Do you ever find yourself sitting down and wondering what on earth you’re doing? I do, and on Tuesday afternoon I was sat in a coffee shop in London feeling totally bewildered at the muffin testing that I was doing an hour from then.
Many years ago I signed up to be on focus groups, and so every couple of days I will get an email asking me if I would like to partake in a discussion about whatever it is that is on offer that day. 99% of the time I will turn down the option to do this, but last week an email popped up in my inbox with a three-word title: Project Coffee Shop.
Now, had I been the type to follow growing trends, and embraced the bastardisation of our language which seems to be actively promoted on tv these days, I’d have thought to myself: “That’s reem!”. Had I been Geordie, I’d have probably exclaimed that I was “on it like a car bonnet.” But I’m not. I’m a London-born bloke in his mid-30s, with a mild but controllable caffeine addiction. My immediate thought was: “Free coffee? I’ll have some of that!”
Or alternatively, fuck off with your shitty made-up words.
I filled in the email and sent it off, and then answered more questions the next day by phone and was asked to come to London on Tuesday night to a focus group about muffins. Yes, muffins. I replied that I thought it was about coffee shops, and was told that the muffins we’d be discussing were muffins bought in coffee shops.
An hour before I was supposed to be on site, I was sat in Costa a few doors down, my ridiculously early gene kicking in once again. “In an hour from now,” I thought to myself, “I’m going to be sitting in a room full of people I don’t know, talking about muffins and what I like and dislike about them. On camera.” I’ve alluded to it before, but I am not the most social person in the world, so this whole scenario was absolutely ridiculous as I sat and thought about it.
The focus group itself was in a Social Media company’s office. Getting there early meant I sat in reception and had plenty of time to people watch. Everyone working there seemed achingly attractive and trendy. Everyone was dressed smart-casually at best, and given that the focus group started at 5.45pm, everyone was still working hard at the end of the day. With the comings-and-goings, the way people dressed, spoke and interacted with each other, I could almost visualise it as a setting for a BBC comedy drama, complete with shaky camera angles, and zoomed-in through meeting room window shots.
Fortunately the whole focus-group thing went fairly smoothly, and seeing as there were no natural centre-stage personalities in the group, I managed to be confident, composed and opinionated. (Get me in a room of salesmen, all with egos the size of the “Empty shops” folder at High Chelmer, and I’ll quite happily shrink into the background and let them get on with it.) Two hours later, having tried eight different muffins and written down what was good and bad about them, what we thought was best and how Starbucks (for they were revealed as the client) could sell more muffins, we walked out of there each £45 richer.
I’d gotten to London earlier that day so that I could spend some time looking around and generally doing stuff that I wouldn’t do in Chelmsford. I took time to go and see Alan, and had a quick 30 minute chat with him about nothing in particular, then I walked around Kensington and Notting Hill, playing the RightMove game (guess how much property costs in the area you’re in, boot up the RightMove app and see how close you were) which I failed at drastically, and spent ten minutes looking around the place that Freddie Mercury lived in until his death - a fairly nondescript place.
As I walked through the streets of Notting Hill, wondering whether living in such an expensive and posh area of London was worth a) the expense and b) the bars on the windows, I accidentally bumped into a well-dressed posh guy in his early 50s. It had been my lack of paying attention that had caused the clash, so I went to apologise, though to my surprise, instead of the word “sorry” coming out of my mouth as I had expected, a sound spilled forth, remarkably similar to the Knights who say Ni from Monty Python.
“Neeeya!” I yelped, and while my poor confused brain took a second or two to try and figure out what had happened between saying the word in my head, and it losing all sense of meaning and pronunciation leaving my mouth, the guy I’d bumped into simply replied “No worries!” and cheerfully went on his way, leaving me feeling like a dick.
The consensus of the focus group by the way: Starbucks skinny blueberry muffin was best rated. Yum.
Location: Costa, Chelmsford