In the age of social distancing, one of the biggest questions we’re probably all asking is how coffee shops are going to adapt. While we definitely don’t have all the answers (or even some of them!) what we do think is that we’ll see a flourishing of tiny coffee shops – after all, they’re too little to get crowded anyway! Today, we’re taking a look at our favourite little spots across the capital, and why tiny might be the next big thing.
Tiny coffee shops have always been a part of the speciality world. Early examples include The Espresso Room, Mother’s Milk and Taylor St’s Shoreditch Shed. Perhaps the ultimate example of the tiny coffee shop is Fitzrovia’s Alex Coffee, which attracts regulars for its exquisite design, its superb coffee and the interactive hospitality and customer bonhomie. At places like Alex Coffee and Balance in Brixton, there’s a sense that the customer is special – you come away feeling you’ve had an individualised, personal experience which is more difficult in a larger space.
Having an espresso at the bar, sharing a chat with the barista and other customers, feels delightfully continental. In small spaces, it feels natural to engage with others. As Lisa Tang wrote in an article for the app London’s Best Coffee in 2016: “The intimacy of the space forces you to engage with other customers. In a small space where the conversations are everyone’s, this forces you out of your comfort zone and you might start talking to a total stranger. This is reminiscent of the democratic nature of the original London coffee shops, which promoted open discourse.”
Standing room only
Paradoxically, small spaces by the nature of their lack of seating are often reliant on takeaway trade (as are most cafés, whether through simple economics or as a result of their A1 licensing). Spaces like Urban Baristas’ tiny site inside Bounds Green station have no seating, just space to order and chat, while Primrose Hill’s wonderful The Little One provides outdoor seating only. Coffee carts are the natural extension of this (and often are also places for lively conversation) and, taken to extremes, this trend has seen coffee retailers opening in converted phone kiosks in London, Brighton and Birmingham – although whether they qualify as coffee shops is open to question. “Customers bond easily with small shops – they are approachable and the format quickly becomes familiar,” says Ben Townsend, who founded The Espresso Room in 2009 (he sold it some years ago). “Additionally, a small space makes for easier quality control – you can see what’s going out.
For customers, there’s a contrast with larger, more impersonal spaces such as chains. Small shops are also less expensive to fi t out, which means that you can afford to spend more per square metre.” Ben makes it sound near-perfect – but he admits there are downsides. “Having a small café limits turnover, which means limited profit and consequently gives you less money to expand. Do you expand into more small shops, or attempt bigger ones and risk losing the brand experience?
Additionally, with a small place, it’s hard to hit the kind of volume that would enable price negotiations with suppliers, so your cost of goods tends to be relatively higher than for a bigger shop.” Mini adventures Alex Lais of Alex Coffee has his own perspective. “Quality and taste in the cup require focus on all aspects of the management and preparation of the coffee. A small and highly specialised shop is better equipped to deliver this, as opposed to traditional coffee shops that are larger and whose main source of revenue, inevitably, is food. The future is small!”SUBSCRIBE NOW!