Get Your Authentic Hot Water Here

Steven Poole

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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.


  • 9 January 2013 at 8:07pm
    bluecat says:
    I'd like to know which companies are really Tesco, or largely owned by Tesco, the better to avoid them.

    But that's got nothing at all to do with wanting some mystical authentic or artisanal virtue to be transmitted with my slightly-coffee-flavoured froth.

    I avoid buying from Tesco because of their flagrant abuse of the planning system, their behaviour in Thailand, their tax-dodging, and many other reasons.

    It's about politics and ethics, not style and consumerism.

    • 11 January 2013 at 5:08am
      farthington says: @ bluecat
      Ditto with Bluecat.

      I'm staggered that one reads such tosh in the LRB.

      Tesco and its comparators (Walmart as the anti-Christ, Coles & Woolworths in my Australia - lovers of all practices and personnel Tescoian) are an engine for the accumulation and use and abuse of market power. The bankrupt tertiary economics syllabus has still to catch up. Check out the Competition Commission's April 2008 'Supply of Groceries in the UK' report, esp Ch.11, for a valiant attempt to gauge the abuse of monopsony power.

      Tesco's equivalent in France (read Carrefour in particular) are now so powerful that they flout the law (esp re planning and building rules) with total impunity.

      "But why should ‘artisan values’ be incompatible with corporate backing?" Corporate backing artisan values is an oxymoron. "a vaguer dream of returning to an imagined cottage-industrial idyll" I live that idyll daily; it's not a dream and it's tangible.

      Isn't 'consumer sovereignty' supposed to be a core principle of a workable market? Information is fundamental to that principle. Misleading information, strategically constructed, is not merely dysfunctional, but unconsionable. And it is actionable.

  • 11 January 2013 at 12:29pm
    Puck says:
    Actually the "rival coffee shop owner" puts a lot of care and knowledge into his coffee: he sells a diverse range of beans and the coffee is very good. So I can see what he means. Harris and Hoole is a cosy spot to hang out, though, and the coffee is much better than Starbucks next door.

    Crouch End must be one of the most highly caffeinated suburbs of London, with at least a dozen coffee places within a five-minute walk. I tend to walk to the shops and bounce back home.

  • 13 January 2013 at 1:40pm
    flannob says:
    Very easy to be romantic about corporate/independent, but my favorite Crouch End bistro always seems to have slightly sticky tables, another in Hackney proffered swarf with the excellent risotto, and two in less salubrious Holloway were tinned up after being found to be less than independent from non-corporate drug organisations. Personally,I look forward to a revival of record shops by imitations of e.g.Terrapin Trucking, very late of Crouch End ("we don't sell CDs"illuminated by a dim lightbulb.) Who knows, we may witness design wars between corporate giants, fighting for the most quirky artists to serve the aesthetic requirements of flush flanneurs.

  • 16 January 2013 at 8:05pm
    upozi says:
    The last two paragraphs of Mr Poole's post seem to have some meaning but having read them three times, I cant for the life of me think what it is.

    • 22 January 2013 at 9:40am
      Phil Edwards says: @ upozi
      "Authenticity is the key. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

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