Outside the box
Coffee in a post-pandemic Britain
When we first went into lockdown in 2020, there was constant talk about when things would return to normal. As the severity of the pandemic dawned on us, we slowly came to terms with the fact that things might never be the same again, and that we would be entering a ‘new normal’. For many businesses, 2020 was their lucky break. For others, it was the last straw. Hospitality arguably took the hardest hit. Pubs, restaurants and cafés did whatever they could to stay afloat, and the pivots they made were felt across the nation. Our entire relationship with food and drink changed shape. Google searches for ‘How to make coffee at home’ skyrocketed at the beginning of lockdown and Solo luckily managed to catch that wave and saw our direct-to-consumer (DTC) operation really gain traction for the first time. People learned how to enjoy good coffee and food without the need for a barista and a chef.
After a while of making our own sourdough bread and nerding out on coffee-brewing methods, people’s enthusiasm for a slower life died down and we all craved our old routines. Slowly but unsurely, we were allowed to return to our old ways. Pret tried to capitalise on the convenience addiction relapse with its new subscription model. Rishi Sunak even financially incentivised us (RIP: ‘Eat out to help out’). But it seems the bounceback that cafés were hoping for has simply not happened. And it feels as if it might never be the same as before. The hospitality industry is still suffering from a huge staff shortage. The UK’s café sector reported a 40% decrease in sales in 2020. Pre-pandemic, 85% of UK consumers would visit a coffee shop at least once a week, but this has dropped to 56% since the pandemic. And here’s the big but: but ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee is currently the fastest-growing segment within the UK’s soft drink market. There is a predicted minimum CAGR of 15% over the next three years. In short, we’re still drinking coffee, just not in cafés.
The cafés that are doing well are those that heavily pivoted to take-away only. In London, queues of impatient workers line up for take-away coffees *nature is healing*. Cafés are now like human fuelling stations, and the days of them being a halfway sanctuary between work and home seem numbered. Cafés used to be a destination to relax and coffee would be a by-product of this. Today, the few people who do sit in a café seem more interested in the WiFi and, with the take-away only setup, coffee is the only reason people visit. This has made it hard for many customers to justify the price and the waiting time for coffee, which may well have led to the RTD increase.
As café growth plateaus and DTC and RTD coffee pick up steam, we’re betting all on black. It seems that, despite a general maturity towards black coffee, nearly every RTD coffee in supermarkets is filled with milk and sugar, and there are close to zero vegan and sugar-free options, let alone direct trade or speciality grade. We hope that the space changes quickly and that Solo can be at the forefront of it.