

Yet we too easily forget the long British tradition of coffee houses, and especially that they hosted the greatest British minds of the 18th century. Long before Starbucks, London's 18th century coffee houses were nicknamed "penny universities," because for a penny, the price a cup of coffee, one could get an education mingling with writers and philosophers.

American patriots are said to have planted the seeds of the Revolution in places like Lloyd's coffeehouse, where men discussed business. (Lloyd's became a bank in 1771 and is today one of the U.K.'s largest.) Apparently, coffee houses also made great sobering stops for yesteryear tavern-hoppers.

The huge explosion of coffee houses across Britain does not concern Bill Gorman, executive chairman of the U.K. Tea Council, who sees coffee as "an honorable competitor."

The consumption of coffee is still well behind that of tea in Britain, where about 120 million cups of tea are sipped each day, against 80 million cups of coffee, according to Allegra Strategies. Part of the explanation, according to Gorman, is that it is easy to boil a kettle of hot water, but difficult to make a decent cup of coffee from an instant machine.

"Starbucks does an excellent coffee," he sums up, "but you cannot replicate it at home."

On the very top end of London society, the tradition of tea is not losing speed either. Manager of the Ritz's tea room, Michael Kotb, explains that family, friends and business partners have rediscovered the pleasures of gathering around a pretty tea set. Women enjoy dressing up to bask in the luxury of the beautiful lounges of London's poshest hotels like the Ritz, Claridge or the Savoy.

As a result, one must book three weeks in advance to enjoy an afternoon tea at the Ritz, and that is only during weekdays. Weekend tables must be reserved two to three months in advance.

"No matter how poor or rich you are, we make people feel really good, like at home," explains Kotb.

British writer Simon Fanshawe sums it up best when he says that tea is either absolutely everyday or the ultimate in class.

Unless Alexander Litvinenko's alleged poisoning with contaminated tea at the Millenium Hotel provokes a drastic backlash, the centuries-old tradition is likely to remain for centuries to come.

There is no way to escape the custom, and foreigners easily pick it up. Having lived in England for little under a year, I now often accept a "cuppa tea" at the office or at a friend's house. After all, tea is cheap and easy to make. The good news is, if tea is not your cup of tea, a good ol' pint of lager is never far away.