Café society

Café society

One in five of us visit a café every day, but it’s often for more than just getting a daily caffeine fix.

While some coffee shops serve nitrogen-infused drinks or roast their own beans, others host knitting clubs or even charge for the time spent there rather than the amount drunk.

As the industry has expanded massively over the past few years, coffee shops have diversified beyond recognition from the days of small neighbourhood cafes which just catered for those wanting a drink.

And this change has provided a focus for research by the Centre for Business in Society’s Jennifer Ferreira. What started as a small-scale, exploratory project inspired by her own time spent in cafes, has grown into a study that has seen Dr Ferreira classed as an opinion leader in the coffee industry, submit evidence to a parliamentary submission and publish more than 70 blog posts, several articles, a report and speak at events and conferences.

“I spent a lot of time working in cafes, particularly while travelling, and I saw how much it was growing as an industry,” she said. “Since the credit crunch people have not been spending so much on big ticket items but they have been treating themselves to little luxuries, such as coffees.

“But I also saw what important spaces cafes have become for people including isolated elderly, students, young mums. I wanted to investigate it further. So many people go to cafes - one in five of us visit a café every day - it’s become a normal thing for people to do. I think that’s why there’s been so much interest in this work.”

Dr Ferreira’s ‘Spaces of Community: Exploring the dynamics of the café industry’  project looked at the role of independent cafes in five cities across the UK: Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and London.

It investigated their importance socially and culturally and how the businesses engaged with their local communities.

The study revealed the cafes are more than just places to eat and drink but also play an important function for leisure, work and community development. It found that while the changing consumer habits, impact of the recession and business strategies had prompted the industry growth, coffee shops were also increasingly filling the social roles traditionally associated with pubs.

They are giving people a place to socialise, but without the late nights and alcohol.

“Talking to different people who work, run and drink in coffee shops has given fascinating insights,” said Dr Ferreira. “There’s a lot of focus around communities and meeting spaces where people can gather if they have similar interests, such as music and art. Coffee shops are now an incredibly key locations for freelance workers and for networking.”

Her work has also looked at different trends in coffee shops, such as businesses having their own roasters, and also how companies deal with sustainability issues, for instance how reusable coffee cups have gone from a rare feature at a few environmentally-minded businesses to a must-have accessory.

It was her work on sustainable cups that led to her to make an evidence submission to the Environmental Audit Committee on plastic bottle and coffee cup waste. She has also been named an opinion leader by Coffee Business Intelligence, and writes regular blogs for its website.

Dr Ferreira is now planning to look at cafes outside of the UK’s urban areas as well as internationally, including in China and India.

And there is more research to be done to understand further how coffee shops play a role in local economic development, community cohesion and development.

“The industry has seen phenomenal growth,” she said. “There are always new places opening up and new trends. I don’t know how long it will continue in this way, but while it does there are many interesting areas to explore.”

For more information on Coventry University’s research, visit www.coventry.ac.uk/research.