The Latte Factor and the Coffee Outlet as Performance Art

The Latte Factor is one of those personal finance staples – the meme is that if only you could kick your daily coffee habit you would retire years early and help the environment too. It’s also unAmerican thinking and to be stamped out in a consumer society, natch.

I’ve been lucky enough to work in places where people got together in coffee clubs and the companies provided hot water taps and tea points where you could plug in a kettle and sit with colleagues and set the world to rights every so often. Sometime I wonder if this was simply the more relaxed working pace of the past before everything got all so dreadfully competitive. There now seem to be workplaces you have to log out to go for a piss never mind entertain the concept of a morning and afternoon coffee break.

Forces in the economy are making luxuries cheap and necessities dear. Sometimes I gawp in amazement at what you can do now – coffee, 3d scanning with a kinect games controller, the power of computers that I paid thousands for in the mid 1980s packed like sardines into smartphones the size of a packet of cigarettes (remember them?). We’ve go so much better at Stuff but in crafting this consumer cornucopia we’ve also built a world where everybody wants to be somewhere else, preferably facetweeting in smartphone-space as they run into lamposts in the real world.

And yet for all that awesome technology more and more Britons will never earn enough to buy a house, and the pressure of work on their relationships is such that having kids is less fun for anybody involved in the enterprise. But all that is a different rant. Let’s take a look at this particular consumer luxury, where our office workers at least have other wage slaves to make them coffee.

Coffee seems to have taken over from tea as the British beverage of choice over the last 40 years or so, but it seems only recently that we are so coffee-deprived we have to buy it on the go. Judging by the number of Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Cafe Nero and the like it’s big business. The Ermine has a reasonably simple approach to coffee, it needs to be good enough, so generally non-instant, but filter coffee is fine. Those stove-top contraptions much favoured by Mrs Ermine are fearsome – a needlessly harsh and aggressive jolt. A cafetiere/French press is fine though there is always the problem of where to put the grounds, which will eventually block up your sink if you lose them that way. There’s no need for greater complication – the Heston Sage favoured by some of the more metropolitan frugalistas is overkill IMO. Plus you need domestic staff to clean the bugger out, the whole heat and milk combination is never easy on them downstairs…

I never used public transport to get to work after leaving London and just didn’t get into the habit of buying prepared coffee, for the first half of my career this sort of metropolitan effeteness just wasn’t even available, though it crept in in the last decade or so, The Firm outsourced anything it could, and the introduction of a tuck shop selling overpriced coffee in paper cups was one of the improvements. Which then picked up a Costa franchise I think, and the price jumped 100%. So I’m not an expert on prepared coffee other than the DIY sort, which works fine for me.

However, I recently darkened the threshold of a Costa Coffee joint with my mother, well when you’re pushing eighty then if you want to go mad and buy overpriced coffee then you can damn well knock yourself out 😉

A Costa Coffe joint. They all look the same, I hear. And why are mobile phones so crap at taking pictures...?
A Costa Coffee joint. They all look the same, I hear. And why are mobile phones so crap at taking pictures? Observe the two CCTV cameras over the till… That’s the trouble with paying minimum wage, you can’t trust anybody

So I took some time to note the carefully orchestrated buying experience. There was a small queue, so they line the punters up by the curved glass cabinet on the right where there is an array of sugary treats, all with enticingly foreign-sounding names, but you know that they are basically industrial sugar with some esters made in a factory somewhere along the New Jersey Turnpike to give it a semblance of something dearer. I resisted, but took the time to observe.

The theatre troupe has three members –  the first teenager behind the till who takes the order, and flannels the prospective punter a little, presumably they are incentivised to upsell some of the sugary crap. No thanks, two Americanos, and since my mother prefers too little rather than too much milk, he writes it onto the ticket, to make me feel special. I never worked out what the third actor did. Maybe the CCTV is watching them watching the others, we never have found an answer to the centuries-old problem of who watches the watchmen…


This then goes into a queue to the barista, who was probably a student, at least he looked old enough so he could legally buy beer[ref]that’s 18 in the UK[/ref]. He may have been on the same course as Monevator, because in front of him he has a gleaming instrument of coffee gustatory creation, a finely honed machine with which the barista of distinction can meld to produce aromatic brews of the finest creations of the coffee-growers art, bringing a colourful piece of sunny Africa and South America to a grey day in Ipswich.

