Eatymology: A Tea Potted History of the Superstore Café

Feast of the M60 looks at how the superstore café has evolved in the last fifty years

Please forgive me for taking a well trodden part for this introduction. In my formative years, the supermarket café seemed fairly exotic. Supermarkets, when I was young, were small, in town centre locations, and a bit chaotic. The edge of town supermarket with its vast car parking seemed otherworldly. Back then, the Fine Fare hypermarket in Hyde, Ashton’s original ASDA, and the Shopping Giant stores in Droylsden and Denton were notable exceptions.

By the time I started comprehensive school, out-of-town became the rule instead of the exception. Everything under one roof from milk to anti-freeze. The in store café came to the fore. Yet, in a covered market hall, you can still get the ‘everything under one roof’ style of convenience though different stalls, including cafés. It had been the norm with department stores since the year dot – concessions rather than stalls, or the whole store owned by the Co-op, House of Fraser, or Debenhams.

Without the department store, and the rise of private motoring, the instore café wouldn’t have been a thing. We would have gone to our local Wimpy, Golden Egg, UCP Tripe Shop, or the Co-op department store’s café. When out-of-town stores rose in popularity, drivers yearned for the same convenience enjoyed in town centres.

On the 07 November 1964, the shape of things to come emerged in West Bridgford. The GEM Department Store was hailed as a pioneering out-of-town store. It had concessions like traditional department stores and generous car parking – 1,000 spaces. Each concessionaire would give a cut of their earnings to GEM. Its influence was great, but the chain only operated in the UK for two years and had three stores. In 1966, the recently formed ASDA bought them, sewing the seeds for today’s model of superstore.

In 1967, The Woolworth Corporation launched its Woolco stores in the United Kingdom. Its first stores, in out-of-town locations, were situated in Oadby, Thornaby, and Bournemouth. Again with the American style shopping experience, though all the benefits of a town centre Woolworth store.

By the 1970s, the British out-of-town supermarket aped its European counterparts with in store cafés appearing. It is fair to say that Greater Manchester played a pioneering role in their development, in 1976 alone. The first was Tesco’s Hypermarket in Irlam, a true out-of-town store in the present sense. The other was the Hyde Department Store, otherwise known as Fine Fare. Both hypermarkets had in store cafés. A post big shop brew became the norm.

Stirrings and simmerings

Rather than being concessions, Tesco’s and Fine Fare’s cafés were directly managed by the store chains. This led us to one purpose: a shop window for some of its products lines. In other words, ordering a breakfast would mean own brand ingredients. As for drinks, own brand hot drinks and milk shakes (though some branded minerals).

As separate entities – commissionaires or franchisees – Co-op’s Shopping Giant format favoured having a Big Bite burger bar in the superstores. Likewise with Mainstop’s stores where the Bumper’s Family Restaurant was their response. The notion of imitation Wimpy Bars were pretty much of that decade.

In the 1980s, out-of-town supermarkets ceased to resemble faceless boxes indistinguishable from one branch to another. The ‘Essex Barn’ school of postmodernist superstore design rose in popularity. Typically, the café would occupy one of the wings of the store, or have a protruding single storey extension (like the office block or the carding shed of a cotton mill). They looked inviting to passing drivers, and the residents who would live with them on their doorstep.

The switch towards postmodern structures instead of soulless boxes worked several ways. Firstly, not only to respect their neighbours, but also to woo planning departments from Truro to Thurso. Secondly, brand repositioning: some of the smaller supermarket units looked downmarket and dated, due to the lack of space. The new generation of superstores meant toilets, wider aisles, and the now obligatory café.

As well as being a shop window for their wares, they also became an extra dimension to The Big Shop. In lieu of what they could have paid for parking in the town centre, the money would go on a brew instead. It also meant they didn’t need to leave the store for a café or restaurant in the town itself. With that in mind, they started offering more substantial and exotic dishes. This placates shoppers with bigger appetites wanting something more than a toasted teacake with their tea or coffee.

More reasons to do breakfast at Morrisons

With the exception of hard discounters like Aldi and Lidl, the in store café became the norm. By the early 1990s, it was more than a convenient leg stretch after negotiating the aisles. They became family friendly places to have an affordable meal. A rendezvous point in their own right. Chicken Tikka Masala vied for menu space alongside quarter pounder burgers; gateaux alongside scones; and frothy coffee would be next door to the tea bags.

Soon, ASDA, Morrisons and Tesco stores became noted for their breakfasts alongside the BOGOFs. Today’s menus are closer to those of discount pub chains with pies, lasagne and burgers next to the light bites, sandwiches and cakes. Some of today’s supermarket cafés are, from an interior design point of view, blurring the boundaries between the local caff and the overpriced coffee chains. If you come in at the right time, a relaxed meeting point for discussing the latest sales figures with a fellow colleague.

Coffee culture

In the last decade, premium priced coffee shops have risen in popularity. For some people, particularly those under 40 years of age, they have become an alternative to the public house. Neither the coffee shop nor the superstore café could ever take the place of the pub. Two different markets again, though the pub can do both (as seen at J.D Wetherspoon’s establishments).

Adapting to these changes, the superstore café has taken a leaf out of the rise of Costa and Friends. No shopper, it seems, is content with milky coffee (Latte is preferable in the present day vernacular). As a consequence, some of the smaller superstore branches’ cafés have cut down on main meals in favour of deli style or coffee shop style menus. On the other hand, smaller stores have gained Costa-esque cafés which take up less space.

Tesco no longer sell their own coffee in their cafés; that has been outsourced to Costa Coffee, owned by Whitbread plc. Morrisons’ cafés, source their coffee from Bolling Coffee, a West Yorkshire company now owned by Bewley’s. With the exception of Tesco (where Costa’s prices apply), the superstore chains can play the coffee shops at their own game, offering a latte for less.

Where next for the superstore café?

Superstore cafés, though they would never win any Egon Ronay or Les Routiers awards, will remain as of now, a convenient resting place for a post-shop brew. Or as an affordable lunchtime stop. If anything could threaten the future of superstore cafés, it’s the relentless march of online shopping. Fewer people take a trip to their local Morrisons, Tesco, ASDA or Sainsburys for their big shop than, say in 1994, because of their websites.

With more people doing a BigShop.com, this would have an impact on footfall. Eventually, the cafés could double as Community Rooms. In one way, to mitigate any cutbacks made to local government provision (the loss of community centres and public libraries). In another way, the continued privatisation of our public spaces, indoor and outdoor.

Perhaps in future years, the outsourcing trend could continue. Other companies could run the cafés wholesale and be treated as a separate entity from the store chain. For example, as part of a franchised outlet like Subway; or split into two units with a micro pub next to a Greggs.

For more spontaneous purchases, the convenience store sector is in rude health, with many shoppers doing a top-up shop at Tesco Express, Sainsburys Local or Raja Bros. They have also benefited from another present day trend: the loss of several public houses.

One thing that’ll remain true in 2067, as much as things are today, is the convenience angle. That of being a stop-off point for light lunches and a quick brew. Shoppers will still be wanting Victoria Sandwich Cake in another fifty years time.

S.V., 20 May 2017.

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