I’m all about independent food places and coffee shops. It’s why I write this blog. But I do occasionally sneak into a fast-food chain. Honest, it’s just to use their WiFi connection when I can’t find a local, open coffeehouse and need to locate something or book a last-minute motel, especially if my smart phone is turned off to save roaming charges in the U.S.
As a result, I get to focus my laser-like observation skills on how these chains operate and the coffee lingo used by regulars: a “double-double” (two cream, two sugar) in Canada’s Tim Hortons and, my favourite, a “tall Ethiopian” in Starbucks. Plus, I invariably order a coffee or snack, seeing as how I might be using their WiFi for half an hour and think it’s highly unethical to carry an empty Starbucks’ or McDonald’s cup from place to place to feign a purchase. Really, I’ve hardly ever done that.
The reason the following places are successful is they, like other popular chains, deliver consistency and predictability, with enough new products thrown in to keep the regulars from getting bored. Mind you, when pulled pork, poutine or paninis hits their menus, you know the trend has long since passed. And the stuff is churned out so fast that “made to order” is not in the vocabulary.
I once thought my car had been towed in Vancouver because it was right around the corner from a Starbucks. Turns out there were three Starbucks in a two-block radius, and I’d been circling the wrong one. The point is, Starbucks has nicely defied the critics who figured they’d lose a whack of customers to artisan coffeehouses. Most every one I walk into seems to be doing a brisk business, thanks to a comfortable atmosphere and a willingness to accommodate the laptop-toting crowd.
Coffee: Strong, if somewhat acidic. Don’t know if they’ve escaped the cognoscenti’s label of Charbucks
Food: Sorry, I rarely order the not-prepared-on-the-premises treats or breakfast sandwiches. They just don’t look too appetizing. Starbucks is trying to increase its food sales, in some stores, by baking and flash freezing baked goods like croissants and cheese Danishes and then warming them up in the store
Service: Slowest of the three, though that’s mostly the nature of making espresso-based drinks to order. Love the always cheerful “Can I get a drink started for you?” “Yes, but please don’t finish it.”
Ambience: The best of these three chains, not that there’s much competition
WiFi: Again, best of the three. Bonus points for computer plug-ins at many of their cafes. No password required
If I based my investments on personal observations, I’d be shorting this stock, despite its stellar performance over the years. A lot of McDonald’s I enter are half empty and faded. I usually want to get the hell out as soon I discover their spotty WiFi coverage ain’t working.
Coffee: Pretty thin by my standards, though the $1.29 espresso is much better than I expected
Food: Never order it anymore, except for this research. Used to like the skinny, salty fries, soft ice cream cones and cheapest breakfasts imaginable
Service: Snappy, well trained. My fries hit the tray five seconds after I order them. Really
Ambience: Horribly sterile. Plastic-metal tables and chairs anchored to the floor, as if anyone’s going to steal them. Young families and older folks seem to be the fixtures, other than the drive-through traffic
WiFi: Worst of the three. Have to go through their network every time you sign in, though when the signal is strong enough, you might not have to leave your car
This Canadian juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down. A franchise opening in a small town can put significant pressure on local coffee shops. Morning line-ups are to be expected at the counter and, especially, the drive through; wish they’d address the idling issue. They know their market—”ordinary” Canadians, especially hockey parents and guys in overalls driving pickup trucks.
Coffee: Also thin, but always fresh. They write the time on a new pot and chuck it after 20 minutes, though I don’t imagine that happens much. After 50 years, they’ve added a dark roast. Have also entered the “espresso” world, 63 cents for a thin shot machine produced in about 6.3 seconds
Food: Doughnuts and other baked goods are shipped frozen to outlets and then baked. Sizable chicken/egg-salad sandwiches and chile quite tasty for the price
Service: The line moves fast, and the food comes out quick
Ambience: Fairly pleasant for a chain, with reasonable furnishings, tile floors, lots of windows and tables that wrap around a large display case
WiFi: Their network’s signal can come and go, though generally better than McDonald’s