A tale of two coffee shops

We’ve got a new coffee shop. Admittedly, it’s part of a chain – it’s a Costa – and it’s also in the town ten miles away (TTMA, from now on), but it’s an exciting new development. Well, it is if you’re me,  and judging by how busy it is, I’m not the only one who thinks it’s an improvement. For one thing, their coffee doesn’t taste of old, charred, sock. So far.

Ten years ago, the choice of coffee in the TTMA was comparatively limited. There was, and is, a small department-ish store with a lovely café where you could get a decent coffee and, er, pay well for it. The food was good, too, but for me – well, it reminded me too much of Saturday shopping when I was a child. Doilies, tablecloths, lots of ladies of a ‘certain age’. Don’t get me wrong; I still go there sometimes – it’s delightful. But it also has the ability to make me want to leap on a table, shout something outrageous like ‘knickers!’ and run away. There was also a deceptive café with plastic seats where the coffee was great even if the ambiance was dodgy, and another place where your coffee (soooo burnt sock) came with biblical quotes. That was it. We’ve had additions since then, but none of them have quite managed to get it right – in my opinion – though there is a deli which does do great take-away coffee.

Caught by the rain, I ended up in one of the additions recently. It’s popular, but – and we are back to singed-sock coffee, by the way – it takes more to create a cool coffee-shop ambiance than slinging a couple of sofas in your window. Especially if you have neon lights and chairs that punters slither off when they relax too much. And – and this is today’s bugbear – if the (very young) staff are not adequately supervised. When serving in a not-that-busy coffee shop you do not a) forget about a customer’s order until they come back to the counter and remind you of it, and b) forget about it because you are too busy discussing some customers’ appearance with your colleagues, certain that you cannot be understood because you are speaking Welsh and it’s the weekend when there are lots of visitors about. Wrong, on so many levels. They did have the grace to go bright red when I deliberately chased my order in Welsh (fairly bad Welsh, but there was no way I was going to let them assume I didn’t understand what they were saying).

So I took to scoring local coffee shops – the only newspaper available to read was the Daily Mail, and the sea hadn’t frozen over so I had to find something else to do while the delicate aroma of footwear and employee embarrassment faded slightly. These were my assessment points:

* Good coffee. Oh, all right, drinkable coffee. But definitely no socky element.
* Good alternatives, especially tea – which should not be an afterthought.
* Good food, or maybe that should be decent food (let’s be realistic). Not, preferably, bought in.
* Helpful, attentive staff who keep their personal opinions to themselves. In any language.
* A relaxed atmosphere.
* Lighting which doesn’t make you feel like the Gestapo are hanging around outside.
* Seats you can sit on (there’s radical), and which may – shhh – actually be comfortable.
* A complete absence of religious quotes, though I might make an exception for some of the more, ahem, colourful parts of the Old Testament.
* Moderate pushchair count – so that there’s room for the non-pushchair-pushers to get to seats / counter / loo without injury. Not a complete absence – the ideal coffee shop should welcome everyone – but customers and staff do need to keep their limbs intact. Plus, blood can be difficult to get off any upholstery.
* Atmosphere. Character. Individuality. Not being a Starbucks. There. I’ve said the ‘S’ word.

The coffee shop I was in scored a 1 because it’s a religious-quote-free zone. Maybe a 1.5, because the food can be good, though it has let me down. OK, a max of 2, perhaps a 3 because it does have some individuality and isn’t part of a chain, but then the bible-citation place would score on that scale too (though that one compensates for the evangelizing by having generally good home baking and being safely veggie, should you need it).

Now, about the same distance from my house in the other direction is another small town. No chain coffee shops here. Here we have something as near to perfection as is theoretically possible on my scale, an independent coffee shop in an ex-ironmonger’s. I was interested to see how it would stack up.

THAtmosphere? Well, the old shop counters still remain, as does the shelving along the walls and the whole of the cashier’s office, which makes a great snug / pushchair corral. There’s lots of polished wood, a display of local crafts, some newspapers (and they do help – except when the only choice is the Daily That’s Outrageous and It’s Someone’s Fault, free wi-fi, and home-made cakes so decadent that they should be made illegal. There’s not the slightest hint of footwear in the coffee and there is an amazing choice of tea: Russian Caravan? Rose Puchong? Organic Orange Pekoe? Citrus Rooiboos? Strange compost-scented tisane? No problems.

The lighting is fine, the seats are fine (yes, there are sofas, but they’re at the back and not statement sofas in the windows), the staff are welcoming nine times out of ten – nobody’s perfect 100% of the time, but I’ve never yet caught them talking about their customers – and the pushchair tally is also acceptable. And there are no passages from any holy book whatsoever to distract you, either. I think they get a 10. Maybe a 9.5, because perfection is impossible. But I’m sure they’re working on it – and let’s hope Starbucks don’t notice, given their predatory behaviour towards successful coffee shops. I trust we’re ostensibly too remote…

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