I keep a loose mental list of coffee shops I should avoid because they charge extra for soya milk. At a new coffee shop that had recently opened across the road from me, I am a little dismayed to see that it is yet another place that charged 50p for soya milk.
While waiting for my black coffee to be prepared, I notice that the oat milk standing near the coffee machine is one of the most expensive brands out there. I also recognise that the cow's milk the barista is now pouring into a metal frothing jug is pretty bog standard.
As someone who regularly buys the cheapest, supermarket-brand soya milk, the problem suddenly becomes apparent to me. Does not wanting to drink dairy milk make you some kind of “rich hipster”? Places that do this - some of which are not even newcomers to the café-running game - apparently think so.
Here’s the catch: if soya milk were free, more vegans and non-dairy consumers would opt for it instead of taking a black coffee, which generally costs less than a milk-based drink anyway. Smaller café owners may feel that offering free non-dairy milk equates to putting their business at risk. But unless they don’t add a surcharge of up to 30% to vegan drinks, they will never know.
Veganism is becoming more and more popular, and there is an increasing general awareness of the health benefits that cutting out dairy can bring. But this doesn’t mean veganism is a recent fad reserved for a small, well-off section of society. Lactose intolerance is not made up, and if you’re working in the hospitality and gastronomy business and truly believe this, you need to make a reassessment. Plus, above all, there are huge differences between organic (frequently expensive) and vegan (cruelty-free wherever possible) - two terms that are conflated all too often.
Of course, from a business perspective, the price of buying single cartons of soya milk per week as needed is more expensive than a bulk order of cow's milk that will be consumed and sold for sure. But many shops are focused on the fair trade side of their coffee - surely they would like to try out an option that’s compassionate to animals, too, and is more environmentally-friendly? Pricing potential regular customers out of a soya latte sends out the message that non-dairy milk is for the fussy and bourgeois, when in fact, vegans come from all walks of life. Production costs for non-dairy milk are cheaper - and in reality, the price difference is a matter of a few pennies.
For example at Tesco, one litre of the cheapest soya milk is 59p-85p - just 10p more than long-life cow's milk. However, most establishments use fresh cow's milk, whereby 2.272 litres (four pints) from Tesco is £1. While there are, of course, brands of non-dairy milk which are fairly pricey, why should buying “the best” apply to soya when it is not applied to cow's milk - especially since in truth, the taste difference is negligible?
In the end, coffee shops are an institution. People go there to relax and socialise, or to grab something to numb the pain of a Monday commute. The argument that those who want “special coffee” should make their own at home is redundant - I don’t know anyone who goes to a coffee shop purely because doing it in their own kitchen is too complicated or too much effort.
An all-vegan establishment may even offer several varieties of non-dairy milk, such as soya, almond, oat, rice and coconut. This suggests there is a misconception about vegans in general; in many cities, an establishment committed to being 100% vegan-friendly may not even exist, so vegans have to instead go to regular coffee shops. It seems that assumptions about the target market are creating the problem. I also know of vegan-operated shops that have been frequently asked if they carry cow's milk - and as a result, they have waived their values to the promise of more patronage.
I’d like to see coffee shop owners think about who their customers really are and trust their choices. Most people are happy to support a smaller business over big coffee chains where possible, so catering to a diverse array of customers is a step in the right direction. It’s all about presenting an equal choice; in some way, I’d rather that a shop I visited had no soya milk at all on offer, than soya milk offered for an extra cost. While I know that some owners might think it’s better than nothing - that they were at least showing awareness of the existence of non-dairy drinkers - I would prefer to know where I stood, and be understood.
In an age where restaurants are stepping out to have tofu in stock as their roster of vegetarian and vegan dishes diversifies, I don’t think coffee shops have much to lose by at least trialling non-dairy milk at no extra charge.
By Rosamund Mather
The views expressed by our bloggers are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.