I can remember the first time I ever went to a Starbucks. It was in Florida about eleven years ago. It was such a novelty going out for coffee that we went every single day while were there. I had a latte and something called a Heath Bar (although for the first week I thought it was called a Health Bar until the guy on the till told me, in a thick American drawl “their ain’t nothing healthy about this ma’am”). I even brought back Starbucks mugs carefully wrapped in t-shirts and socks so they didn’t get damaged on the flight back. I still have them.
If you think that is a bit excessive to risk a suitcase full of broken crockery then you probably would be right but going out for coffee was just something that we didn’t do at home. We never had. We went out for fizzy pop or a good old-fashioned pint of beer but not coffee. We had coffee at home. A jar of instant Maxwell House or, if we were really unlucky, a bottle of liquid Camp that looked like a by product from the oil industry.
Fast forward a few years and pubs are closing in their droves, coffee houses are springing up by the dozen and go out for more coffee than I care to admit to my bank manager. I don’t remember when the first Starbucks, Costa or Nero’s opened their doors in Sheffield or when every restaurant began offering a plethora of coffees on the back of their drinks menus or when I began ordering a large Americano in my (still open) local pub but it happened. At some point it happened.
In our little village is a new cafe – The Art House, I think at one time it was one, if not two, houses. It sits next to a quaint florist and gift shop and has several handy parking spaces outside. It catches the sun on the front terrace, inside the walls are painted bright white and decorated with the work of local artists. More often than not it is full to capacity.
Travel some fifteen miles into the city and there is a slightly smaller venue, darker in decoration than The Art House but no less inviting. It is furnished with mismatched tables and chairs. There are fresh flowers next to the till. Tamper Coffee is owned and operated by New Zealand native Jonathan Perry.
Judging by the banter that was going on during our visit on Saturday I would say that he has a fair few regulars and I can see why. The coffee is wonderful and beautifully served. There are small espresso cups of warm milk dusted with chocolate, served with marshmallows for the kids and there is a mouthwatering menu of food, both savoury and sweet to tempt and tingle your taste buds.
We drank espresso’s and flat whites while indulging on mint and Mars Bar brownies. No one minded that our son was toddling around. While we enjoyed our coffee and he enjoyed pulling the top of the ketchup tomato the place filled up and the seats outside (there is a table or two out on the street) were occupied. The coffee machine whirred and the tamper thumped down the coffee grinds. We lingered for as long as you can when out with a little kid, paid our bill and chatted a little to Jonathan before leaving.
Although they are miles apart geographically and are in completely different settings The Art House and Tamper Coffee have such similarities. They are independents, they offer excellent, fresh food that doesn’t come wrapped in cellophane and they know how to make coffee. But best of all, you are acknowledged when you walk in and when you leave. You genuinely feel that they value your custom and will welcome you back.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that when I don’t want to make a decision I know I can walk in to a Starbucks, order a tall skinny late and an egg sandwich and know exactly what I am getting whether I am in Starbucks Sheffield or Southampton and I have no intention of stopping using them but I also want to hunt out more independents. Where most independents beat the chains is in their personal service, their local art displays and their piping hot coffee, the local banter from regular customers adds to the ambience and the delicious ever changing menus of fresh food – often locally sourced and organic – are just what are cities and villages need. That is where independents have the edge.
Where is your favourite coffee house? What does a coffee house have to offer for you to go to it? I would love to hear from you.