A Big Day Out at... the Guardian's New 'Data-Driven' Coffee Shop!

By Clive Martin, Photos: Jack Barry

News broke on Twitter this morning that the Guardian, the leftist iPhone application and newspaper, had opened a “data-driven” coffee shop in Shoreditch, East London. Initially, this sounded like a bad joke perpetuated by Rod Liddle or some other centre-right hack still bitterly grinding it out in the print game. The whole thing just sounds too Guardian. Playing into their love of new media, ethically sourced produce and all of London east of Moorgate, the idea seems to have been ripped from the minds of some dreadful Oxbridge satire troupe.

However, it soon became clear that it wasn’t a hoax. The Guardian really have opened up a coffee shop, it really does purport to be “data-driven”, and yeah, it's in Shoreditch (it's in Boxpark). It also has a projection screen that should apparently display any tweets containing the hashtag #guardiancoffee. Obviously this was used by the internet's congregated masses as a forum to make jokes about "liberals and their hemp moccasins" and take the piss out of the poor staff of #GuardianCoffee forced to huff endless coffee fumes as they saw themselves being personally attacked on a massive screen.

I went down to #GuardianCoffee to see what all the fuss was about. Was this a fairly innocent venture from a forward-thinking media empire, a desperate ploy for more cash from a sinking print institution, or are they self-awarely satirising themselves in the same way you imagine the Daily Sport is when it occasionally gives away Pot Noodles?

The first impressions weren’t good. While this was obviously an attempt at a “hip coffee shop”, it was clearly designed to be the kind of place where BBC researchers can charge their phones before going to Café Oto rather than somewhere Allen Ginsberg might stand on a table and read an allegorical poem about his penis and Vietnam. There seemed to be little fanfare surrounding its opening; no launch party with David Mitchell and Victoria Coren sagely nodding their heads to fashion-trap bangers, no cappuccino pyramids, just a few estate agents taking pictures on their iPhones and a smattering of pain au raisins.

The vibe was sterile and deathly. I know Rome wasn’t built in a day, but you couldn’t help but feel that most people involved in this enterprise were somewhat embarrassed by it. This section, which I guess is meant to resemble a cosy living room in a loft development, actually bore more resemblance to the living room in some care home you might see on Panorama.

Maybe I'm cynical though; after all, the enthusiastic man charging his phone in his armchair in the corner kept saying it was “all good”. I guess charging your phone is definitely a "good" thing. Unless you're talking in environmental terms, which, given the setting, I guess we should have been.

The décor was exactly as you’d imagine. All tasteful wooden floors, tumblers full of brown sugar and more flat screens than a Glaswegian CCTV monitoring station. It felt lifeless and clinical, with the only noises coming from the coffee machine and the dreary, sub-Moloko hi-hat jazz house muzak chirping away in the background. It all felt a little like being in a rehab programme run by BUPA.

Espressos were £2.50.

Then there's the "data-driven" part. It came in a few different forms:

First, there was the data projector. Despite the fact that really, it's just a glorified PowerPoint presentation with a few informative nuggets about coffee growth in Bolivia, some news and a few sporadically updated tweets about the place, there was something slightly unsettling about it. If Steve Jobs hadn't kicked the bucket before he got a chance to set up the sovereign Apple state, it would have looked like this.

If you really wanna troll this place, bop in with a shitty black Acer laptop that is held together with sellotape. You'll be lowering the tone in no time!

Weirdly, despite the overwhelmingly mocking nature of most of the tweets on the #guardiancoffee hashtag, all of the ones they were screening seemed to be very complimentary. I might be wrong, but based on my 20 minutes in there, I couldn't help but think that at #GuardianCoffee, comment is a long way from free.

The next part of the data-driven bit was slightly more interesting, in that it mostly consisted of facts about coffee. I guess I learnt a few things, but it's not exactly the Hard Rock Cafe. Where's Dee Dee Ramone's plectrum, Rusbridger? I can learn about coffee at home (using your website). 

Almost every table seemed to have one of these things on it. I'm not entirely sure what they're called, but to me, they look exactly like those touch-screen computers you stare at for ages when you're pretending to look for jobs as a kitchen porter at Jobcentre Pluses. However, with water at £2, I don't think Hackney's unemployed will be making this a regular stop-off in their daily routine of aimless despair.

Oh, and the Guardian's anti-authoritarian lower case "g" tag was everywhere. Perhaps as the urban literati continues to swell beyond Hackney's boundaries, we'll soon see this appearing scrawled on walls in Tory constituencies? It'll be a kind of rebel insignia for liberals forced to live in the Home Counties.

I quickly became bored. Realising that I wasn't going to understand whatever the hell this place means from an afternoon's pastry sampling and tweet scrolling, I decided to head off back into the real world, a place where cafes are decorated with Page 3 girls covered in egg and "interactivity" is an old Greek man asking you who ordered the one without mushrooms.

I wasn't really sure what to think of The Great Broadsheet Coffee Shop experiment. On one hand, who can be bothered to get worked up about it? It doesn't change the journalism on the website/paper/liberal iPhone app. In fact, most of their writers seem clueless about its existence; and anyone who's ever worked a day in media will tell you that this is a classic case of a salesperson gone rogue. If you really want to feel annoyed about it, go and buy the £2 water, feel swindled, move on, go home, log onto the Guardian website, and start complaining in the comments section.

Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive

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