There are so many cafés in Edinburgh now that to compete, cafés have to become centres of excellence, specialists in one thing or another. Some are specialists in coffee. Others are specialists in something else: books, chocolate or bread, for example. Or tea. The tea house is a relatively recent addition to the Edinburgh scene and since they all serve coffee, offer hot beverages and cake I count them in the café family.
Some specialist cafés make their specialism work for them and some fail to wow you. Why is that?
Since we wrote the original piece in January, we’ve a couple of updates to Eteaket and Chocolate Tree (April 2011)
Personally, I think the answer lies in the quality of the service, but there might be more to it than that. How about passion? Expertise? Is it the ambiance, the price of a coffee, the free WiFi that brings us back to a place? The taste of the coffee?
Although I love the smell of coffee, years of trying to learn to enjoy it without lashings and lashings of milk have failed so no, it’s not the quality of the coffee – or even the tea – that brings me back to a place. Nor it is purely the size and gorgeousness of the cakes, although that plays a role. I like a cafe with competent staff. The places I mention here are cafés I’ve been to more than once. I know that not everyone will share my experiences of them, good or bad, or my evaluation, but regardless of that, they lead me to a clear conclusion of what a café needs, whether specialists or generalist, to stand out.
Artisan Roast is one of my favourite cafés. It is tiny and absolutely reeked of roasting coffee when they were still roasting all the coffee for Beanscene on the premises. The back room is minute and not hugely comfortable if you want to sit for more than half an hour. It’s cozy, though. Artisan serves Coco of Bruntsfield hot chocolates and have cake made by a lady down the road. When the cake’s gone, it’s gone. The staff is great. They love coffee and they know all about it. (One of the barristas was in a blending competition last year.) They can talk at length about the different roasts and beans they have. Passion. That’s what makes Artisan great.
The Chocolate Tree sells all kinds of delicious chocolate confections and cakes, hot chocs and even a range of red bush espressos. It has a handy Bruntsfield location (handy if you’re in Bruntsfield) and a plush yet informal interior. With half-broken furniture. And slow service. I don’t mind slow service when the person serving me is pleasant or if they are able to give me some really advice on what I’m having. I don’t mind it if it’s obvious that staff are stressed of busy. I do mind it if I get forgotten or when service is slow, it’s not busy and my order wasn’t complicated. Staff who wants to be there is what the Chocolate Tree needs. If I go back, it will be for take-away chocolates, not to sit in. I return on Easter Monday, what a lovely visit! I note that there are not one but two delicious looking vegan cakes. As it’s a warm sunny day, I taste the gelato (less fattening that ice cream apparently). The two flavours I try are sublime, chai and rose (two separate flavours) – fresh and uplifting. At an adjacent table, Mum and daughter are tucking into chocolate and churros. The prices are very reasonable and the service friendly. As an added nice touch, mini chocolate eggs were placed in not too difficult places for customers to find.
Starbucks might be a chain, the McDonalds of coffee, but I have never had anything but good and fast service there. That – and two hours of WiFi – is why I go to Starbucks when I need to work. If I’m meeting people, I’d rather go somewhere a bit more individual. But I keep coming back and it’s not just the size of the lattes.
Eteaket is also a tea shop. They have a very busy location just off George Street with bright and funky furniture and sell a range of good teas and cheerful tea paraphernalia. It is not unusual for the queue of people waiting to be seated at busy times to be 10-15 strong. Eteaket have a sensible queue management system and are quick at cleaning tables and getting your orders out. Unfortunately, since our original visit, standards seem to have slipped. We experienced a particularly clueless waitress who forgot drinks and made other errors. Also I really do find coffee splattered menus a real turn off.
Did I give the conclusion away in the second paragraph? From a handful of examples of cafés that specialise and get something right it should be clear what I think is of ultimate importance: service. No matter how great the product, I will not willingly frequent a café with rubbish service. An outstanding product helps – for coffee that’s a tall order and for tea it means a wide selection so it might be easier to find something else to offer. Never forget service. Good staff, staff who wants to be there, is as important as cozy surroundings and a fabulous product. In a market saturated by mediocre cafés, good staff is the product.