One of my friend John Ishii’s claims to fame is that the unit that was his father’s store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market later became the very first Starbucks.
Ah Starbucks! The reassuring thing about Starbucks is that wherever you are in the world you know you’ll find the same coffee, the same biscuits, the same attempt at cosiness that makes you feel a little bit like the cast of Friends minus the looks and, well, maybe the friends as well.
Just think, wherever you are; Tokyo, San Francisco, Prague, Dubai, Delhi, you only need to go into a Starbucks and you find a little oasis of sameness, somewhere free from the all unfamiliar and disconcerting sights, sounds and smells assaulting you when you step outside. It manages to take all the travel out of travel. You’ve gone 5000 miles but you might as well have gone down the street. Yes, the world of Starbucks is as bland and milky as one of their lattes.
So what is it with people wanting the predictable familiarity of corporate faux intimacy rather than the real deal?
Last Saturday night, for the first time in my life, I was left unsupervised in a cake shop, after-hours. It’s a bit like being the Pope left alone in a nunnery, Ronnie Biggs being offered the key to the vault, or Michael Gove being given a sharpened pencil. It tested my powers of self control almost beyond endurance. But I did endure while the Borgias ended up having more children than you could shake a stick at, Ronnie had to scarper to Brazil and Michael nearly poked someone’s eye out, probably his own.
The cake shop in question was The Moonlight Café in Cocking (no relation to Mr Gove) in West Sussex.
Like so many of the best tea rooms it’s clearly a labour of love, one that I’m sure reflects the personality and taste of the owners, Steve and Sue Redshaw. Of course their taste may not be yours. You might not give house room to the china and knick knacks and trinkets they’ve used to give the place its own character. But that would be to miss the point completely.
The point is that when a corporation does something it is, or ought to be, for one reason and one reason alone; to benefit its shareholders. There’s no room for frippery, fun, or doing something because it’s right. All there is is doing something because either in the short term or long term it adds to the bottom line. Everything becomes a calculation, a cost benefit analysis.
Of course corporations are big in hospitality. They might decide to try to ape what Steve and Sue have done, but it would never be done for its own sake. The process would involve endless attempts to second guess what customers like, to eliminate anything that customers might not like, to arrive at the perfect formula to get people to stay just long enough to spend their money and then to vamoose. If a chain finds a recipe that works it simply replicates it and, where local tastes don’t align with it, they localise it.
But there’s no love, no truly human dimension. It’s just mind numbing monotony.
Given that many if not most of the things that give us pleasure and joy come from contact with other human beings, from the exchange of thoughts and ideas, of increasing our range of experiences and our understanding, of seeing the world through the eyes of others, I sometimes wonder that anyone goes to Costa or Café Nero or Starbucks for any reason than that they have no time or desire to think, to be or to open themselves to new experiences. Rather it seems to be about shutting out new experience because they’re too busy with problems of their own to worry about whether they’ll like something new.
Well it’s their loss. The rest of us however should seek out places like the Moonlight Café. And it seems that many of us like difference, individuality and the truly human, however imperfect or flawed it might be – because its always the flaws that make the merely attractive truly beautiful.
As it happens the Moonlight is my idea of an almost perfect tea room. I say almost because most of us who appreciate the individual or personal need the hope that there might be something just that little bit better at the next stop on the way. The journey becomes more important than the destination.
And for travellers, whether on an inner path or the outward A286 The Moonlight also has excellent B&B accommodation upstairs, which was why I found myself at dusk in a deserted tea room. And still no cakes disappeared. And the rooms were every bit as welcoming as the café. The cooked vege breakfast set me up perfectly for a day walking on the Sussex Downs looming over the village.
We found a great sledging spot just up the road. Perhaps when the snows next beckon I’ll rush down with Luca and a couple of sledges and get snowed in at the Moonlight Café for a day or two. Just me, Luca and a small mountain of cake. But don’t bet on any of it making it through to the thaw.