Attempting to kill time has ended up being a frequent pastime of mine in recent years. Travelling around a lot will do that to you. While I have succeeded at finding ways to entirely zone out from reality while waiting for trains or planes without looking insane, I am yet to master the skill of wasting time away in coffee shops and embracing their caffeinated mediocrity.
After spending hours sat drinking weak coffee and wishing I either had some decent conversational company or a laptop (predominantly the laptop option due to being borderline comatose pre-caffeine kick) I have frequently found myself making a number of observations. I hadn’t realised it, but venturing into a coffee shop, especially a mediocre high street chain, without the express purpose of seeing friends, meeting business associates, or doing work, is quite a sobering experience. I can completely understand why you’d want to briefly get away from grey British high streets and have a warm drink with a sickly sweet syrup dribbled into it, but on your own with no real purpose you realise that you are being fed a very poorly crafted concept that at best is slightly uncanny and at worst is the foundation for an existential crisis.
In order to explain this observation most effectively I have chosen 3 key areas of focus that should help in demonstrating why high street coffee shops aren’t that great / are soulless pits of despair:
1. The Faux Italian Gimmick
Without venturing too far into the territory of every stand up comic who ever did a bit about Starbucks, the whole ‘diverse names for small, medium, and large drinks’ thing still exists in many coffee shops. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Next time you are in a coffee shop chain, take a look around you. What do you see? Images of Italian men sat outside rural houses? Soft focus photos of espresso cups? Wall sized prints of Italian villages? Combine this with slogans such as “Italian about coffee” and you’ll come to realise that you are sipping from a cup of lies. I get it, the product has to seem interesting and remotely exotic, but if you can explain to me what is Italian about sipping coffee while staring out of the window at Superdrug or WHSmiths then I’ll buy you a coffee myself. Honestly, it’s very much a mutton dressed as lamb situation.
2. Coffee Shop Chain Employees
There are two types of employees in coffee shop chains: People who hate their jobs and show it and people who hate their jobs but pretend they don’t. Now I could be slightly wrong with this point because undoubtedly somebody out there loves working for a coffee shop chain, and to whoever that person is, I’d like to say good for you. However, from my experience of aimlessly wandering into branded coffee shops the employees are always either incredibly sullen and stern, or they are peppy to the extent that they seem like something out of a mid-western American infomercial from the 90s.
To be honest, if you’re going to be super unhappy at work you may as well own it. I don’t care if you’re kind of moody, we don’t need to be friends, just please don’t spit in my drink and I’ll say thanks and have a good day to you instead, that’s fine. But the pep, that’s something else. Nobody legitimately friendly sounds like they have someone holding a gun in the small of their back forcing them to smile and exchange pleasantries. Just drop the act, admit you would rather be in bed or doing a job you enjoyed and we can move forward with our day. If there’s one major positive of independent shops that contrasts to chains, half of the time the person behind the counter actually cares about the business, so when they’re friendly, they probably mean it.
3. The Pressure
This may not be the case for everyone, but high street coffee chains make me feel like I’m in The Hurt Locker. As soon as you enter a coffee shop on your own the pressure starts. Do you get a drink first then attempt to find a seat? Do you claim a seat and plant your lowest value objects alongside it but keep looking back at it as if you’re leaving your newborn child at the table? Who knows? What is the etiquette here? Most of the time I opt in for jacket over chair and then venture toward the counter, but you know what, sometimes I get dirty looks for this gesture. Don’t be mad because I have scoped out which table has a power socket and can still order a caffeinated drink. However, while I have become adept at seating myself, the pressure ramps up as soon as the first sip of that beverage is taken.
As a man who has found himself with silly amounts of time to kill, that drink is my ticket to ride. Without that drink I am a man without purpose, a trespasser, a vagabond of sorts. Once the first sip is done the clock is counting down until a disgruntled member of staff can inevitably come and take away my empty coffee vessel of choice. Don’t get me wrong, I have spent many cumulative hours sat post-beverage, but the fact is when I’m trying to kill time I don’t want to have 4 coffees in order to stay seated for an hour. When you’re on your own in a high street coffee chain time passes slowly enough, let alone when you are aware of the disapproving glances that pensioners are shooting in your direction as you sit without a drink or a purpose.
So there they are, my major qualms with high street coffee chains. I pray that you never have to suffer the same fate I have suffered time and again in these places, but if you ever do find yourself alone in a strange caffeine fuelled locale then do your best to ignore what’s going on, take pity upon the most stressed of employees, and admire the vaguely artistic shots of people doing absolutely bugger all. For, just like the old men in these pictures, you too are destined to wonder exactly how long it will be until you’re allowed to move on to a better place.