What makes a great coffee house – do you agree?

Coffee and a treat (Photo: Caffè Nero)
Coffee and a treat (Photo: Caffè Nero)

Many of us carry coffee-house loyalty cards, useful as we discover new places to drink while returning to old, familiar favourites for another stamp on the journey to the 11th, and free mug of coffee. So what makes you choose to visit Costa, Café Nero or the little artisan coffee shop with the shabby chic armchairs for your caffeine fix? We go to cafes and coffee shops for many reasons, not least to feel good and prepare for the rest of the day.

Well, in the spirit of research, I went with a couple of pals, Charlie and Mike, to a newish coffee house in our home town to draw up a list of what makes a coffee house tick. It was cobbled together in the time it took to knock back a large cappuccino with an extra shot, but years of experience of wiling away an hour or two in the fug of coffee. We would love to know what makes your favourite coffee house special, let us know!

Worth the money? (Photo: John Althouse Cohen)
Worth the money? (Photo: John Althouse Cohen)
  • Coffee: obviously the jewel in the crown of any good café: why would you knowingly pay some £2.80 for a mug of watery, flavourless, lukewarm drink. The coffee should be made with freshly ground, good quality beans, be steaming hot and pack a punch. And staff fully trained to use the café’s equipment to make the best drink possible. A good selection of beans from several countries and a house blend also helps.
  • Cakes: Too often the cakes, muffins and cupcakes are offered in huge slices or lathered in cream and stuffed with sugar. So it would be great to see some smaller size choices, perhaps some gluten free as well.
  • Comfy seats and battered, overstuffed armchairs give a place a warmer, welcoming feel encouraging you to linger for a second cup. Tables and chairs should be set in plenty of room, also allowing for people watching, an essential coffee shop experience.
  • Music: installing a high quality sound system and piping music relevant to the customers helps build atmosphere. However, it mustn’t be too loud that it interferes with conversation or too quiet that it sounds like a flea in your ear.
  • Background noise: the harsh scraping of wooden or metal chair legs against tiled or wooden floors is disruptive and painful on the ears, especially if noise levels area already high. Softening noise with soft floor tile or textile wall coverings can make all the difference!
  • Service: we like staff, now known as Baristas, to be enthusiastic and interested in what they’re doing, i.e. making, selling and serving great tasting coffee. Yes, we understand some customers are a pain in the neck, but that doesn’t mean staff can be stroppy or uninterested in what’s happening in the café. Coffee knowledge is a big plus!
  • Tables: these should be cleared quickly, and scrubbed up ready for the next customer. There is something vaguely depressing about finding a table covered in tatty napkins, cake wrappers and cold, dirty cups. The whole place should be clean without rubbish bins overflowing or dirty windows.
  • Fellow customers: it’s good to have a mix of customer without one tribe taking over … hipsters, coach parties dressed in beige or co-workers moaning about the office. There should be a happy buzz of conversation, and maybe the chance of striking up a conversation with the person on the next table.
  • The little extras: free wifi, newspapers and magazines and fresh water should also be freely available and a few power points to recharge laptops and phones.
  • Location: With so many coffee shops on the high street, competition is fierce. As customers we have plenty of choice and like our cafes to be handy and convenient. We don’t need to be worrying about parking meters and traffic wardens.

So, what do you think of our list? What things would add to our list? Let us know in the comment box below.

Bruce McMichael

Food writing, discovering food stories, meeting producers, chefs and food enthusiasts are all part of desire to inspire, inform my readers and fellow food lovers. I am a freelance writer, journalist and published author focusing on the international world of food and drink, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy with a Masters in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing. I am now a visiting Professor at the university teaching Food & Drink Writing. Based in London I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur. In 2017 I won an episode of the ITV (the UK-based national television channel) cooking competition show, 'Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius'. I took my children on holiday to Sicily with the prize money. As an experienced farmers' market manager and operator of a small marmalade/ preserves company, I am very familiar with the issues surrounding local food, farming, enterprise and the environment.

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