A coffee at Social Eats Cafe

Inside Cardiff’s bustling independent coffee scene

We’re all familiar with the coffee shop giants on the high street – but there are plenty of independent gems, too

Take a walk in and around Cardiff city centre and you will pass the regular coffee shop names that dominate high streets across the UK. There are eight Starbucks and 12 Costa Coffee shops alongside other chains such as Caffe Nero and Coffee One in the centre of the city.

All of these offer a quick fix for people wanting a hot drink and a pastry on the way to work. However, Cardiff has so much more to offer outside of the chains who hold a coffee monopoly on the market. As the big chain prices have increased, independent coffee shops have become a more affordable option. Just by entering an independent coffee shop, it is clear that these places represent more than a cup of coffee.

A warm welcome

Social Eats in Cathays has served Cardiff’s lively student population since the start of 2021.

It is a popular stopping point on Salisbury Road for those who want to study, need a quick coffee on the way to university or to recharge after a hangover.

“I think that small places like ours are perfect to come to,” said Amy, a student who works part-time as a barista at the café. “It is in our name, Social Eats. We get groups of students meet here regularly for study sessions and that gives a real buzz which you don’t get elsewhere.”

Social Eats Cafe, Salisbury Road, Cathays.

Every customer is welcomed, spoken with at length, and their needs are met. This is not experienced by some at larger chains who focus on speed and turnover.

Rhi Cork, a masters student at Cardiff Metropolitan University, always chooses independent coffee shops. She explained: “I feel independent is more catered to customers than profit. Overall I just enjoy the cosier feel, you get to know the people who work there and they tend to enjoy being with the customers which is refreshing.

“I tend to avoid big chains as not everyone takes intolerances seriously. I have been made ill by one chain whose worker made my drink incorrectly.”

Amy agrees that she has also been made ill by incorrect drinks at chains.

“We take the time to make our drinks properly to cater for every need whether that is the customers choice or that they are intolerant,” she added.

Local produce for the best quality

Stopping into a Starbucks or a Costa for a bite to eat can be difficult, especially for those who have allergies and dietary requirements. Gluten-free options are limited, and are often more costly as well: a simple cheese toastie costs £5.10 at Starbucks.   

The Bike Lock, on Windsor Place, is more than a coffee shop. Its founder and director Tom Overton reiterates that they are a social enterprise and that people visiting are “buying into the ethos of local produce”.

Mr Overton knows his regular customers by name and balances cooking and preparing coffee with making sure everyone is catered for.

“One customer came in requesting a toasted teacake with Marmite, I hadn’t even thought of Marmite on one. So I went out and bought a pot so she could have it the next time she came in. We can sell Marmite with lots of things, it’s versatile,” said Mr Overton.

His coffee is provided by Manumit, a charity based in Splott which helps victims of human trafficking back into society in a safe environment.

“Yes, we may pay a premium for our coffee. But by coming here, every coffee really does make a difference,” said Mr Overton.

All their produce is locally sourced; bread from Cardiff Market, cakes from a lady who bakes from her Penarth kitchen, and dairy from Daisy Bank Dairy in Newtown.

Options such as The Bike Lock’s doorstop cheese on toast and fish finger sandwiches or the popular mince pie blondies from Social Eats can’t be found in a chain coffee shop.

A competitive price

With the cost-of-living and inflation rising, people are more conscious of how they spend money. A chain coffee shop charges more than an independent, debunking the myth that buying local is more expensive.

A flat white at Starbucks costs £3.30 (December 2022 price), whereas the same drink costs £3 at Social Eats and £3.10 at The Bike Lock. A standard (medium) latte is £3.95, £3.20 and £3.30 respectively.

The menu at Social Eats Cafe
Serving bar and prices at The Bike Lock Cafe. Photo: @thebikelock

Prices such as these make independent coffee shops a more affordable option, a deciding factor for many customers.

Customer Rhi Cork added: “I generally find independents more cost effective. For example, a large hot chocolate with all the trimmings cost me £3.20 at an independent store. In a chain the small would cost the same.”

We are not here to challenge the business of the big chains, but we are hoping to challenge the monopoly they have over the industry”

Tom Overton – founder and director of The Bike Lock Cafe

Keeping prices at a competitive level compared with chains is a key starting point for a challenge to that monopoly.

A social place to drink coffee

Costa and Starbucks cater to people who need a quick coffee. This puts off customers who need to stay for longer periods of time to work or meet socially.

Social Eats has plants, wooden chairs and even tables, which spill onto the pavement outside when the weather is nice, giving the café a warm and continental feel.

The Bike Lock has a rustic interior. Their bike racks add colour and welcome those who may be put off by cycling into the city for fear of theft.

“All of our tables and chairs have been bought off Facebook Marketplace from all across South Wales,” said Mr Overton.

Both he and Amy agree that a warm welcome and pleasant surroundings to sit and drink make customers more inclined to stay longer and buy more products.

A network of support

When visiting The Bike Lock, Mr Overton talked of the support he received from other independent coffee shops in the city.

“Chloe from Big Moose has been amazing at giving me help and advice to set up. Rob from Little Man as well,” said the coffee shop owner.

The choice of independent coffee shops in Cardiff are plentiful and each offer a unique experience and amazing coffee.

Next time you walk past one of these cafes and fancy a coffee, give the locals a go. It may become a regular stop off.