In London, co-working is experiencing a boom. In a city heaving with creative start-ups and freelancers (and a rental market that punishes those who don’t have thousands per month to sink into office space) it’s a natural solution for those who are tired of fighting the distractions of working from home, or resent the glares baristas give them when they camp on Wi-Fi for hours over a cold latte.
Caffeine is an integral part of the average London workday. Yet in most co-working spaces, as with offices, the coffee situation is grim. Unless you’re sneaking in your own AeroPress and beans, you’re probably resigned to using K-Cups, Nescafé, or making a dash to the nearest chain coffee shop to fulfill your desperate needs. Uncommon, a new co-working space in Holloway, North London, has taken a different approach: inside is SL28, what may very well be London’s (and the world’s?) first members-only third wave coffee shop.
Members-only clubs have a long, illustrious, and sometimes outrageous history in London. Many, like The Groucho Club, Home House, Shoreditch House, and The Hospital Club are still going strong. In a 2.0 tech-ready 21st century kind of way, co-working spaces continue the members-club tradition, albeit without the clear class distinctions. You pay to have access, and depending on which one you join, you get a certain set of perqs (a fixed desk or access to a communal beer cooler or whatever). Members-only coffee shops are a natural progression in this milieu. It’s not as crazy, or pretentious, as it sounds.
SL28 is less of a co-working space’s cafe concession, and more like a fully-fledged specialty cafe that happens to call a co-working space home. Of course, due to the nature of the co-working space being accessible only by members, you have to belong to access the cafe. Luckily there is a membership tier available just for the intrepid coffee drinker: for £10 a month, you get access to the delicious coffees of SL28, with three free cups included in your monthly dues.
So why exactly would you pay £10 a month to be part of a members-only cafe in North London? Because it’s a genuinely brilliant cafe.
The coffee bar occupies one corner of a vast, well-lit open-plan space decorated in a warm and quirky style—a bit like the warehouse loft of your dreams. Against a background of white walls and chipboard floors, a palette of warm gray is punctuated by splashes of yellow and turquoise. Behind the bar, which is built from wooden pallets that match the floor, sits a Mahlkönig EK 43 grinder, a La Marzocco Linea PB espresso machine, and a selection of all Swedish-roasted coffees—Koppi, Solde, and Drop. The Nordic influence comes courtesy of Swedish-born barista and manager Per Svensk.
Full co-working members do pay for their drinks, which are priced at what you would expect to pay at other specialty shops in London. However, SL28 is savvy to its situation, and realizes that some of its members may wish to just have black coffee on tap to fuel their brainstorming sessions. In this case, £5 unlimited batch brew (currently, Koppi’s Sehe Bourbon from Burundi) is available. If you were to drink three cups in a day—not an altogether unlikely scenario—you’d be getting damn fine coffee at diner coffee prices.
On top of all this, Svensk offers a selection of baked goods from Aux Pains de Papy, alongside soups, sandwiches, and teas. He presides over the space as combination barista-DJ-manager-waiter-bartender: making coffees, chatting with members on their breaks, delivering lattes to the room next door where the fixed-desk spaces are, tidying up empty cups, choosing new music to keep a gentle level of background hum going. Svensk is proud of the space he’s created with SL28 at Uncommon, and has loads of ideas to keep building on and improving it.
The existence of SL28 highlights more interesting possibilities for the future of cafes. Of course, many people already use cafes as a sort of co-working space anyways, bringing their laptops and arranging meetings—both casual and business—at local coffee shops. As always, whether you’re meeting people or laptopping solo, this brings up issues of how many drinks a person ought to buy to effectively pay for their time, or what a cafe can do when it is overcrowded for space because people camp out on their computers. Are members-only cafes the way to go?
Perhaps not the only way to go—not for everyone—but maybe they are a way to go. It can’t be denied that membership cafes eliminate the negative feelings on both sides of the “camping out” problem: owners are receiving a small fee on top of the drinks they sell which can effectively cover long periods of laptop usage, and consumers don’t live with the potential guilt of taking up space in a cafe, wondering if it’s time to order another drink or not.
And for those who head to cafes with the express intent of working, the idea of being a member of a co-working cafe is also attractive in that it weeds out those who are spending their hours streaming video, playing World of Warcraft without headphones, Skype-ing loudly with their family, or other such frankly sociopathic activities that disrupt the atmosphere of laptop-friendly cafes. In spaces such as SL28, everyone is there to work. It makes sense that today’s co-working offices would want to foster a creative and buzzy atmosphere by installing coffee bars in their spaces.
And perhaps canny co-working spaces will find that, in offering the best facilities to their paying members, they ought to invest in high-end coffee equipment, specialty beans, and trained baristas to create the best environment they can. Maybe we’ll even see coffee shops evolving to look more like these members-only co-working offices. While SL28 is technically London's first members-only specialty coffee shop, it does still exist within a co-working office. Maybe it won’t be long before we see stand-alone, paid-entry cafes: places which capture the spirit of co-working spaces but retain the casual air and freedom of your favourite quality-focused coffee bar—with none of the guilt.