Let us begin our tour of London’s coffee scene with the chains you’ll find on every high street. These outlets often congregate next to each other, leaving Londoners with a stark choice to satisfy their next caffeine fix.
How do you choose between them? The review below represents the author’s opinion only (albeit based on many dozens of cups from all the “big 3″ chains over recent years) and you may easily disagree.
However hard the chains try to be consistent, there are often big variations between individual outlets in terms of service and quality.
I’ve also not included the likes of Pret a Manger, McCafe, EAT etc. in the comparison as I don’t have enough experience of their coffee to include them. I’m sure they serve a great cup too, as does the odd London pub.
With these caveats out of the way, I’ll grade the “big 3” coffee chains across several criteria:
- Product quality: does the coffee cut the mustard?
- Value: how expensive is it in relation to overall quality?
- Ambience: how nice a place is it to hang out?
- Service: how friendly and efficient are the staff?
- Food: is it of good quality and varied enough?
- Loyalty: do you feel like returning again and again?
Starbucks is without doubt “the big daddy” of the London coffee scene.
Their coffee is generally ethically-sourced. A friend who works in the coffee trade tells me that Starbucks pay top dollar to producers when buying their coffee. This may be one reason why their prices tend to be high.
My espresso is a more bitter and nutty than at most chains but that’s how I like it – though it may not suit all palettes. I’d give Starbucks fairly good marks on taste and coffee quality – if you choose your drink carefully.
I tend to sidestep the lofty prices by asking for a “short” cappuccino – not even on the menu, presumably because they make less profit from it!
But a “short” is in fact the most authentic cappuccino available at any of the chains because it’s not overloaded with milk. That’s also how they like to drink them in Italy (but be warned that Italians would be horrified to see anyone drinking a cappuccino or latte in the afternoon or evening!).
The “freshly brewed” – usually percolating behind the barista – is another value choice. It’s cheaper than their signature drinks and has more character for those of us who like their coffee pretty much “neat”.
I find the iced drinks at Starbucks too sweet and often not cold enough. Quality often depends on the barista, though I give them full marks for effort as they’re always willing to redo your drink if you’re not happy.
Starbucks serve too many calorie-laden, creamy drinks without enough information to tell consumers what they’re letting themselves in for, especially if they’re going for the (absolutely massive) largest size.
Food-wise I’m generally disappointed by Starbucks. A couple of their muffin choices are OK but the sandwiches, pastries, paninis, etc. are quite disappointing and overpriced in my view. They also again lack real healthy options apart from the odd skinny muffin or a token fruit salad.
The staff at Starbucks are generally well-trained. They are often willing to engage with the customer – however busy they may be. The company clearly does something right in terms of recruitment and training, because achieving consistency across so many stores is no mean feat.
And I love the chilled-out, jazzy vibe of a typical Starbucks. It’s the perfect place to “de-stress” – even when working on your laptop! Talking of which, Starbucks has started to offer free WiFi to cardholders – a step in the right direction though I wish they just made it a free perk for all customers.
Here are my scores for Starbucks (each is marked out of 10):
Coffee Quality: 8, Value: 7, Ambience: 9, Service: 9, Food: 6, Loyalty: 8
Starbucks TOTAL: 47/60
Caffe Nero positions itself as the most “Italian” of the chains and the coffee product in my view broadly meets expectations. As an Italo-phile I wouldn’t call the blend 100% authentic but it is more than adequate. They do also seem to employ a higher than average number of Italian staff .
I also find their cafes quite stylish in appearance and love the policy of providing free newspapers for customers to enjoy (Starbucks take note!).
The furniture and décor in Caffe Neros is not always as comfy and inviting as some of its rivals. Although the blue-back colour scheme looks attractive it sometimes leaves the inside of their cafes a bit murky and poorly-lit.
But the above minor flaws are more than offset by one factor where Caffe Nero arguably stands head and shoulders above its rivals: flexibility!
I find that the staff are always willing to serve you exactly what you want.