What he actually does is add three-quarters of a cup of hot water to a quarter of espresso, ‘cos this piece of kit doesn’t do ordinary coffee. The cups are about half an inch thick, instantly chilling the coffee to just about warm enough. I guess you don’t want the punters to take too long over their coffee and want the cups to go through the industrial dishwashing machines without breakage.  I learned in my time as a kitchen porter in the late 1970s you only needed cups to be half a centimetre thick to minimize breakages – we sometimes lost one or two of the cups from the Directors’ lounge running through the machines, which happened to be decent china, whereas the cups for the hoi polloi only broke if someone was hamfisted and dropped a tray of them on the floor.

So we got to enjoy some watered down espresso. Which is exactly what an Americano is. Now my mother got her value out of her outlay, because she came for the experience of seeing the world go round and to drink a cup of coffee with company. An I got to observe some consumer theatre and wonder on the world a little. But if I did it every day on the way to work, and it was the coffee I wanted, well, to be honest I’d feel ripped off  – watered down espresso tastes like watered down coffee does. You should make it at the strength you want it, not stronger and then water it down. And Costa really ought to change those cups. If you get coffee to go you have the privilege of a paper cup, which reacts with the coffee to give you that prized waxed paper flavouring but at least doesn’t chill the result.

It’s perfectly possible to bypass all the theatrical drama – at work in the late 1990s/early 2000s they had machines in the canteen which could make a very decent cup of coffee all by themselves – beans went into a great big hopper at the top and they brewed decent filter coffee typically in batches every five minutes, dispensing this on demand, and indeed with a hot water spout if you wanted to water it down. No baristas needed. Of course you don’t get to play with the microfoam and all that stuff, but I fear the Ermine palate is just not as sophisticated as the metropolitan types – like so many products, once you’ve got out of the low-quality bottom end of the range[ref]the low quality end being all forms of instant coffee[/ref] then good enough is good enough and there’s no point in over-thinking it IMO. But of course playing with the microfoam adds artisanal drama and the opportunity for you to feel special, and let’s face it, if you’re prepared to pay over two pounds for your morning coffee then you need to get to feel special – Because You’re Worth It ™

It was an interesting lesson on the consumer experience. The product is a vehicle for the performance, and a lot of the performance is there to try and make the customer feel special, one of a kind. As Katherine Rosman of the WSJ said, engagingly

giving that little lift that can come from a quiet moment of self-appreciation. That’s when a cup of coffee is so much more than a cup of coffee.

This is the principle behind a lot of attempts at consumer marketing . Tesco tell you that ‘your’ store is changing – no it isn’t, their capital asset used to sell you groceries needs a refit. The named Coke bottles are a different take on the same old game, as are all those loyalty schemes that the good people on MoneySavingExpert dedicate much time on getting the most out of. So much consumerism is theatre – you’re buying the experience, not the product. The theatre is cheap value-add – the delightful thing is that this part of the value provides a feeling, it isn’t durable, so you keep coming back to renew it.

The mysterious marvels of the microfoam…

Having said that, I’ve also learned that I have been saved from chain coffee-shop coffee by my history. In 1970s Britain people used to make coffee with heated milk and instant powder coffee[ref]I grew up in a working-class background. I sincerely hope that Britain’s doctors and bank managers didn’t do this, although they probably eschewed coffee altogether, after all the whole point of being middle class in those days was genteel bourgeois living and being able to send your kids to public/boarding schools. You just didn’t need the kick to the back of the neck that an espresso delivers to get you out of bed and on the way to work at 6 am, tea was perfectly adequate. The British palate was a coarse and unrefined thing before the 1980s, this was a nation that found the Vesta curry exciting. In fairness to those gastronomically unsophisticated generations, this was a country that had the shit bombed out of it and only exited rationing in the 1950s, so the pragmatic favouring of quantity rather than fancy cuisine was understandable[/ref]  – they weren’t used to it at all. It was disgusting to my taste, raised on Tchibo and Melitta[ref]these are nothing special now but when the alternative is Fine Fare instant coffee powder it’s the height of Continental sophistication[/ref] coffee imported from Germany by my mother and relatives. You couldn’t buy filter coffee in British stores in SE London at the time.

