British café trade awards look to long-term value

The 5-cup award window decal

As the Beverage Standards Association announces its café awards for this year, the trade group has made an interesting observation on what is important in industry prizes and recognition.

The BSA offers two sets of prizes in its annual event – there are half a dozen prizes given for ‘best drinks’, but there is also an unlimited number of recognitions on offer for those cafes which are judged to have achieved certain standards in their overall service to customers. Any café which makes the grade can qualify for the window-sticker of approval.

It is in this latter category where the BSA has likened itself to the Michelin star scheme, an ambitious comparison which raised some eyebrows when it was first made – but the concept is certainly the same, in that a grading of ‘cups’, displayed on a door, should give the customer a fair idea of the kind of standard to be found from a café.

(Curiously, this year, the BSA announced their café awards in the same week as Michelin announced their annual restaurant gradings!)

It is the award of a prize such as ‘best latte in the UK’ which is likely to grab the most headlines and immediate glory – but, says the BSA, it has realised that this relatively transient glory comes second to the long-term business benefit of a general quality accreditation, the ‘cups on the door’. While those businesses who achieved the ‘best drink’ prizes have indeed done extremely well, it is the long-term accreditation which is the real target… and, indeed, it is noticeable that four of the companies who took ‘best drink’ prizes this year have also received ‘five-cup’ accreditation for general overall standard of service.

“Working towards better customer service and general ‘accreditation’ is probably more important, for long-term benefit, than a ‘best drink’ prize,” the BSA’s chief executive, Martyn Herriott, has acknowledged. “Some outlets are concentrating on the ‘best drink’ when what they really should be working on is general customer service.

“We ourselves got this backwards last year, when we concentrated more on the ‘best drinks’ than the overall accreditation. We took some brickbats for that, because best drinks don’t bring as many people in as recognition of overall quality and customer service does.”

The experience of going in for an award, and particularly the experience of going in more than once, has an effect, says the BSA. Competition makes café operators want to improve – and they do.

“While we still see the chasm between the ‘very good’ and ‘the rest’, we also see many who should be able to upgrade very quickly, and we have certainly seen that several of those who did well this year have shown an improvement from last year’s judging.

“We have seen an overall improvement in customer service, which delights us, because the independent industry is fighting an uphill battle against some very big operators with doubtful service and doubtful ethics. We’re working strongly towards explaining the benefits that giving good service can achieve in this.”

This year’s judges also saw a distinct link between the concept of ‘customer service’ and the preparation of good drinks.

“We saw this in judging tea, where it struck us that it is not ‘all about the tea’ – it is more about the entire customer service aspect of the way of preparing and serving it. This, we think, is where we are standing above other awards… we are watching how sites work and perform on an overall basis, on more than one judging occasion. We are seeing where consistency occurs.

“We know that being judged is a big challenge for an independent café – by competing, you are opening yourself up to an assessment, and to receiving something you may not want to hear. But we are finding that many of them can take it on the chin, and do want to see where they can improve.

“One specialist tea cafe we judged last year served great tea – but their coffee was dire! They heard what we said, improved their coffee training, and now their entire offering is of a very high standard.”

Noticeably, the judges have seen a move towards higher quality in hot chocolate drinks.

“Although entrants have to be judged on their espresso, they can choose whether they also want to be judged on either their tea or their hot chocolate.

“We distinctly saw that many operators who have got their coffee right do still seem to see tea as something they have to do a lot of work on… but they have seen chocolate as a product they can bring forward very well, very quickly. This improvement may be as simple as making the decision of ‘I’m no longer just going to open a tin – I’m going to take my chocolate to the next stage’.

“And as a result, we have now seen operators who have raised their chocolate sales by ten per cent or more.”


In this year’s BSA awards, five companies received the right to display a ‘5-cup’ sign at their premises – Pumphrey’s of Newcastle, Cafelicious of Swindon, Coffee Fix in Gatley, Spring Espresso of York and Tea Monkey of Milton Keynes. Eighteen venues (including a couple of mobile operators) achieved four-cup status.

In the individual drinks category, the best hot chocolate prize went to Cafelicious of Swindon. The best tea was served by Eteaket of Edinburgh.

In the coffee drinks, the best latte was by Spring Espresso of York and the best flat white was by Silvio’s of London. The best cappuccino was by a mobile operator, the Café 2 U franchise in Merton.

The award for best espresso was shared between Pumphrey’s and Coffee Fix.


This story is by Boughton’s Coffee House, the leading news magazine for the cafe trade. The story has already appeared on the Caffe Culture news portal, the news website allied to the coffee trade’s main show (


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