Features Columnist


Margaret Hartness reflects on what a cosy cafe has to offer over franchises.

I’ve recently moved out for my last year of university, to my great relief. Suddenly the streets are no longer city streets, but my neighbourhood streets, imbued with a sense of newfound (relative) freedom. 

This was accompanied with other changes of course. September arrived like a returning schoolchild- sunny with the novelties of a new start, but greying with the attached workload. I’ve found this in my move. I used to visit Toro Coffee every Saturday for my caffeine boost and decadent treat nicely paired with the greenery of Pollock Park and a friend to chatter with. With the West End now on my doorstep, I’m in search of a new sweet spot which can match up without breaking the bank; perhaps there should be a match-making service for coffee shops? Espress-U? Latte-Love? 

It’s this void which makes me wonder about the importance of a favourite coffee shop in our lives. With franchise stores a dime a dozen on every street, why is the independent one so special? 

The warm familiarity that develops over repeated visits appears to be a factor. My friend and I had such predictive patterns, the woman at the window knew our drink orders, and how indecisive I could be over pastries - it’s a committed decision. That can’t quite be recreated at a busy Starbucks with a line of caffeine-addicted city workers, or impatient customers  breathing down your neck. At least the barista at our local appeared to enjoy their job. Some corporate baristas feel like they were replaced by robots. Fear of KPI can do that to you, I suppose. 

These baristas can’t always converse with you, even if they’d like to. But in an independent haunt, unless it’s an especially busy day, Sam or Rebecca can chatter while they make your order as they’re not juggling three others. When much of your time is glued to a screen and interacting with people through it, talking to another being who recognises your face is a much-needed social boost.

Places like these return us to the social origins of the coffee shop as a place for conversation, not just a dopamine-fuelling addictive. When we conjure images of a coffee shop, we tend to imagine a heaving Starbucks, serving frappuccinos in plastic cups and pedestaled seats. Or a cushioned den with mugs and saucers. Unless the energy of Starbucks is that booster you need, I tend to veer towards the quiet bubble of the latter. Casual meet-ups feel more relaxed in a spot of comfort, instead of the stressed static and nailed down table of corporate coffees. Sadly with the pandemic, some independent shops are operating out of hatchets or simple in-and-out systems. Missing the special “coffee-shop” atmosphere, we compensate for it with ambience music videos as we work or relax at home.The nibbles certainly help. Going to coffee shops can fill our need to indulge ourselves- that special treat which momentarily melts you away with its sugary, buttery, doughy goodness. Toro certainly knew how to hit the spot, and their Facebook stories of the day’s menu activated the strategist in me- “The menu is up, go-go-go! The cruffins aren’t there! The shortcake is present. 10 minutes to grab a friend before the cinnamon bun diversion is up.” The freshly baked taste of pastries is superior to the frozen, shipped-in franchise inferiorities. Call me a snob or a hypocrite, as I’ll still buy one (darn that sweet-tooth!) but the home-made has that special zing to it whether it's the taste of  grandma’s love or elbow grease.  

With the novelty of instant coffee, frozen fish, and TV dinners worn off, we’ve gone back to valuing homemade and organically sourced products. Bizarre, when the idea of organic didn’t exist until the past century- organic was just normal. Whether everything was ethically sourced is a different question. We’re more willing to spend our money on local, ethical, quality coffees and treats because we’re more aware of the wider effects of what we consume . Compounded by the insane contributions of industry to the climate crisis. That little coffee shop we like so much produces a feel-good factor to our spending. You’re supporting a local business owner, instead of a conglomerate. 

Call me nostalgic, but when winter comes and I’ve found “the one”, I’ll probably sit myself down by a preferred cosy spot: I’ll have a book, a nibble and probably a hot chocolate with cream. Wrapped up in a jumper as I watch the busy baristas work their magic, contrasting with the cold world outside, I’ll think to myself with satisfaction, “I love coffee shops”.


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