Tuesday, June 18, 2013


The most Guardian headline of all time has recently been awarded to:

Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

I suspect the Guardian’s #guardiancoffee wheeze is going to generate some close competition.

The hashtag has already been amusing the twittershere for days. Huffpost claimed punters could meet Edward Snowden there for a latte; wags wondered if #guardiancoffee had anything to do with British intelligence’s faux internet cafes to spy on foreign diplomats.

Alex Hern of the New Statesman is insightful:

“If there was one thing the #guardiancoffee hashtag revealed, it’s that the Guardian starting a coffee shop in a container-based pop-up mall in Shoreditch is entirely unsurprising. It’s pretty much the perfect brand extension for them, reinforcing their image in the eyes of their target audience, middle-class metropolitan liberals, while only really damaging it for people who weren’t too hot on their politics anyway. … A coffee shop in Shoreditch is small fry. The Guardian is not. Clearly, there are reasons beyond simple revenue maximisation at play here.”

I think the idea is rather endearing, and hope it will work for them. Alex posits the location and environment will be good for techie types to meet in; the space could also operate as a quick ’n easy studio. It also serves as a space to meet the Guardian’s journalists for a coffee and a chat.

It seems the Guardian believes the future lies in the past - what they are doing, no less, is to reinvent the politically and socially activist 18th-century London coffee house for the 21st century.

I had no idea about all of this when I saw the invitation to apply to come for a morning coffee with Polly Toynbee. I’ve never won anything in a newspaper competition, but this time I did and an email from Guardian towers arrived with instructions to bring it to gain entrance.

The Shoreditch Boxpark concept is great - basically, a pile of reconditioned shipping containers are let out on a short-term basis to pop-ups, so there’s always something interesting and new going on there. The park is sited on Shoreditch High Street around the corner from the overground station and across the road from Shoreditch House. #guardiancoffee fronts on to the street, with massive Guardian branding on its glazing. It’s impossible to miss.

Inside, cut-through openings link the three adjacent containers which comprise the cafe. Inside is pretty cosy, with simple, wholesome wooden furnishings, techie-cool graphics wallpaper, and big screens wiring you up to the world on the walls (and iPads on the tables). A sort-of deconstructed cross between a Starbucks and an Apple shop.

The wall screen shows which coffees are most popular - the flat white had it by a mile, followed by the latte. I missed the reading for soy-based coffees.

There looks to be a good selection of cakes - as I was on the ‘2’ part of my 5-2 diet today I’ll have to sample them on another occasion. My invite swiftly, efficiently and politely dealt with at the door, it was a bit harder to get a coffee. Service seems to be provided by earnest young media intern types, not your usual Starbucks/Nero baristas, and I felt they were just getting into the swing of things. I eventually got one though, and took my seat in the throng around Polly. As one would expect, the Guardian is aiming at the artisan, quality end of the market. While good, the coffee is more expensive than Starbucks and comes in smaller cups.

The completely charming space doesn’t work that well for meetings of this sort - there were only thirty of us invited and some in the third container down struggled to catch comments made by those of us up at the front near Polly (and vice versa). However, the discussion did get going and developed a good flow - this concept could definitely work.

I was a bit nervous of trolls turning up but the group turned out to be very core Guardian-reader. They did a quick hands-up poll and interestingly the vast majority us were digital readers, and only a small minority CiF commenters. Polly asked who of us were political party members and a fair few were (I imagine not Tory).

So, amongst us lefty coffee drinkers the views were impassioned yet frustrated. There was definitely a feeling the left’s message wasn’t breaking through, and that in fact the left doesn’t appear to have a message at all. Poor Ed Milliband seems to bewilder and disappoint his natural supporters at the moment, and even Iraq made an appearance - all I can say is Ed apologised for the war at the best and earliest possible opportunity, but it is still unfortunately an albatross for the Labour Party several years later. Amidst all this angst Polly was a voice of calm and reason. Obviously, as a journalist with privileged insight into the daily mechanics of politics she is aware of how parties have to work hard to position themselves and not to give their best ideas away too soon before an election. But she strongly believed in the value of individuals participating in whatever way possible: clearly, campaigns such as UK Uncut have succeeded in setting the political agenda with even David Cameron now seeing the necessity to appear to do something about tax avoidance. Individual participation in group actions; independent discussions amongst friends, family and colleagues, all permeates out and moves the argument forward.