Jim Duffy: Time to spill the beans - I'm a coffee addict

Why do we all queue up just to pay over the odds for a caffeine drink prepared by a psychology graduate? It's a fix says Jim Duffy

The nation's addiction has led to the number of coffee shops in the UK rising to 19,000, set to reach 27,000 by 2020.
The nation's addiction has led to the number of coffee shops in the UK rising to 19,000, set to reach 27,000 by 2020.

Hi, my name is Jim and I’m an addict.

I’m in Manchester this week and like all big UK cities it has more than its fair share of coffee shops. On every corner in the city centre there is a coffee shop - primarily from one of the big chains. As I walked back to my hotel last night, one of my colleagues asked “are you a Starbucks or Costa man?” People who know me know I’m my own man, but I offered an answer all the same. But, it just dawned on me, as I saw all these coffee shops full of addicts, that this beverage and those who punt it to us have many of us hooked.

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There are currently over 19,000 coffee shops in the UK. This figure is set to rise to 27,000 by 2020. I saw the coffee wave hitting us over the last decade, but never expected this tsunami to continue. Old banks and landmark buildings have now morphed into coffee shops across our cities. Indeed the old-style central business district, or CBD (yes, I passed ‘O’ Grade geography), has now been transformed into the CCD or ‘central coffee district’. I’m not complaining at all. These outlets are usually very smart and fill many of the voids in shop-front leases as more traditional businesses move out. As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, they also create jobs for our highly qualified students. A friend of mine only last week gushed at her daughter, who graduated from university with 2:1 in psychology, being offered barista training at a well-known coffee provider. A sign of the times … so, let’s explore a little more of the coffee experience.

Like any good business model should, if executed well, the coffee shop chains model is raking it in. It costs me a fiver every time I go into one. A fiver! Yes, that’s the blue note that used to have some meaning. With a five-spot, I could buy a jar of freeze-dried instant coffee from the supermarket. In fact, nowadays, I can buy some really fancy coffee there. My instant has now been developed into bean-to-cup style barista coffee in a jar, where I believe that I’m getting a coffee almost as good as one doled out at a high street outlet. Don’t you just love innovation? Hence, my reticence every time I pull out a fiver from my trouser pocket in a coffee shop. Ah, but first there’s the queue.

This bit really perplexes me. I have to queue up sometimes in a line of eight to ten other addicts. It’s ridiculous. We are all queuing up to pay over the odds for a caffeine drink prepared by a psychology graduate. As I get to the front of the queue, I’ve now had to listen to some guy yap on his phone rather loudly for the past 10 minutes, while I hear frequent sharp bangs in my earhole: those of the psychology graduate emptying old coffee grinds into a bin as she wallops it against a bar on the machine. No real innovation there then. I’ve also had to pass ambient chillers full of overpriced sandwiches, wraps and cakes. Not to mention flapjacks, muffins, cookies and other calorie-ridden sugar-filled treats. I guess I’m a sugar addict too as well as a coffee addict because, in order to spend my fiver good and proper, I give into my frailties and have a skinny blueberry bran-topped muffin (with 400 calories marked on the marketing material).

I order, and this is the bit that annoys me the most (albeit as part of my addiction, I will tolerate it) - I feel rushed! I’ve waited patiently and queued with some panache. I have my money ready and my order trips off my tongue. But, then it all gets a bit frenetic. Like every junkie, there are things one must just put up with to get a fix. I’m there as the psychology graduate hammers the old grinds across the bar and churns the new beans, while her assistant readies a tray. I’m having to think fast about milk, napkins, sugar and, of course, a decent table.

It’s not exactly a customer experience, but as addicts we forego this for the fix. Millions of us all over the UK standing like zombies for a central nervous system stimulant – the most widely consumed legal psychoactive drug available without the PC Plod conducting a stop and search on you. Sure, the seats are comfy and the places are warm and usually have good views on to the street. On a nice day, I could sit outside like a proper rehab patient enjoying some ‘out’ time, but unfortunately in Scotland I can’t any longer given the other addicts smoking tobacco out there - hoarding the outside space and barring us from using it. All in all, the coffee shop chains have us by the short and curlies. Despite the cost, the wait, the friction, the noise and the calories, I’m sitting with one in my hand right now ... and I don’t intend to start a 12-step program any time soon.

Agitator and disruptor Jim Duffy is Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark