I don’t have any independent hipster coffee houses where I live. This is sad but I’ve learned to cope with it over my many years.
What I do have are the big two. Starbucks and Caribou.
Full disclosure I came into this experiment as bigger supporter of Starbucks than Caribou. But I still wanted to take time and analyze the experience at both of them. My goal was simple; what makes these two megalithic coffee mongers different? I wanted to peel back the layers and gaze into their soul while having some tea. I spent two hours in each one on two separate weekdays at about the same time of day and both locations are situated visibly on high traffic streets in the same city.
And I watched.
And I had some work along with me too so as to avoid looking like a stone faced creep and because that’s part of the coffee house experience. You bring books and things you’re working on.
This is worth mentioning. I’m a tea drinker. This elevates me several notches on both the pretension scale and lame old man scale. I accept this. Also, it means I won’t really be talking about either places coffee. Not that I haven’t tried it. I’ve had both their coffees on multiple occasions but I’m not really qualified to talk about good coffee. Tea however, I know my tea.
First, let’s talk about these businesses. Starbucks has been around for a long time but as the Starbucks we all know, the coffee megacorp that threatens to devour us all, has been going strong since the early 90’s. That’s when stores were springing up all over and snuffing out the local guy. They have about 17,000 outlets as of 2010 and operate in fifty some countries. They sell a lot of coffee. A lot.
Caribou on the other hand is much younger. In 1998 the were absorbed by Arcapita, a rather huge real estate and investing corporation, and from there they became the second largest coffee chain. So just to be clear, Caribou is not the corporate free hip alternative to Starbucks. They have almost identical beginnings to be fair. Caribou operates about 550 locations in about fifteen states.
Prices between the two competitors are pretty similar. That’s no surprise. They have to be. Coming from a restaurant background the thing I know about competition is that if you sell almost identical products you have to have competitive prices. And they do. Starbucks is slightly higher, five to ten percent in some instances. Some may say “whoa, five to ten percent is a lot!” But when you’re talking about that five to ten percent being less then thirty cents it’s not a lot in the reality of most consumers. Most consumers. My tea ended up being about twenty cents more.
Starbucks and Caribou
Here is where the approach starts to differ and where your personal tastes start to help pull you into one camp or another.
Starbucks is neat. Everything has its place, its minimalist, its darker, and your eyes are constantly drawn to the bar. The seating is about as comfortable but with more leather chairs. Speaking of the seating, the layout for the seating is spaced. There are no more than two chairs next to each other and only one place for group seating. Product is neatly placed, illuminated and kept by the bar and mostly away from the seating. The community board is completely out of sight and even with that everything tacked straight and uniform. Also its cold in here. Temperature wise. Can’t really let that factor in because that could just be the setting the manager put it on. The overall feeling of Starbuck’s layout is uniformity. Every color blends, everything has its place and what they want you to look at you look at.
Caribou has the complete different approach to the layout. Tables of four outnumber the two tops heavily and though their sofas and comfortable chairs are far fewer they are all placed facing each other and less than five feet from each other. Group seating is the norm there. Their products were located near the entrance and further from the counter and though still neatly arranged in an almost identical style to star bucks they didn’t have spotlights shining down on them. They did have kitschy accessory items and a stand of greeting cards and these were encroaching on the seating area, some blocking the seats. Speaking of blocking, the wood columns, fire place and product stands block your view of the rest of the place. It simultaneously makes the place look smaller and adds a bit false privacy. They also have far fewer outlets for plugging in your computer.
Another big difference. With Starbucks the staff was super friendly and engaging while you were at the counter ordering. Beyond that they had no interactions with the patrons. The staff are also isolated rather far from the seating area other than when they were cleaning. Which was done at least twice in the two hours I was there. Mopping was done and the island where the sugar and creamer is kept was checked and cleaned too. Starbucks had twice the staff as Caribou but I suspect that is because of the drive thru they had.
At Caribou it’s again very different. Tables are left with a few crumbs on them, one of the few comfortable seats has a newspaper bag on it and the wooden floors are not swept and show signs of heavy traffic. The tile section is equally as dingy. However, because the bar is closer to both the seating and the entrance I’m greeted as I walk in. When I ordered my tea I was asked if I wanted a second cup to hold my sachets and invited to come back up for more hot water.
There is a difference between where these two coffee houses were located. The Caribou did have a high school about a half mile from it. That being said, this experiment was conducted while those kids would have been in school.
Starbuck’s crowd was a bit older for the most part and much quieter. Perhaps the distance between tables and the limited ability for group conversation made it seem that way. But it was a lot quieter. There’s just not much to say really about their patrons.
Caribou had a much younger crowd and I’m not talking about High School kids. Twenty somethings like myself were everywhere. The older crowd too were here and in almost equal number to my age group. I observed two older patrons sitting in the more comfortable area reading the paper. They start up a brief conversation about a show on food network and carry it on for sometime and then return to their papers before one leaves. Two strangers in close proximity started to chat. Caribou’s layout encouraged that.
I’m about to talk about tea so many of you may want to tune out now. Fair warning.
The tea at star bucks is Tazo. That’s their house brand and you can find it excessively priced at grocery stores everywhere. They have names that don’t really tell you what the blend is, like Awake, Calm, Zen and Lotus. What does that even mean?
I had Caribou first regarding this experiment and had Darjeeling, my favorite black tea blend. So when I came to Starbucks I wanted to try something similar. But an annoying list of adjectives stared me in the face and their descriptions were too far behind the counter to make out. One said Chai. I went with something that was at least theoretically Indian in origin like my Darjeeling. As far as the taste goes, it was fine. It had everything that someone would put into a Chai if they weren’t expert Chai makers and were just following a recipe.
Caribou’s Darjeeling was good too. Because I had different products at these places I can’t really comment that accurately. What I can say is that they didn’t make it right or the blend is off. Darjeeling should be light in color and flavor. The flavor was ok but the color was very dark. I suspect it’s because they are using water that is too hot. Not all teas steep at the same temperature. But at least they had their version of a product I like more.
Starbucks wants you to buy things. That’s their first priority. They know they don’t make money from you sitting around chatting. They keep a very clean presentable place, the sort of place you’d be proud to come and buy things from.
Caribou is relying on you to come in over and over again so they come off more inviting. They want you to buy things too but they rely on customer service to impress you rather then name brands and presentation.
Over the course of this experiment my feelings are muddled but there is a clear preference. There is a real inviting, cozy and relaxed aura to Caribou that I seem to have never noticed till now. I choose Caribou in the end. They may not be clean and they may not make the best Darjeeling but at least they have products I can identify without leaping the counter and they seem to care I’m there.