Over the past few weeks I’ve been working closely with my local branch of Harris + Hoole, who are currently exhibiting a selection of my photographs in their shop. Harris + Hoole is a new chain of coffee shops that has started rapidly expanding in London and the home counties, backed by a significant chunk of investment from Tesco, the British supermarket giant. Naturally, my interest in this chain of coffee shops has led me to read up about them, and the reaction to Tesco’s investment in the company has been baffling.
First of all, I don’t buy in to the idea that a company that is big is by its very nature a bad thing. This seems to be a curiously British phenomenon: that you’re allowed and encouraged to be successful, just not TOO successful. Tesco themselves were one a small independent company, but people liked what they did, so they were able to do more, and grew to the size they are today on the back of continuing to provide what people wanted.
Secondly, Tesco don’t own Harris + Hoole. They have a minority* stake in the company, which means they can bring money to the table, but they don’t have a majority say in how the chain is run. This is crucial – H+H are free to run the shops how they want, and they way they do this is by providing excellent coffee in a friendly and relaxed environment, eschewing heavy branding, and supporting each store’s local environment, by employing local people and, in Rickmansworth’s case, supporting local artists such as myself and others. A company accused by many of killing off the high street are now being criticised for trying to breathe new life into it.
And finally, much of the criticism is that H+H do not openly advertise the fact that Tesco have a large stake in their company. The flippant response would be: well, given people’s reactions on finding out, are you surprised? Seriously though, why should they? If they hadn’t gone to Tesco, they could have gone to a bank instead for funding – would you have expected every local coffee shop to state “Proudly funded by Barclays/RBS/HSBC”? They have no obligation to publicly display their shareholders when it’s already in the public domain, and it’s not ‘underhand’ or ‘sneaky’ if they don’t.
As far as I’m concerned this is a non-story. A chain of shops has opened which provides people with something they like, opening on the vacant former premises of companies such as Clinton’s, the soulless indentikit chain of meaningless platitudes that didn’t provide people with what they wanted. They are creating local jobs, supporting local artists, and listening to local people. Thankfully, given how busy the place gets at times, it seems people are voting with their feet anyway.
Now, I need to go and remind everyone to boycott the Tesco-sponsored Race for Life.
*Not 49% as I initially reported, but less, according to this Telegraph interview with co-founder Nick Tolley.