In Praise of The Beans

Beans Cafe, Eldridge, Houston

It was the last visit of our time in Houston to the ubiquitous Beans Cafe (mentioned in several of my posts), which is one of those locally run independent coffee shops that are done so well in the US, alongside all those regional and (inter)national chains. The feeling is homespun, the service friendly, the coffee is great, the music always discreet and well-chosen, the seating old-fashioned armchairs, but quite comfortable. Wifi is free and reliable, and many appear to use it as a temporary office with their laptops, as they linger over their drink or food. It just feels comfortable to be there, hence our regular visits.

Such local independents seem to turn up in most of the towns of the US we have visited during several road trips. Trip Advisor is good at unearthing them and the reviews are usually good, as is the food, drink and ambience. At the Village Cafe in Bryan on our way to Fort Worth there was even live music following the lunchtime rush.

Of course, the same is true in the UK. Many high streets have their own independent coffee shops or tea rooms, alongside the inevitable Costa, Nero or Starbucks. So the choice is local colour versus the known standard of the global brand.

Now it seems to me that the rules are somewhat stacked against these local shops, in that their ability to avoid taxation is not on a level playing field with the Starbucks of this world, with their international financial arrangements, paying taxes where it most suits. And the big chains can run outlets at a loss until they have killed off the local competition. Yet local shops are effectively largely recycling money in the local economy, so good for local prosperity – whereas the chains are slowly sucking money out of the local economy. The local shop is probably paying its staff better, and forms much more a part of the cultural ‘glue’ of the local community. It’s the same story that has over the years seen American high streets denuded of small business shops, replaced by chains paying peanut wages.

Free market enthusiasts will say that it’s just natural that small shops may get crowded out by chains, they just have to be good enough to survive. Well yes, but at least we should make sure that the playing field is level. It does not appear to be. Maybe the field should actually be biased towards local businesses, because of the benefits they bring to the community as a whole? By all accounts, and the evidence of my own eyes, the capitalist free market seems to have done a pretty good job at destroying any sense of community and individuality in many places in US and UK. The high streets and malls are all pretty similar, the same set of stores and cafes with their national/global branding. We need more unique outlets with their own style, local colour and individuality. Let’s support them and move the political environment to encourage them…

One thought on “In Praise of The Beans

  1. If only there was somewhere as good as the Beans in our home town. Shabby chic, art displays, board games to borrow and excellent coffee – you’d think this would go down well in a small historic town in Cheshire’s golden triangle. But no, it probably wouldn’t be quite smart enough. Sadly.


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