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Opening soon: Tesco espresso

It's going to have top-notch baristas, hip interior design – and, like Starbucks, it's got a literary name. But can the supermarket's new coffee chain convince critics?
  • @timwalker

When Samuel Pepys strolled the streets of 17th-century London, the coffee houses were popular with intellectuals, who'd meet over a mug to debate the day's most pressing issues. Today, in the age of the Apple laptop and the soy latte macchiato, coffee houses themselves are a pressing issue – and a new chain, named after two of the famous diarist's caffeine-loving acquaintances, seems destined to be the subject of some debate.

The first branch of Harris and Hoole – an "artisan" coffee chain, part-owned by Tesco – will open this month in Amersham, Bucks. Tesco controls 49 per cent of the new company, but there will be no indication of its involvement. The remaining shares are owned by Australian siblings Nick, Andrew and Laura Tolley, founders of the existing Taylor St coffee chain, which prides itself on its skilled baristas.

"Taylor St's stores are hidden down the backstreets of London and are the province of real coffee geeks," says Nick Tolley, 36, "We're looking to take that to the high street. A lot of coffee chains take an industrial approach. We want to bring art and craft back to the process. You could have the best coffee and the best equipment in the world, but if the barista doesn't know what he's doing you'll get an ordinary cup of coffee."

The next branch of Harris and Hoole will open soon in Uxbridge. The Tolleys are also in talks to buy up to 15 shop sites formerly occupied by the defunct Clinton's Cards. Tesco, which presently boasts 2,975 stores, and £1 of every £8 spent on the UK high street, will reportedly have little say in the everyday management of the company. But its connection will place Harris and Hoole on Goliath's side in the coffee wars.

Coffee chains are one of the surest signs of a high street's homogenisation, and they're an emotive presence at a time when many communities fear becoming "clone towns". In Totnes, Devon, three-quarters of the 8,000-strong population have signed a petition to protest the opening of a Costa, the UK's biggest coffee chain. Totnes already has 41 coffee shops, but they are all independently owned and run.

"After working at Taylor St," says Tolley, "I'm totally sympathetic to those concerns. Harris and Hoole will blend in with the high street. If we locate a branch in a beautiful old building, we won't be painting it in Harris and Hoole brand colours so everyone can see us."

Pepys's own preferred coffee house was Will's of Covent Garden, frequented by the poet John Dryden. On 3 February 1664, Pepys recorded his first visit to the establishment, where he encountered "Dryden the poet, [whom] I knew at Cambridge, and all the wits of the town, and Harris the player and Mr Hoole of our College."

This wouldn't be the first time a literary allusion was used to christen a coffee chain: Starbuck was Captain Ahab's first mate in Moby Dick, long before he lent his name to the world's favourite latte.