I've always felt a teensy bit guilty for not being wholeheartedly convinced that the world would be a better place without Blueberry Muffins whenever anti-globalisation marches were mooted and uber-ethical friends did their best to shanghai me into throwing bricks through Starbucks' windows in the Strand. "All this throwing bricks into coffee shop windows and running away from the filth is exhausting!" I imagined myself protesting. "I'm off to Starbucks for a latte - look after my placard will you?"
Then just as it seemed Starbucks was set to take over the world, along came Caffe Nero and began checkmating them, particularly in central London. Classier house decor and music, better cappuccinos, slightly cheaper. AND with the killer Tricolour Panini to keep the 'classes who protest' happy, notwithstanding the odd beastie-free pasta dish for good measure!
Not a word was said. Or if it was, I never heard it. Could it be that Starbucks had the dumber name? Or that by the time Caffe Nero, Coffee Republic and Costa followed the path beat through the jungle of protest and Pret got more of a toehold, the opposition were forced to shrug their shoulders and concede defeat in the anti-muffin wars?
And what made us insist that these High Street coffee chains take on the mantle of incorporating Fair/equivalent Trade products and being a tad ethical, when we had previously been quite happy to go and drink muddy water in our local cafes at half the price, no questions asked?
I note certain protest groups in the US still have it in for Starbucks as fiercely as for their local munitions factory. Personally I have no more liking for McDonalds, and see Ronald McDonald as a far more frightening worldwide force endorsing intensive factory farming, rainforest and poor farmer abuse as well (not to mention patronising our children - an area the big 4 coffee chains have so far desisted from.)
My principles are that I will only visit a Starbucks if there isn't a Caffe Nero nearby (or even better, a classy local independent coffee shop that also offers a soya milk option in its not too slave-traded, beverage selection).
To sum up, whatever the rights and wrongs of global coffee shop chains, they have brought we Brits vastly superior drinks (abeit at vastly superior prices), but even more importantly, the realisation that we should be free to ask for whatever we want in our beverages without guilt at the trouble we are putting them to, or fear of them saying no. The customer is always right! No more bad old days when you drank what was slammed in front of you and god help you if you complained. And while there is undoubtedly a certain amount of 'allergy affectation' in our society, there are also a growing number of individuals who are genuinely intolerant of nuts or dairy, or on special diets, who are genuinely grateful to know exactly what's in their food and drink and to be able to obtain customised drinks of consistent quality. Customised drinks for customers, and service with a smile! What a simple but brilliant concept. How could those who dreamt it up not deserve to succeed?
Post High Street coffee chain invasion, the customer-contemptuous and lazy in the UK catering industry (of which there were many) have literally been forced to wake up and smell the coffee!
Or buy a caravan and sell burgers in lay-bys to truckers who give less of a damn. As for accusations of 'unfair competition', I would argue most of the independents who raised their game accordingly and found their own unique selling points are still around.
However I live in hope that the dire 80's throwback cafes of Birmingham NEC will be run out of town by the global upstarts.