How to spot a fake indie business

The part-Tesco-owned coffee chain Harris + Hoole has confused customers who thought they were sipping non-corporate lattes. So how do you tell if your local independent shop or cafe is anything but?

Scandal! Outrage! There they were, the people of Crouch End, Twickenham and Walton-on-Thames, all leafy London suburbs, enjoying what appeared to be good coffee and delicious food in an attractive new independent cafe – when all the while it was they who were the mugs. Little did they realise that, actually, what they had been enjoying was good coffee and delicious food in an attractive new cafe … part-owned by Tesco.

Despite its perky blackboards with their drawn-on smiley faces, the new chain of coffee shops Harris + Hoole was launched by Australian siblings Nick, Andrew and Laura Tolley with a minority investment – and no doubt much satanic knowhow – from Britain's biggest supermarket. Even as we speak, there could be plans to open another of these deceptively pleasant places where you live.

The truth is that many people like the friendly local feel of independent shops, and the big multiples have noticed. Indeed Tesco themselves have form in this area. In 2008, the company applied for planning permission on a new megastore in Barnstaple under the name of Brian Ford's – an independent local retailer that it had bought out the year before.

Usually the simplest ploy is just to buy an indie company that has proved itself. For instance, Innocent Drinks – which makes those smoothies with the kooky cartons – is now majority-owned by Coca-Cola. Meanwhile Green & Black's, the classy chocolate manufacturer, is owned by Cadbury's, the ordinary chocolate manufacturer, which itself is owned by Kraft Foods. (Although McDonald's has now sold its stake in Pret a Manger.)

So how do you know fake indie when you see it? Well, Topman makes it easy by putting its name above its "General Stores" in London's Covent Garden and Spitalfields, which with their bare brick walls and decorative bicycles look like the kind of groovy, eccentric places that might have been started by some lovable young fashion graduates. Otherwise, it's not so simple. Anything that a nice young couple in paint-spattered dungarees can do, a retail giant can copy. There are even some 12in white-label records – the hardest of all hip currencies – that are major-label fakes, while record companies have long employed street teams to whip up grassroots fan enthusiasm. A few bands' Tumblr pages, including the one that launched the Vaccines, are likely the handiwork of their marketing departments.

Perfect spelling and punctuation: that could be one clue that a well-paid executive might be the eminence grise behind some charming piece of signage. Low prices is another, since one of the main advantages of corporate ownership is improved negotiating power with suppliers. The branches of big chains aren't often allowed to get too scruffy either, not with regional managers around. In short, if truly independent ownership is the most important thing to you, you'll have to research your coffee at Companies House.


Leo Benedictus

The GuardianTramp

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