Pity the poor customers of Harris + Hoole, a new coffee chain, who discovered that Tesco has a 49 per cent stake in what they thought was an ‘independent’ business. One such customer told the Guardian that she felt ‘upset’ and ‘duped’, since she would never dream of patronising Tesco itself.
In one way this just demonstrates the omnivorous ingenuity of capital in appropriating and selling back to us what looked like a challenge to it. The ‘independence’ of an ‘independent coffee shop’ is now quite likely to be a corporate simulacrum. The manager of Harris + Hoole’s Crouch End branch is reported to have said that head office ‘had instructed her to make the store feel as independent as possible’, which is perhaps only superficially a paradox. ‘We try to be independent,’ she said. ‘We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.’
A rival coffee-shop owner fumed: ‘Tesco isn’t stupid. They don’t want their name to be part of the name [over the door of the coffee shop]. They know it doesn’t match with artisan values they are trying to make money out of.’ Presumably this man isn’t himself trying to make money out of the ‘artisan value’ of pumping hot water through ground coffee beans, instead selling his beverages at cost to his happy customers – though that does raise the question of why they would ever have dreamed of going down the road to Harris + Hoole instead.
But why should ‘artisan values’ be incompatible with corporate backing? The term ‘artisanal’ seems to have leaked into our catering culture from France, where it actually means something. A Parisian bakery offering artisanal bread is promising that it is made from scratch on the premises, rather than frozen elsewhere and finished off in the shop (that would be ‘pain industriel’).
But the unexamined British genuflection to ‘independence’ and ‘artisan values’ represents a vaguer dream of returning to an imagined cottage-industrial idyll, and is part of our more general veneration of the ‘authentic’ – a veneration exploited by such companies as Pret A Manger. Once a stringently demanding aspiration of existentialists, authenticity is now merely a desirable property of a commercial commodity, whether it’s a takeaway Americano or a head of heirloom chard.