Thursday, June 10, 2010

Flavour clarity, bean extraction and market saturation.

I remember when I was back in the UK hearing of a guy who did his thesis on the role coffee shops play in Canadian culture. Not that theses normally get such wide-spread attention (you'd be lucky if your supervisor actually read it or occasionally referenced it, but otherwise....) but I think this particular one was singled out for an IgNobel, for research that should not or could not be repeated. They're Darwin Awards for research and, one supposes, a great way of keeping our collective feet on the ground. Sure, you may revel in doing esoteric work on an obscure protein rarely expressed on the arse-end of an unpronounceable bacterium, but knowing you may be one day cited not for your brilliance at being ahead of the curve but for being an eccentric n of 1, well it may help keep your ego in check. Then again, I know researchers with planet-sized egos or every stripe, people who will strive to succeed even over the skulls of their enemies, post-docs and students, willing to sacrifice even their own pupils and colleagues to enhance their position, much less get a couple of micrometers further up the slippery pole. So, maybe even the prospect of a backhanded compliment from Harvard (the whole "there's no such thing as bad publicity" chestnut) wouldn't dissuade them one bit as they flay another junior colleague and toss the corpse of their erstwhile collaborator's career onto the dungheap of broken dreams, just so they can retain mastery of that obscure protein on the arse-end of that particular bacterium.

Oops, who would have known I had quite so much bile in me this morning? That wasn't the intent of this post, which instead was born out of a get-one-free coupon and a morning coffee. A new Starbucks opened recently in the Hydrostone and to drum up customer awareness they have been putting get-one-free coupons under doors in the neighborhood. Like Starbucks needs publicity!

The problem starts with those coupons; "get one free" is rather prominently printed, whilst "only if you bring your own mug" is less-prominent. However, I don't think they are going to be that strict on that policy as la belle used her's to get an Americano whilst the coupon is supposedly only for a regular coffee or tea. Honestly, how is Dr Evil going to finance Preparation H #2 or the Alan Parsons Project - B if his minions keep on giving out too much free product. I know it's supposed to be a loss-leader but even so, evil empires don't build themselves you know (oblique reference back to research programs again!).

This got us to counting; how many Starbucks are there in HRM? We counted 10, not including the one air-side at the airport on the basis that your average Joe can't just waltz in and get one there. This is all in, what, five years? In the same time the number of Second Cups has remained constant we think, as have Perks, whereas Timothies has gone ventral-side up and even the venerable Timmies has lost a few locations. On the non-corporate side, we have had the openning of a couple of independents though; Local Joes and TIBS.

So HRM has a net gain of perhaps eight coffee shops in the past five years, nearly all of them Starbucks? Is this a good thing? In the UK it was. When I left, coffee in Blighty was, frankly, awful. I used to be able to say "I'm British and this is bad coffee". Since I left, Starbucks came in with a vengeance. Even though Starbucks coffee is bad, they upped the game sufficiently so that a frothy, all-milk concoction made with Nescafe was no longer considered adequate. At least two coffee chains have since appeared, Cafe Nero and Costa Coffee, and when I'm home I try to frequent these guys, and not the Seattle-transplant boys (and girls) in green. So now, when you go to London Zoo and order "a coffee" you get an Americano. Not bad for a country where 12 years ago we were still coming out of rationing-era ideas about coffee.

In Canada? Well, I'm thinking not so good. There was already a tradition of good coffee here, and the subtle Starbucks Sprawl will only drive the small coffee shops under; there's no way Java Blend, TIBS or Local Joes can compete with a multinational. Jim or Zane can't mail-shot loss-leaders like this, much less afford the giveaway product, or indeed, be blasé with the offer; that guy who did la belle's coffee his morning didn't know about his coffee or care what the coupon actually said, it just meant "give a free drink". The bottom line was not a consideration for him and, indeed, why should it have been?

If we get sucked in by the fake sophistication that is Starbucks, then we loose our local coffee shops. And when we do, we loose the talent, the baristas who really know and love coffee with a passion and we become like Boston; a coffee wasteland but with lots of Starbucks. And where does this leave us, apart from with a monster-sized caffeine-withdrawal headache?

I know many of you are endurance athletes so I put it to you like this. You wouldn't buy your running shoes on-line. You can't show a website your old shoes and let them diagnose your running style and problems, much less recommend shoes and brands that suit your style. You wouldn't buy your bikes at department store; those guys are barely competent to sell you the thing in a road-worthy state, much less trouble-shoot it when it goes wrong.

Sure, you can get a good deal at these places, I dare-say a better deal than at the local speciality stores but what happens if we allow ourselves to get carried away by always chasing the almighty dollar? Well, in the short term you don't even get any after-sales customer service worth a damn (other than a returns policy). Then, when enough good deals have been secured and the little guy is forced to put the shutters up because they can't sell $50 shoes, $200 bikes or $2 espresso products then what? Then we lose the experts and when we need their expertise; a shoe-fitting, headset adjustment or an expertly chosen and brewed coffee bean, we're doomed, we're screwed. It just isn't there any more and we might as well all go back to drinking Nescafe and reminisce about the time there was this oil-stained guy down the street who really knew bottom brackets, and also brewed a mean espresso.

I'm off for a coffee, but nowhere they wear green aprons....



  1. well said, andrew.


  2. i'll second that too!

    mark c.

  3. Thank goodness Java Blend is on my bike route home.

    And as for buying cheap shoes at a discount store. Lesson learned there.