Not The Office

Soon after coming to France, well before The Stray Bean saw the light of day, I found myself working for a company in their offices just on the edge of Paris. Nice work environment. Comfortable, air-conditioned, carpeted, clean, modern, fully-equipped offices with lifts that worked, ergonomic chairs and a cantine that served up decent three-course hot meals for lunch every day. Nothing to complain about at all. Was there?

After spending just a few days there, I realised that there was something disturbing about it. I couldn’t put my finger on it first. Then it hit me: it looked exactly the same as an office you could find pretty much anywhere in the world. There was nothing French about it at all, let alone Parisian.

France must be one of the most visually distinctive countries in the world. Parisian streets look unmistakably Parisian, even if you can’t see the Eiffel Tower in the background. The French brasserie has its own style, like no other bar or pub or restaurant from anywhere else. Post a selfie of yourself on holidays having an espresso at an outdoor table of a French street café and you won’t need to tell your friends what country you’re in.

We all love it. Visitors flock in by the tens of millions every year to soak it all up.

But my new place of work was completely banal. Internationally sanitised. No signs of any particular culture, no character, just a few personal photos and objects on people’s desks – hardly enough to upset the feeling of sleek, homogeneous, efficient professionalism. It screamed “sameness”, not diversity. As I did in my daily corporate attire, for that matter.

That impression stayed with me and was still in the back of my mind when I set up The Stray Bean a few years later. I wanted a place that was, well, not The Office.

One great thing I’ve always loved about independent coffee shops is that they’re all different. They have their own personality. The way they look and feel depends on who created it, even if there might be an architect involved somewhere along the line. They don’t obey a set of standardised rules. People just create something they like themselves.

Well, that’s what I did anyway. Luckily it turned out pretty much the way I wanted. When all was ready to go and the opening approached, I liked the feel of it. I guess I was just hoping that other people would too. But I didn’t know. There were never any market studies.

The only thing I could guarantee is that it would be an individual creation, a little bit different from anywhere else. It’s still true today, though now that individual experience is as much about the people who work there and the people who come as it is about me. Which is just as it should be.