I still associate the taste of heated milk in coffee with those days, and that was a world where we hadn’t been taught fat was bad, so a skin could easily form on the heated milk, which is just plain creepy. It appears that in the intervening four decades, people apparently prize the unique qualities of heated milk and wax lyrical about the many forms of heated milk in coffee and the art and craft of doing this, to me, disgusting practice. I am therefore always going to be a barbarian at the gates of the metropolis in this respect. I realised this, right at the end of writing this post, when I read this lady

Yet, I don’t want to make myself a cappuccino at home in the morning, pour it into a thermos and drink it cold and frothless when I arrive at my office some two hours later.

For Gawd’s sake, disregarding all the intangible Because You’re Worth It ™ bits about the theatre and the impracticality, never, ever, keep hot coffee and milk in a Thermos because the coffee heats up the milk and over time it gets to taste like that disgusting 1970s brew. Keep the hot coffee black in the Thermos and then add the milk after you’ve poured it out. Sorted 🙂 Obviously if you want hot frothy milk added then yes, you are SOL but if you can slum it with hot filter coffee and cold milk that sorts the latte factor problem out, though not the “little matter of self-appreciation”.


28 thoughts on “The Latte Factor and the Coffee Outlet as Performance Art”

  1. A very nice take on how historically habits changed and the methods of doing things also. Consumerism is pushing the boundaries and fast replacing patterns which were established years ago. Workplace ethics and socialization methods have largely changed and it is more of commercialism now. A really great post really.


  2. I frequently take my 90 year old mother to cafes and coffee shops etc. to give her a change of scene.

    Although she only drinks tea, it takes so long to make the coffee with these chitty chitty bang bang machines that if I’m in a queue I have to keep waving so she knows I haven’t abandoned her. She can’t see me exactly but can make out someone waving so assumes it’s me and waves back.

    I use an Aeropress to make my coffee totally fuss free. It’s available for under £25 on Amazon. After about a year I bought the stainless steel filter which I much prefer.


  3. You put the coffee grounds in the compost, it seems to really accelerate the compost breaking down… You can even get free grounds from outside bury St Edmund’s waitrose’s front door to add to tour compost bin 🙂


  4. I’ve never been a big coffee drinker so am blissfully ignorant of the subtle differences that people claim exist between costa/starbucks/nescafe Two colleagues came into the office the other day after returning from Starbucks, each with some kind of festive gingerbread spooky coffee in hand. I couldn’t believe it when they told me it was over £7 for both of them! Must be good…

    I’m convinced the big contraption is probably just that same old coffee maker you had in your office stuck into a bigger shell with a load of knobs and levers on it anyway, wowing you into thinking you are getting the “good stuff”. Just another prop in the show.


  5. Maybe the 3rd man was the artist who draws the leaf in the foam to justify the price being 2-3 times all costs they can think of ? That leaf is very cute.

    Coffee grounds are excellent fertiliser by the way, mushroom growers love it – while the taste is extracted in the coffee making process, most of the nutritive value (to other plants) is untouched. They’re also physically gritty, so I use it to break up the heavy clay soils in my herb patch – I think it’s good for all plants though….. I haven’t noticed any damage yet anyway.

    I got a shock recently when I saw instant coffee on deal in a supermarker & worked out the price actually came to ~£24 a kilo, that’s about twice the price of very reasonable-tasting already ground coffee for a mocha machine ! Talk about gouging the dinosaurs who won’t change from the wartime ersatz they’ve always had,,,,,,,


  6. I haven’t been in a costa or a starbucks in a very long while because their coffee tasted pretty horrible and nothing I’ve seen coming out of one has made me want to try again

    The other reason that coffee shops are sprouting like a virus in the UK is that people no longer want to go to the pub


  7. Ages ago I trained myself to drink coffee black no sugar. Agree with Ermine that cafetiere is fine. I drink two really rather strong coffees in the morning before leaving for work and that’s it. It is simple and fuss-free.

    Re putting coffee in the compost, I once got a biggish bag of used coffee grounds from somewhere and took it down the allotment to put in the compost bin there. I left it in the shed overnight and when I came back the next day found rats had broken into the shed and eaten the lot. There must have been some pretty hyped-up rats running round East London that night.


  8. Always enjoy your posts – but this one resonated more than most! (Must be the same generation – I’m a recent early-retiree from the ICT world.)
    I do wonder sometimes, if things have changed commercially and social-habits-wise, so much over the last 20+ years or so, what will things have become in another 20 years?
    Thank you for your ongoing musings – always engaging and thoughtful.


