Harris and Hoole coffee ‘scandal’ – did the press miss the point?

Nick Tolley Harris and Hoole 2 Low res

Nick Tolley

Although the ‘artisan’ sector of the coffee-bar trade has begun the new year by hitting the headlines in a negative way, the most remarkable thing about the press frenzy over the Harris and Hoole chain are that national journalists have missed the main feature of the story.

The matter which has recently energised the national press is the ‘shock horror’ revelation that the Harris and Hoole chain of ‘artisan’ coffee bars is in fact part-owned by the giant Tesco, which is the world’s biggest retailer and which accounts for one pound in every ten spent on the high street. First the Guardian, and then the Mail, ran long stories reporting how they had managed to find shoppers willing to say they were shocked at this news.

The situation is of course well-known to the coffee trade – both Coffee House magazine and the Caffe Culture Portal broke the news many months ago.

In its latest quest for sensationalism, the mainstream press have missed two major aspects of the story – that the Harris and Hoole team have already established a clear track record of being quite legitimate artisan coffee brewers, long before they worked with Tesco, and perhaps more important, that they have established an equally clear record in the ‘direct-sourcing’ of coffee, something which they have continued into the new business. They have effectively forced their ethical-sourcing principles into the deal.

The Guardian was first off the mark, finding several coffee-drinkers to say that, typically, that “I avoid Starbucks because it’s a big chain and it avoids tax… now I find this is Tesco it makes me upset. I feel duped. Tesco is taking over the world. If it Harris and Hoole had been called Tesco Coffee, I wouldn’t have come in.”

Almost immediately, the Mail copied this with a fairly identical story, finding more people to say more or less the same things. However, the Mail did briefly acknowledge that the Tolleys have a track record in coffee, before saying two things which are quite distinctly wrong: the writer reports that ‘not a single person I approach knows that today they’ve been drinking a Tesco product’, and then finishes the story by saying: ‘so, the next time you pop into an apparently independent café in search of a good cuppa, you might want to do some research into whose coffee you’re actually drinking’.

As the coffee trade knows, this is wrong – it is not Tesco coffee. For the coffee trade, much of the interest of this story when it first broke was that the Tolleys would not be using ‘a Tesco product’. They source their coffee from Union Hand-Roasted, whose reputation for direct work in support of farmers is long established.

When the coffee media first reported the story, one roaster said: “if Tesco really can keep to the ethics of Taylor Street Baristas, then that certainly will be a step forward for coffee,” and Jeremy Torz of Union commented: “Tesco may be doing this knowing that ‘better’ coffee is now on the radar of most consumers, and that they may create a bridge between the artisan world and the chain world.”

The latest expose was met philosophically by the Tolley family, and with unconcealed sarcasm by the New Statesman and the Spectator.

The Spectator was scornful: “It’s official: this country is going to the dogs. Tesco has been insidiously infiltrating the coffee shop market with a chain of shops that look independent. The greatest crime of Harris and Hoole, which has its majority stake owned by the family that founded it – is that Tesco doesn’t plaster its own logo above the shops. How dare they offer consumers a nice-looking coffee shop where they can choose to buy coffee, if they so wish. What an outrage.”

The New Statesman said: “This is supposed to be what capitalism’s about, right? Tesco has identified a desire that customers have, and joined forces with a coffee chain to provide for that desire. The question which no-one seems to have addressed is what it is that the customers actually desire.”

The chief executive of Tesco then wrote a blog, saying that he put money into the Tolleys business as part of the general vision of bringing good coffee to a wider audience. He added: “It’s the Tolley’s business, their brand. Our investment helps them to take it further. So what’s in it for Tesco? I’ve talked a lot about loving the stores we have, making them an appealing destination for customers to come. When the Tolleys are ready, we will put them into some of our stores… and it will be another reason for customers to shop with us.”

And that is the attitude taken by those in the coffee trade to whom the trade’s news magazine has spoken on the matter. Many have taken the attitude that ‘this is business’, and that the Tolley family have simply accepted an investment opportunity. As a side issue, it is widely hoped (although cynics express doubt about this) the Tolleys’ stance on good coffee and ethical sourcing will develop further into general retail.

The Tolleys themselves received the furore calmly.

“I was hardly surprised by the Guardian piece,” said Nick Tolley. “The interview with the journo was a most unpleasant experience – it was clear from the very beginning that he had an agenda for the article before we’d even met.

“The fact is, we’re behaving like a local coffee shop because that’s what we want to be – a local coffee shop. It’s in our DNA. Our managers are encouraged to think about how best to engage with their communities. We’re looking to source product locally. We hire locally. We design each of our shops individually so that each local town or neighbourhood feels like it’s got something unique to call their own; we’re not some pre-fabricated, soulless template that’s ubiquitously stamped on every high street in every town across the land.

“What’s more, we’re looking to do so by keeping quality coffee at the heart of our mission: by training our baristas beyond anything dreamed of by the current crop of high street multiples; and by using directly traded, specialty-grade coffee (again, the only high street operator to do so).

“Ironically, we’re looking to do everything that the big chains and corporates are accused of not doing. And yet, in taking this approach, we’re being accused of ‘deception’!”

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This story has first appeared on the Caffe Culture news website, http://www.caffeculture.com

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