There are eight Starbucks coffee shops within three blocks of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and all were bustling one recent lunchtime.
Kevin Quinn bought a mocha Frappuccino, the first of several Starbucks drinks he said he was likely to consume that day. He also picked up a caffe latte, a cappuccino and a piece of chocolate cake for colleagues, paying $18.56. "I probably spend too much, but I'm addicted now," said Quinn, a 31-year-old accountant who grew up drinking tea.
Starbucks coffee has invaded Britain, upsetting the tea cart in a country famous for its afternoon tea. London already has about 200 Starbucks outlets, surpassing New York City, which has 190. There are 466 Starbucks in Britain, as well as many fast-growing local chains such as Caffe Nero and Coffee Republic. Meanwhile, British tea sales have declined 12 percent in the past five years, according to market-research firm Mintel International Group Ltd.
That is a momentous shift. Tea has been a British staple since the 1600s, and the British Empire's expansion was in part a search for land for growing it. And traditionally, Britons didn't drink tea just for breakfast. They drank it before, during, after -- and between -- meals. Strong and milky, tea also came to epitomize comfort in Britain's damp gray climate, with tea advertisements often suggesting that the remedy for virtually all ailments was a "nice cuppa."
But Britons' taste for tea has waned as their taste for properly brewed coffee has grown. About a decade ago, as more Brits traveled to continental Europe and the United States, they discovered the pleasures of strong, albeit expensive, coffee drinks. Taking their cue from Starbucks, many chains popped up, and lattes and cappuccinos became popular, especially among young London workers.
For young Britons, traditional black tea is no longer good enough. "People expect us to have something new," said Kate Willock, business development manager at the Lakeside Hotel, a 17th-century hotel in the English Lake District.
The first Starbucks shops opened in Britain in 1998 in affluent London neighborhoods. After some initial management struggles, the chain spread to smaller towns throughout Britain. For Starbucks Corp., the British are ideal customers because about 80 percent of them stay in the store to drink their coffee. That gives Starbucks a chance to sell them food, said Martin Coles, president of Starbucks International. In the United States, by contrast, 80 percent of the customers buy their drinks and leave.
In Britain, the Starbucks menu includes cheese and Marmite sandwiches. (Marmite is a black yeast spread that only the Brits -- and citizens of some of their former colonies -- seem able to stomach.) Starbucks' local product-development team also has come up with a cold creamy drink called Strawberries and Cream Frappuccino that now is also sold in the United States.
Coles, a Briton now based at Starbucks' Seattle headquarters, attributes the chain's quick growth to Britain's recent economic boom, coupled with the rise of low air fares. Because of these factors, he says, the British have enough disposable income to pay for fancy coffee drinks.
Despite coffee's inroads, Britons still drink more tea per capita than the people of any other country except Ireland, and 10 times the average in the United States, says the Tea Council, a trade association for British teamakers. Part of tea's problem in Britain is that about 90 percent of it still is drunk at home. At premium coffee chains, a cup of tea costs as much as $3.15, which is more than many Britons are willing to pay.
Brenda Dennison, a 56-year-old housewife from North Yorkshire, drinks three to four cups of tea a day. Her favorite is Tetley's black tea, Britain's top seller. To her, Starbucks and its flavored coffee drinks seem too expensive. "I just like my regular tea," she said.
But even Tetley, which introduced tea bags to Britain in the 1950s, is trying to go younger. Earlier this year, the company, which is owned by India's Tata Tea Ltd., aired a new TV ad starring "Sex and the City" star Kim Cattral. Clad in a slinky blue dress, Cattral turns to Auntea, a kindly middle-aged woman, for advice about men. As the two talk, Auntea offers Cattral a choice of Tetley teas. After recommending a new chamomile blend to help Cattral sleep, Auntea remarks, "You don't waste much time sleeping, do you?"
To boost its tea sales, Unilever PLC, the No. 2 British tea company with its Lipton and local PG Tips brands, invented a machine called the T-Bird. The device looks like an espresso maker but instead brews specialty tea drinks. Unilever has installed 50 of them in offices, soccer stadiums and resorts in Britain.
"It's our cappuccino of tea," said Laurence Smith, a marketing manager for Unilever's food-service division.
That won't be enough to win over people like Natasha Rooney. The 22-year-old sales manager discovered Starbucks about five years ago while visiting an uncle in California, and she now goes to Starbucks at least three times a week. "If I'm feeling bad, I get a white mocha latte," she said. "If I'm feeling good, it's a skinny latte."