Look – if you want to drink bad coffee for the rest of your life, be my guest.
Instant granules, the watery brown liquid that comes out of most of those one-button-push machines, piping hot cups sold in big chains: to me, it all tastes awful. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Coffee doesn’t have to taste like burnt plastic; it can taste chocolatey, nutty and mellow, or fruity, acidic and fresh, depending on what you’re in the mood for.
Bad coffee is a deal-breaker for me. You might think I’m being fussy, but I bet you’ve got your own deal-breakers.
Maybe you’re particular about the flavour and quality of wine, beer or whisky you drink. Maybe you prefer to shop at specialist music or book shops, where lesser-known bands or authors are championed over mainstream names. Maybe you would never consider an all-inclusive package holiday deal because you get so much enjoyment from planning your trips by yourself, scoping out hidden-gem hotels and restaurants and museums.
Whether it’s clothing, candles, fishing flies or dog treats, I’m certain there’s at least one product you buy reasonably regularly that you won’t compromise on. Hey, maybe you’re the opposite of me – maybe you won’t accept anything but your favourite Starbucks or Costa drink in the morning. And that’s absolutely fine.
My point here is that you shouldn’t have to compromise; if you think the coffee tastes bad, don’t buy it. I believe this with everything I’ve got, yet – sometimes – I still buy it.
Outside the front door of The Press and Journal’s Aberdeen HQ in Marischal Square, there’s a Starbucks to the left and a Costa to the right. A couple of doors down from Starbucks, however, sits charming independent coffee shop Mount, which opened in 2022. And, five minutes’ walk away, on Correction Wynd, is Red Robin Records, the cosy cafe that also sells vinyl and, of course, takeaway coffee.
Businesses like Red Robin Records are on the brink
You may have already heard that Red Robin Records is in trouble. Earlier this month, owner Nick Duthie told The P&J’s Ellie Milne that he was aiming to raise £100,000 via a public crowdfunder as a “last resort” to save his business. At the time of writing, only a small fraction of this target amount has been donated.
After opening in 2019, the cafe has struggled to keep swimming, impacted by the Covid pandemic and reduced footfall in the city centre. “We will stay open for the rest of the month but I’m at a loss what to do after that,” Nick said. As February dawns, I worry that Red Robin Records may not make it, along with many other small hospitality and retail businesses across Scotland currently facing similarly grim realities.
The coffee at Red Robin is good coffee that they hand roast themselves. I like the fun design on their takeaway cups (on days when I forget my reusable mug), and I like flipping through their collection of vinyl records for sale while I wait for my order. Since Duthie’s crowdfunder launched, I’ve made an effort to support Red Robin Records and other small city-centre businesses like it when I can. But, I admit, there have been far too many times in the past when I’ve visited a chain coffee shop instead.
There’s no shame in shopping somewhere if you enjoy the product you’re receiving in return. But if, like me, you find it lacking or actively dislike it… why are you wasting your money?
Why default to chains if you don’t love what they’re selling?
I do think society has been very successfully tricked into believing that big chains are more convenient and cheaper than independents. While this may have been true at one time, I would argue it’s certainly not the case anymore. In the 1980s, a McDonald’s Big Mac burger cost less than £1; now, it’s priced at £4.59.
These days, the price difference between a latte at Starbucks and one at a coffee shop like Mount or Red Robin Records is negligible. So, if you prefer the taste of hand-roasted beans, don’t wander into a chain coffee shop on autopilot.
There’s a very real danger that Goliath will crush David in the near future, unless more money starts going into the tills of smaller companies
There’s space for chains and independents to coexist. Companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks (though perhaps a little lax on the corporation tax-paying front) are popular and employ a lot of residents. And – as Aberdeen has seen with the likes of John Lewis and BHS – their sudden departure from cities and towns is no good for the local economy.
Still, there’s a very real danger that Goliath will crush David in the near future, unless more money starts going into the tills of smaller companies.
I don’t fancy a dystopian future where we all shop at different branches of the same, solitary superstore – everything you could possibly need under one roof, with no other options. As with most things in life, we need balance.
Here’s the simple solution: commit, like me, to buying the good coffee (or wine or candles or dog treats). Treat yourself – you deserve it. And so do our beloved indie businesses.
Alex Watson is Head of Comment for The Press and Journal and drinks too much coffee