The trouble with Harris & Hoole

There’s a new chain of coffee shops in town, which I’d normally regard as a major event: I like coffee but limit myself to one cup a day, so it’s got to be a good one.

I recently tried Harris & Hoole‘s London Bridge outpost and it’s exactly what a hip independent coffee shop should be: chalkboard menus, boho chic decor, unbrushed wood and sunny smiles. Even the server was an ideal representation of a Seattle/San Francisco hipster chick, all short hair, snakehips and big geek-glasses. (I thought she was hot, although to complete the vibe she was presumably gay, or at least bi-curious.) Perfect.

And then you taste the coffee.

Oh, dear.

It’s so bad you can taste the Tesco in it.

Yes, Harris & Hoole isn’t independent. It’s a venture by the supermarket giant, and it shows everything that’s gone wrong with Tesco in the last 3-5 years. There’s nothing wrong with a coffee shop owned by a supermarket; I shop at Tesco all the time. But I used to be a fanatical Tesco fan, and now I only go there because it’s nearby. It fell so far, so fast, so obviously that the brand just hollowed itself out.

I stopped loving Tesco about three years ago, when its boardroom cost-cutting showed up too much in the food. Today I buy the basics there, wine, maybe the odd bit of deli, but most of my £70+ weekly spend now goes to Waitrose. (Which I need to get in the car for.) Harris & Hoole illustrates why.

If you launch a coffee shop, it should really be about the coffee. That should be the single thing you concentrate on first, the one thing you don’t subject to salami-slicing on costs; there are lots of coffee shops out there, so the bean’s got to be special. Yet it’s the most characterless, bargain-basement discount filter drip I’ve ever tasted. And – sharing this with Starbuck’s – it wasn’t bloody hot. I know the marketing rationale: keep it cool and they’ll gulp it and get out, faster table-turn. Well, they succeeded: I gulped and got out. Trouble is I won’t be going back.

Oh, Tesco, you came so close. If only you’d put the resources that went into studying the Seattle scene… into the one thing that mattered.

Oh, Tesco: where did it all go wrong?

After yet another fruitless lunchtime sandwich-search in perhaps the most depressing supermarket I’ve ever been in, I asked the office “Does anyone else think Tesco is going downhill?”

Cue more nodding faces than a dubstep concert. (Or wherever the kids are going this year. I dunno, yesterday a 22 year-old said my “sex was on fire” and I didn’t get the ref.)

Tesco used to be my favourite supermarket, but it’s out in the open now: something’s gone badly wrong at the Big T, and I’m not sure it’s recoverable.

My fallen hero, there’s a simple problem: your food is crap.

Which hurts, because I know how difficult it is to do retail and Tesco is awesome at it. If I accidentally enter an Asda or Lidl, with their hunched masses of shuffling slackjaws – or worse, that TV woman slapping her bottom – I jerk backwards and grab the nearest blunt and heavy instrument*, thinking the zombie apocalypse has begun. Tesco has always felt like my supermarket, the place I’m happiest to invite into my kitchen.

(Waitrose is great, too, but the feeling I need to break out my tux and give my shoes a polish before entering is always a drawback. I mean, have you been to the Canary Wharf one on a Sunday morning? It’s more a dating club than a supermarket. They’ve got a wine bar and oyster restaurant right there among the aisles!)

Plus: Tesco does great credit cards. And of course it has ClubCard, probably the most worthwhile pointsback programme anywhere: some quarters I get thirty or forty quid in no-hassle vouchers in the post. (As a copywriter I’ve even written a few of their brochures, and enjoyed the experience.)

I think the chain started ossifying around the time it launched that ad campaign featuring talking trolleys. (You see two shopping trolleys in a park and what do you think? Blighted environment, that’s what.) But I think the real rot got a grip some years later, around 2009.

The shelves are well-stocked. The prices remain competitive.

But every dinner that began its relationship with you in Tesco is, today, a huge disappointment, isn’t it.

(Note the lack of question mark ending that last sentence.)

Tesco, oh Tesco. Did you really think we wouldn’t notice?

At the moment I’m working in cities a hundred and fifty km apart, and the limitations of a weekday rental make me more dependent than usual on stuff that’s top-oven-friendly. But the misses these days aren’t just outnumbering the hits; they are totally eclipsing them. Here are a few examples – and they weren’t hard to find.

Case Study #1: The not-so-Finest Pizzas. Has anyone in the Tesco boardroom actually eaten one of these things? If you drench one in olive oil and fresh herbs before cooking, it’ll be, at a stretch, just about edible… IF you also obliterate your palate with Dave’s Insane Sauce or something first. I mean, they cost up to £7 and they’re as blandly unsatisfying as Moshi Rox to a death metal fanatic. Appalling, especially when next to them on the shelf is Pizza Express at 2 for a fiver.

Case Study #2: A bunch of tasteless jerks. What on earth are those “Jerk [insert meat]” cartons that appeared around Q3? A box of lonely bones with a grain or two or rice spooned in? Trust me, the Carribbean contains few people who would recognise that ill-hidden strip of flesh under the jerk as chicken – and nobody at all who’d identify another dish as goat. What a shame; goat’s such an underrated meat and you’re turning off consumers at their first go. It’s an insult to goats (as well as to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a proper Jerk sauce.) I suppose I could make gelatine, but…

Case Study #3: The “Yes, We Mystery Shop in Marks and Spencer” Finest Meal for £10. The idea’s sound: main course, side dish, dessert and wine for a tenner. (I will make an allowance for the common supermarket lie “Serves 2”; everyone tells that whopper.) But my meatballs were like leftovers from a leather tannery. My potatoes had the generic consistency of yellowed lard. I don’t know what Gu thought it was doing, throwing that gritty white cake-like substance into the ring (I forget its name, but it doesn’t deserve to share space with their great chocolate puds.) And the wine? Come on folks, you wouldn’t sell that for £7 in real life.

Case Study #4: The Appalling Mr Hom. Tesco, this “Ken Hom” guy is widely known as a guy who can’t cook for toffee (including cooking toffee) – in America, a nation where half the population eats a minivan wrapped in carpet for breakfast. What’s your fascination with him? You’re not shy about pulling outside suppliers up by their bootstraps. Yet there, in the “Ethnic Food That Doesn’t Come In Jars And Isn’t Polish” section (okay, you call it “Chinese”) you give prime shelf space to a range of fried rice, spring rolls etc that are just appalling. Have. You. Ever. Actually. Tried. One? If your local Tesco isn’t open, go round the back and chew on a cardboard box retrieved from a dumpster to get an idea.

Case Study #5: I won’t rip you a new one over the takeaway sushi; supermarket onigiri are just too easy a target. But: if Lidl did sushi…

Case Study #6: A troubled relationship with alcohol. Now, most supermarkets are bad at wine (Waitrose excepted) but you’ve got noticeably worse since 2010. The white wine aisle is an endless acreage of Chardonnay, Chardonnay, and more bloody Chardonnay. If you’re really lucky, on the end of the aisle will be a chenin blanc, which is of course [Chardonnay]. There are other grapes, you know. I won’t go into here how alike the wines are – there’s barely one under £20 with any personality – because that’s just the market; most people like what they know. But c’mon, a little smoke or spiciness wouldn’t go amiss.

With great regret, it’s time to short Tesco. Could my future be that supermarket you never really notice… Sainsbury’s?

* Unless it’s the bottom. I mean, you can get arrested for that sort of thing.