Café nation? Growth and change in the UK café industry

Dr Jennifer Ferreira, Coventry University

Photo credit: Dr Jennifer Ferreira

Walk down any UK high street and you are likely to be faced with a suite of café options from a series of high street chains, independent cafes, to fast food outlets offering café beverages.

The café industry is one of the most successful retail sectors in the UK experiencing significant growth over the last decade, with over 20,000 outlets across the country and estimated to potentially rise to 27,000 by 2020. Visiting cafes has now become commonplace for many in the UK, and their presence on the high street is creating a range of dynamics in different urban spaces.

My paper titled ‘Café nation? Exploring the growth of the UK café industry’, recently published in the journal Area, examines why the café industry has grown so much and considers some of the implications this is having on UK urban spaces. While its main aim was to provide an overview of the café industry in the UK, more importantly it highlights why more research is needed on the many facets of the café industry as part of a new economic and social geography of urban spaces; from the impact they have on the communities in which they are located, to the plethora of business forms that are emerging as part of the industry.

The presence of cafes in the UK is not a new phenomenon, in fact the café has a much longer history going right back to the 17th century (Green 2013). Although, it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s where the growth began to gain pace with the introduction of the high street chains with which we are all now so familiar. While the market may be dominated by the ‘big three’ Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero, the make-up of the café industry is actually very diverse and is made up of different types of organisations, networks and business models, particularly within the independent sector. This paper presents an illustrative typology of the different café types in the UK as a starting point for future work on the impact of cafés.

One of several drivers of the growth for the café industry has been a growing awareness of high quality coffee, and as a consequence, there has been an explosion of speciality coffee shops and roasters in recent years. With a wider range of expertly blended, or single origin coffees, combined with a suite of different brewing methods, from the aeropress to the syphon, there is now more on offer for the coffee connoisseur than ever before – as evidenced by a growing number of speciality coffee guides to different regions in the UK.

At the same time alternative business models have emerged, for example, an international chain that has a growing presence in the UK is Ziferblat, where customers pay for the time they spend, rather than the products they consume. Providing spaces for people to meet, work, socialise and so on, these café spaces are providing much more than a standard café, they offer a social space.

These are just two vignettes of activity that are taking place in the café industry in the UK, and while some are explored in my article, the paper very much acts as a starting point to argue that much more research is needed to explore the UK as a ‘café society’ (Tjora and Scambler 2014).

About the author: Dr Jennifer Ferreira is a Senior Research Assistant in the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University. The research presented in Jennifer’s Area article is part of wider project on the role of cafes in urban spaces – Spaces of Community – you can find out more about this project on the research blog ‘Café Spaces’.

books_icon Ferreira J 2016 Café nation? Exploring the growth of the UK café industry Area doi:10.1111/area.12285

books_icon Allegra Strategies 2015 Project Café 2015, Allegra Strategies

60-world2 Green M 2013 The lost world of the London Coffee House.

60-world2 Brian’s Coffee Spot. Available at:

60-world2 The Independent Coffee Guide 

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