Coffee countdown: Which is the best high-street student coffee shop?

Sadie Hale finally settles the age-old question: which is best out of Pret, Starbucks, Nero or Costa?

There’s no doubt about it: despite the recession, coffee shops have flourished where others have floundered.

The likes of Pret-a-Manger, Starbucks, Caffè Nero and Costa Coffee have spawned in cities nationwide at an astonishing rate; they’ve made their way onto main streets, side streets, and even university campuses and libraries. Coffee shops offer the perfect retreat from the autumnal chill and the stresses of everyday life. With free wifi and freshly-baked pastries, more and more of us are falling for the simple pleasures of the coffee culture.

But which of them tops the temptation table? The following factors must be considered.

Price

As possibly the most important issue - it goes without saying that no strapped student wants to overspend - it’s dissatisfying to conclude that there’s no final verdict: all four contestants fare pretty similarly when it comes to price. That is, none can be considered cheap.

Across the board, wraps and sandwiches are similar in size and generally range between £1.99 (Pret’s refreshing humus and falafel wrap) and £3.99 (the flavoursome Starbucks’ Chicken Santa Fe Panini). But while a Starbucks cupcake will set you back £3.00 (eat-in), the chocolate brownie bar offered by Pret-a-Manger at £1.80 (eat-in) is a more reasonably priced indulgence.

When it comes to that all-important coffee, the prices in Nero, Costa and Starbucks are similar. Flat white is the same in both Starbucks and Costa at £2.40. But Pret keeps it simple: it’s difficult to argue with its one-size-fits-all cup of filter coffee for just 99p. The Starbucks equivalent is £1.50 for the smallest-sized (and confusingly-named) ‘tall’ cup, while Costa’s cheapest coffee - espresso or macchiato in a minute mug - is £1.45. If all you want is an affordable, fuss-free coffee to fuel your morning, Pret definitely takes the biscuit.

Variety

A similar assortment of cakes and pastries can be found in Costa, Nero and Starbucks - double chocolate chip muffins, New York cheesecake and croissants to name but a few. Considering the chain’s focus is on food as opposed to its beverage-oriented competitors, Pret-a-Manger performs well in the hot drinks department with 10 varieties of coffee and six of tea. Costa, too, has a range of ten perennial types of hot coffee including regular favourites Americano, Cappuccino and Mocha, with Caffè Nero and Starbucks just behind with nine. Caffè Nero and Starbucks offer a smaller range of teas than their competitors.

All four shops offer a standard hot chocolate with the option of whipped cream for under £3.00, bar Nero’s particularly indulgent Hot Chocolate Milano which is priced at £3.10 (but worth the extra). Cold drinks are available at Caffè Nero, Costa and Starbucks, the former coming out on top for variety with frappé milkshakes, frappé crème and ‘fruit boosters’ in addition to four coffee-based iced drinks.

Seasonal specials such as Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte, Nero’s Costa’s Chocolate & Orange Mocha Latte and Nero’s Cinnamon Hot Chocolate contribute to the perpetual appeal of the coffee shop. Meanwhile, what Pret-a-Manger lacks in bespoke beverages it makes up for in audacious sandwich ventures—every six months or so a new variety is unleashed on its customers, which is kept or discarded in the future according to popularity. Pret wins for element of surprise with its different daily soups.

Rewards

Pret and Starbucks value custom as much as the next shop, but both lack a proper rewards system with which to recall regulars. The pre-paid Pret and Starbucks cards function as a simpler means of payment, but must be topped up by at least £5 each time and offer little or nothing in terms of discount.

The Costa Coffee Club card, meanwhile, works using a handy points system: five for every £1 spent, which once accumulated can be redeemed against food or drink. It also has special offers such as double points weekends.

Nero’s system is endearingly traditional, with one stamp per drink on a card (sometimes, if you’re nice, they’ll give you two), and with the tenth stamp you get a free drink. Sold.

Décor

It’s easy to save your silver coins by opting for take-out rather than sitting inside the shop (where as much as 50p can be added for the privilege - just ask Pret). But we all know the concept of the coffee shop is as much about vibes as value; done right, it can be the perfect environment for an intimate chat, some thinking time, or snuggling for hours with a novel. This being the case, décor is of ultimate importance.

Pret opts for clean, bright walls portraying its ‘good food’ mottos and is always well-lit. Hard wooden chairs and tables in the spacious dining area are ideal for sitting down for a quick bite to eat, but have considerably less appeal if you’re after a cosy afternoon with friends. Caffè Nero undoubtedly wins on the comfort factor, with spongy low armchairs you can sink into; its dark interior can be a bit cave-like on a sunny day, though.

Costa opts for colour and photographs in its wall decorations and the furniture tends to be less crowded together; the music is also tranquil. Comparable acoustic playlists float through the speakers in Pret, Nero and Starbucks, making relaxation imminent even if you arrive in a sweaty fluster. Starbucks uses dark furnishings and gentle lighting with a combination of wooden and textile seating which works just fine.

Whether it’s Caffè Nero’s self-serve water jugs, Starbucks’ add-your-own-sprinkles unit or the casual jeaned attire of Pret-a-Manger’s employees, it’s sometimes the little things which keep us coming back for more. One thing is for certain, though: the nation’s love affair with coffee looks set to continue as we seek a quick energy fix to keep us going through the dark winter days. Late in the semester, with final assessments looming, we can be at least a little comforted in the knowledge that a steaming hot mug of our favourite drink is there to help us through it, for the coffee shop is going nowhere.

All prices in this article are based on those in London as of October 2013.

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