Coffee and the transport hub: the rise of specialty coffee in train stations and airports

In a recent blog post on reaching peak Costa Coffee in the UK I mentioned how a Guardian article had hinted at a shift taking place where more specialty coffee was becoming available in transport hubs, particularly train stations. Given that coffee shop competition for space and consumers is high, points of transit seem a sensible place for specialty coffee to expand given the high footfall of consumers and (at present) the relatively low saturation of specialty coffee on offer in these places.  This prompted me to look into this in a bit more detail to see if it’s a trend we should expect to see more of in the near future. I also put a request out on Twitter for any examples people had seen of specialty coffee in train stations in airports. There were a range of responses which suggest that this phenomenon is beginning to take place both internationally and in the UK.

Transport hubs have long been places where coffee shops have maintained a presence, and to some extent the trends in coffee consumption have been reflected here – in particular the spread of chain coffee shops. Some of the chains have recognised that transport hubs need to begin to shift their coffee offering to – in  2017 Starbucks opened a 24 hour Reserve Store in Changi Airport T3 in Singapore. But it seems, perhaps as a reflection of a rising consumer demand for specialty coffee, there appear to be increasing specialty coffee options from independent coffee companies too.

The Guardian article I mentioned previously highlighted how the specialty coffee chain Grind had plans to open in train stations in the UK and had made a deal with SSP, the transport hub specialists.   It was highlighted to me by Brian Williams (author of Philosophy of Coffee and Brian’s Coffee Spot) that there are a range of different ways specialty coffee has been expanding into (and nearby) train stations – through independent roasters supplying coffee shops, coffee carts, and in some specialty coffee shops.

Particular examples that were mentioned included :

  • Knot Pretzels at various stations in London including Clapham Junction, Vauxhall, Victoria and Richmond..
  • Luckie Beans have a cart in Glasgow Queen Street
  • FCB coffee have several shops in stations around the South East including Brighton, Haywards Heath, Guildford, Woking
  • Canvas Coffee in Portsmouth and Southsea train stations

These are just a few examples and hopefully I’ll be able to map more specialty coffee in UK train stations in the near future. But it’s not just train stations, airports too are transport hubs which seem to be another arena where specialty coffee seems to be expanding to. Specific airports that were mentioned  including Sydney, Wellington (New Zealand), Stockholm and Portland (Oregon).

An Article in The Journal (from January 2018) highlights how Dublin airport wanted a business offering ‘high quality’ coffee to replace the existing Spar in Terminal 2. It put out a tender for a unit for five years but particularly focusing on coffee shops seeking a ‘high quality coffee offer that is capable of appealing to an international market’. The tender for this has now closed, so it will be interesting to see what opens there.

This concept however is not new, as highlighted by an article from 2014 from  Food Republic which argued that  airports were ‘stepping up their coffee game’, at least in the US. The article explained how food and beverage operator  OTG had partnered with several local specialty coffee roasters, including Irving Farm in New York, Dogwood Coffee in Minneapolis, and Sense Appeal in Toronto ‘to offer travelers a better pre-flight caffeination experience’. This article raises an interesting point that in some cases specialty coffee companies might not be interested in scaling specialty coffee into these arenas, and that even if they are, it might prove challenging to find suitably trained baristas to work in them.

It will be interesting to see if the rise in interest in specialty coffee that has been seen in many towns and cities across the world will be reflected in the coffee offering in transport hubs in the future, and if expansion in this area will fuel future growth. This is something I intend to try and monitor, and hopefully report back on, once I have investigated more systematically. But for now, thank you to all the people who responded to my request on Twitter, and do let me know if you find some specialty coffee appearing in a train station or airport near you.

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