Rather than attacking Starbucks for its recent tax-dodging skills that any laborious student would be proud of, let’s have a go at its blue, ‘Italian’ friend Caffé Nero, for being spectacularly bland and absolutely bloody everywhere.
You’re right, this isn’t about food. It’s not even a review. It’s the first of what we plan to be many-a-musing, where we take the chance to vent a little on what we feel matters. And this does, because we’re coffee-dependent here at the EATCardiff bunker, and we’re not happy. Again.
Firstly, before we congratulate Nero, ‘the Italian coffee co.’, for providing the most emotionally devoid cup of caffeine on the high street (or anywhere you look), we dug a thumb deep into the sand to see how Italian this lovely local shop is. It isn’t. Having first opened in London in 1997, American owner Gerry Ford claimed not to be on a mission to make money, but to ‘change the world for the better’ and plug an apparent gap in the market that Starbucks et al weren’t already doing anyway.
Other than being aggressively in your face like a door-to-door salesman that claims not to be selling anything, there is a Caffé Nero willing to greet you at every corner in true Capitalist dream style. Stand in Castle Street in Cardiff city centre, and there are no fewer than four ‘stores’ within 0.5 miles. Maybe it’s the recession messing with people’s minds, confusing their caffeine-sodden brains into believing these places are actually good; because if it’s not an average coffee chain you keep bumping into, it’s a betting shop, or a pound shop, or a charity shop, or a Tesco – whatever it is, it’s popular but not particularly memorable.
The specific issue with Nero is that while Starbucks, Costa and local chain Coffee#1 are appearing everywhere, they offer at least some sort of flavour (Coffee#1 in particular provides the best latté by far in chain terms), yet Nero is only memorable for being awful. Maybe it’s our taste buds, but we’d like to blame everyone else’s in saying that if Nero is to continue to grow faster than our tolerance, then it needs to sort its act out before the bubble bursts and the public get wiser. Striking a deal with Next and idly slotting one into the Leckwith store is an utter waste of shop floor space in our view, yet on our visit last month it was effervescent with Christmas shoppers who were happy to part their cash for a brand that doesn’t deserve it.
There’s nothing striking or satisfying about Nero coffee, it just seems to build its reputation by being there, even when you don’t want it to. Like people who start telling you their life story just because you said, ‘Hello’, and then you feel obliged to humour them because no one else will, and then it’s ten minutes later, and then your skin starts rotting as you realise you should’ve been blunt and dismissed the monologue like everyone else, but instead your soft touch has left you for dead.
We had a latté, which questions our masculinity, apparently. The milk was slightly burnt, and the only aspect of the espresso that was bitter was us. We’ve only handed our cash to Nero on two occasions, and only returned because we couldn’t believe how bad the first experience was. The only positive we can think of is that Nero has created plenty, if not too many, jobs. And blue is a lovely colour.
There are two far, far superior coffee destinations in the city centre that are not only worthy of a visit, but also far more grateful for your cash. Coffee Barker in Castle Arcade and The Plan in the Royal Arcade, the latter of which features a real award-winning barista that produces real coffee, are both humble yet busy enough to enjoy while you stick two fingers up at the flavourless giants. To them, it’s all about ‘market share’, ‘brand awareness’ and ‘competitive advantage’; and not enough about flavour, care and attention to detail.
Stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap, said Tesco founder Sir Jack Cohen.