Mention the name “Woolworths” to an American, and they’ll think “Woolworth’s” [sic] (again with that possessive thing). Woolworth was founded in 1879 as one of America’s first five-and-dime stores — even if it has become known as Foot Locker since the turn of the millennium. For those who remember Woolworth as a discount dimestore, the last thing you’d expect from something named “Woolworths” is decent espresso.

Approaching the W Café near Woolworths' HQ in Cape Town's City Bowl Nuova Simonelli and La Marzocco Linea inside the W Café

Woolworths is a South African chain of clothing stores that was founded in Cape Town in 1931. This chain has no relation to the U.S. company, other than legally stealing an inspired variant of its name (without the possessive). They also operate in Australia under this name as a clothing retailer and discount grocer, so Australians have a similar reaction to Americans. But just as the American Woolworth’s evolved into an athletic shoe store, in South Africa Woolworths has evolved into something of a fancy packaged food store. It has the wholesome, feel-good green messaging of a Whole Foods, but without any of the whole food produce — making it more akin to an upscale version of the American Trader Joe’s chain. (Woolworths identifies not only the breed of cattle on their milk cartons, but also the farmer with his/her photo.)

Sexual equality or chauvanistic mud flap material? Depends on your country.Cultural perspective can do a lot to screw with your head. Take the Italian sportswear label, Kappa. Most Americans look at their Adam-and-Eve Omini logo and blush red, being culturally conditioned to think instead of the Eve-and-Eve silver naked ladies on the mud flaps of 18-wheelers. Meanwhile, any Italian knows it as the image of Adam and Eve — representing equality in sports, analogous to America’s Title IX, and the complete opposite of the chauvinistic American interpretation.

What helped get us beyond our cultural conditioning about Woolworths was that their W Cafés have earned some notoriety for the quality of their cappuccinos (not flat whites, mind you). A W Café is also home to the reigning South African barista champion — stealing the crown from Origin Coffee Roasting.

Some of Woolworths' Whole-Foods-like, feel-good sloganeering outside the W Café Better shot of the W Café's La Marzocco Linea and service area

Review of the W Café Espresso in Cape Town’s City Bowl

This W Café is located around the corner from their corporate flagship store/corporate offices in Cape Town’s City Bowl. There are a number of W Café parasols along the Longmarket St. sidewalk for sidewalk dining, but who really wants to here? (It’s not the most inviting sidewalk seating and people-watching in town.) Inside the small space there’s loud music and a festive staff with a limited number of stools to sit at along a short window counter facing Longmarket St., plus a lone table in back. The shop specializes more in “to-go” food, which leaves few options for breakfast and more for lunch (let alone indoor seating).

Using a three-group Nuova Simonelli — and a worn, three-group La Marzocco Linea — behind the front counter, they pull shots of decidedly organic espresso with a richly textured brown crema in a short paper cup (R11).

Ugh — if only they had something besides paper here. That’s enough to get us swearing in Afrikaans. However, the cup offers more than the usual paper design: with a grippable spiral, like the inside of a Hario V60 dripper. And the resulting cup is surprisingly good: with a full crema of real thickness, and very good body, and a rounded and smooth flavor that’s mostly a blend of herbal pungency.

A good place to go for a shot, and even a pretty good cappuccino (which is more like a caffè latte) — but not too much else.

Read the review of the W Café at Longmarket St. in Cape Town, South Africa.

The W Café espresso The W Café cappuccino