They are the only coffee chain for example which will make me an “ice-blended black Americano” (which is blended in the mixer with ice for perfect creamy consistency), even though it’s not officially on the menu.
I’ve asked for this drink in many Caffe Neros across London and they’ve always delivered it, even if it’s sometimes taken several attempts!
This willingness to serve and go the extra mile consistently across their stores means more to me than the coffee itself. Caffe Nero staff also have a touching habit of asking you if they made your coffee OK.
The food is acceptable without being outstanding, though they at least try to innovate a little beyond the chains’ usual unimaginative fare.
Unlike other coffee chains, their pastries actually look fresh in the morning, since they display them in a baker’s basket. It may all be a big marketing ploy but I appreciate the extra effort (at the other chains you can’t properly tell if that muffin or croissant is left over from yesterday)!
Value-for-money wise Caffe Nero is also a touch better than its two main rivals, reinforcing this by having the best loyalty scheme around.
They’ll stamp your card each time you buy a coffee. After 9 stamps the next one is free: it’s simple, transparent and well-executed.
Again, I give massive kudos to the staff because they consistently err on the side of generosity. Sometimes the barista will give you a wink and stamp your card twice even if you only ordered one coffee. They’ll even stamp your card for buying a Sunday paper from them – a really nice touch.
Being “generous” to paying customers is what the best London hotels do as well. Here is my Caffe Nero verdict:
Coffee Quality: 8, Value: 9, Ambience: 8, Service: 10, Food: 8, Loyalty: 10
Caffe Nero TOTAL: 53/60
Costa for me serves the most ordinary coffee of the three, though I admit this is my own subjective opinion. Food is disappointing and high in salt and fat, though in this respect not hugely different to its rivals.
All the coffee chains need to buck up their ideas considerably in terms of food and pastries by learning from the best independent cafes. Why do they serve sandwiches laden with as much fat as a Big Mac?
The ambience in the cafes is rather nice. Like Caffe Nero they get kudos for offering free newspapers for customers to browse. They also have very comfortable furniture – perhaps the best of all the chains.
Prices are high – almost on a par with Starbucks – without this premium being particularly justified. I also find their iced drinks fairly mediocre, often made with sickly-sweet syrups or powders rather than real ingredients.
Staff are usually quite friendly but I can somehow always tell that Costa is part of a big corporate (Whitbread) without a clear sense of “family”. The baristas sometimes lack the spontaneity of Starbucks and Caffe Nero people and do not seem to engage with customers as much.
The worst aspect of Costa for me is their recently-launched loyalty scheme.
They’ve obviously introduced it as a copycat to Caffe Nero but in my view it’s been poorly implemented. Since getting their loyalty card I have only succeeded in getting it swiped once from three visits.
The first time the barista who “sold” me the idea of the card seemed to forget – or didn’t want to – actually swipe it on this initial purchase.
More recently, I dropped into a central London Costa on a quiet Sunday. I pulled my card out after ordering but the barista had already taken my money and delivered my espresso before I could give her the card.
When I then politely asked her if she could swipe it after, she said something robotic like “we can only do it before the transaction”.
She failed to recognise that she hadn’t even given me a chance (nor had she had the courtesy to ask first as they always do at Caffe Nero).
It felt like she was afraid of dealing with their systems – but if your loyalty card pisses customers off instead of rewarding them, what’s the point? In this regard I feel Costa has a lot to learn from Caffe Nero.
I’ve even seen customers at Caffe Nero get their cards stamped a few minutes after ordering. They instinctively trust you as the customer and want to demonstrate that they value your custom at every opportunity.
I hope that Costa’s problems with its loyalty scheme are just a teething issue because I do like the ambience at some of their cafes.
Coffee Quality: 6, Value: 6, Ambience: 9, Service: 6, Food: 5, Loyalty: 5
Costa TOTAL: 37/60
The overall result: Caffe Nero is our clear winner!
But if you like cafes with more individual character than the chains, do check out our review of the best London independent coffee shops.