I seem to have become something of an expert on the Harris and Hoole story.
I first came across them when shop-fitters boards went up outside the old Clinton Cards on our High Street. It announced that Harris and Hoole was coming soon, but didn't say much else beyond a series of hieroglyphic clues. I deciphered one as Pan+Knee+Knee and realised we were looking at the arrival of yet another coffee shop.
I assumed it was a chain, as no independent would have gone for a teaser marketing campaign like that. Turns out they are, and they're 49% owned by Tesco.
This is a problem for some, who don't like buying fake authenticity because it makes them feel like stooges. Others don't like it because they think it's putting independent coffee shops out of business. The Guardian newspaper has written extensively about this. The CEO of Tesco has blogged about it.
I suggested it as a subject when I was producing Andrew Gilligan's show on LBC last week and the phones lit up. We had café owners who claimed to have been put out of business by corporates muscling in on their trade, and plenty more who felt they'd been sold a pup by Harris and Hoole, but would still be going back.
Two days ago I wrote about the coffee shop invasion for Surrey Life magazine, whilst sitting in Harris and Hoole. Today I was there again, adding some colour to a debate with the brand's owner on the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2.
|Not a cup of coffee, or an Americano. In Harris and Hoole, it's a Long Black.|
Others knew and weren't happy about it (but still liked the product). Two business people I spoke to had just found out about Tesco's investment and decided to boycott Harris and Hoole, telling me they had made a decision to hold future meetings in Walton's remaining independent cafés.
Harris and Hoole will live without them. In fact, they will thrive. The Walton H+H has some of the most helpful and willing staff I've met in any retail outlet ever, it has free (and very easy to get into) wifi, and the USP is the sheer amount of space.
Take a buggy into the Costa in Walton and you spend your entire time apologising and re-arranging the furniture as you fight to get to your seat. H+H could've doubled the number of tables in the space they have available, but they choose not to. Even those enormous side-by-side buggies can get to any table with ease. In a town like Walton, this matters.
It's a shame the coffee tastes so grim. Other far more sophisticated palates disagree, but having had quite a few Harris and Hoole "Long Blacks" now, I just can't get on with it. Too sweet.
My favourite brew in Walton is made by Le Petit Café, a more cheap and cheerful independent set-up which was here long before the Neros and Costas of this world. The fella in there knows what he's doing, and he's friendly too.
But if I have a buggy, or I am going to be using my laptop, or I want to sink into an armchair for a bit, H+H will get my custom. Next time I'll just order a nice cup of tea.