  9. Hmmm performance art that delivers a bitter acrid product and leaves the taste of ashes in the mouth. Pretty much describes IT, Law and maybe Finance I think.

    +1 on the Aeropress.


  10. Not having visited England since 2007, we wonder if someone could elucidate for us @Neverland’s comment that “people no longer want to go to the pub.” We chose where to live in Cambridge based on its proximity to a nice pub! Has the pub culture changed much–for the worse, we’re assuming?

    We definitely noted a coffee culture shift in Britain. When we were visiting in 1998, our coffee from McDonald’s didn’t even have a tiny spout to drink from because no one took their coffee “to go.” We had to cut out a little hole ourselves. But when we returned in 2006, suddenly a Starbucks (Costa, Nero, etc.) was in every train station. We drank our Yorkshire Gold in the afternoon at home, but we confess it was nice to get the occasional latte or Americano… (not the “festive gingerbread spooky coffee” drinks!)


      1. I think cheap supermarket booze has played a part. And it has certainly helped international coffee chains that they don’t pay any corporation tax.


    1. Thanks for the links Neverland. The BBPA statistics were very interesting, especially the on-trade sale decline since 2000 and 2004. It looks like we were living there (2006-2007) possibly during the fading glory days of pubs.


  11. hehe – that Aeropress sounds really good. But I don’t need an easier way to drink more coffee. I was happy to get it down from the level I consumed at work.

    Interesting that grounds help a compost heap go – I’d heard about using grounds to annoy slugs. The rat problem seems a tough one to overcome however, and nowhere needs wired rats!


  12. When I worked in the lab the company provided us with coffee. Back in the early 1970s we actually had a lady who made it and delivered it to our desks. (Yeah, right — like that happens today.)
    Later on I used to carefully weigh out the coffee – I was in early – and set up the coffee maker – a commercial drip machine.
    When I was retiring I was outsourced as a coffee guy and we got one of those Keurig coffee pod machines in the lab.
    Still like my tea in the PM though. In a pot if you please. Got some Gibson teapots here from the 1950s and right now we are enjoying some Fortnum and Mason special blend we got in the UK during our last visit.


  13. About 10 meters from my desk on our floor there is a franchised coffee shop, slightly more ‘upmarket’ than a mere costa even!

    A further 10 meters away is a fully equipped kitchen with kettles, microwave, filtered water, fridge etc. The kitchen is always empty and there is always a queue snaking out of the coffee shop onto the floor…people can’t get enough of the burnt espresso they serve up!

    Me, I bring my own black americano from home in the morning, use an aeropress in the afternoon or stick to a nice cup of earl grey!


  14. It’s the same here, as UTMT, kettles are everywhere. People still trot down to Starbucks 3 times a day for a fix. Sure it takes a couple of minutes using a cafetiere at work. But at least I can pretend to be cultured for a bit.


    1. In the last few years at work they’d opened a Costa at work, and it always used to puzzle me and the other old gits at work how so many people would go down and get coffee there rather than make it at the decent number of tea points and rest areas The Firm provided. Buying not making make coffee seemed to be a young people’s game – perhaps they had normalised to buying coffee rather than making it somehow. Good to see you and UTMT keeping the frugality flag flying!


  15. I was an aeropress refusenik for the longest time – looked like a lot of washing up – but I’ve come around. Minimal cleanup and a decent coffee every time.

    Currently living on a daily budget of “coffee or bus – choose one” so having the aeropress (and a bike) gives me some wiggle room 🙂


  16. If you haven’t yet, maybe try cold brew coffee served black and without sugar. I dismissed cold brew as an overpriced fad for a year or so, but after trying some I was impressed. It avoids the brackishness and oiliness found in some hot brews. I’ve tried drinking it both heated and chilled, and to my surprise — not generally a fan of diluted drinks — found I preferred it served over ice.

    The down side is that either you buy it in small and pricey cartons or you endure an 18 hour or so wait if you brew it yourself.


  17. oh God I tried cold brew and I thought I was going to die. I had a headache for about two days afterwards!

    I do think we are forgetting our roots as a nation in this discussion though. Coffee was actually the preferred drink BEFORE tea became popular… SO we perhaps are just returning to our more ancient roots?


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