If you’ve noticed the sound of crickets around here lately, you’re not the only one. Sure, we’ve been quietly plodding along at updating our espresso reviews. But the media coverage on coffee over the past few weeks has been boring and uneventful. That is until this week, when we came across two examples of how café openings have arguably become a new checkbox for big consumer marketing campaigns.
The first was the London opening of Central Perk: Friends cafe Central Perk pops up in Soho | thelondonpaper.com. If the café name is familiar, it’s because it is modeled after the fictitious café from the NBC TV series “Friends“. Coincidentally, this café opening has been timed with the 15th anniversary of the show — and with Warner Brothers’ release of the series on a new DVD box set. (The last time I was in New York for work years ago, I stayed at the Hotel Chandler and wondered why they didn’t make a cheesy boutique hotel chain named after each of the show’s characters.)
That same day, we also learned about a new café opening planned for Paris next month: Microsoft To Open Cafe In Paris To Build Windows 7 Buzz (Pics). Yes, Microsoft plans to open Windows Café on October 22 — the same day as the public launch of their new Windows 7 operating system. Our derision of French coffee aside, we have to imagine we’ve already tasted the Blue Screen of Death in coffee form. But perhaps bad coffee is a new concept where Microsoft plans to “embrace, extend and extinguish”. (Or maybe they’re just hitting back at Sun’s Java?)
In the past we’ve reported on a number of cafés opened as temporary exhibits — not to mention some back-alley cafés that did their best to qualify as performance art. But what’s different here is that the café is just another vehicle for event marketing — not unlike wild posting campaigns or employing attractive, undercover actors to talk up client products in a bar.
Because the logistics of opening temporary cafés have become easier, and because marketers have become more desperate to find new ways to attract consumers’ attention, we may see more of these café-as-marketing-vehicle launches until enough of us are saturated with it. And given that the primary purpose of these cafés is to sell DVDs or software, we suspect the coffee to be pretty poor. (We’ve already had enough poor coffee from cafés that primarily promoted music and movies.)
Of course, our society has quite a history of promotional fads. Decades ago, TV actors were expected to release musical albums as part of the personal publicity campaigns arranged by their agents — regardless of their musical talents and the pain inflicted upon their fans. Today politicians appear on “Dancing with the Stars”.
Though here at CoffeeRatings.com, we still prefer the idea of advertising on the back of the deranged signage of SF’s legend of eccentricity, and heir to Emperor Norton, Frank Chu. As a man who knows where the local TV news cameras will be long before their cameramen do, you cannot get better media placement than that.
For the better part of a year, a running gag from the casual coffee lovers who know me is to ask, “So have you tried McDonald’s espresso yet? How does it rate?” Mostly they ask as a curious, sick joke — knowing that I subject myself to the worst kinds of coffee punishment. But now that I have donated my taste buds to science once again, it may be surprising to many of them that I’ve definitely had a lot worse.
Which isn’t saying a whole lot. But this is McDonald’s we’re talking about — one of the world’s most vilified entities in the fights against worldwide obesity, factory farming, and environmental atrocities. Up until recently, we’ve long remarked how visiting the McDonald’s Web site was like viewing an inner city billboard advertising cigarettes: nowhere was there a mention of anything so much as a hamburger, but there were plenty of glossy lifestyle photos of ethnic-friendly families and friends — enraptured in open-mouthed, white-toothed laughter — frolicking about at hillside picnics and poolside parties. By branding themselves like cigarettes, how was that not like a McDonald’s admission of guilt?
We suppose the good news today is that the company with the audacity to create the “Shamrock Shake” now proudly announces the new “Third Pounder” on their Web site. (Because we apparently don’t feel we’re getting fat fast enough on a diet of Quarter Pounders? The Three Pounder can only be around the corner.) But the McCafé concept is heavily promoted on the site as well.
And McDonald’s has invested heavily in the U.S. rollout of the McCafé concept. Although much of McDonald’s PR campaign in the States tries to brand the McCafé as “new!”, it is anything but. The McCafé was first spawned in 1993 in Australia, infiltrated some countries in Europe, and it was first introduced to the U.S. in 2001. Since its U.S. introduction, McDonald’s has opened and quickly shuttered various McCafés across the country — such as the one that opened in Mountain View in December 2003 and shut down just 14 months later.
The first generation of U.S. McCafés were dedicated, separate chain stores. McDonald’s latest move has been to integrate the McCafé as a workstation within existing McDonald’s — first starting with suburban McDonald’s chains with more real estate and less coffee competition. The McCafé has arrived in San Francisco, however, and we chose a downtown location for our first experiment.
The branding for McCafé was laid on thick and heavy. And not uncommon to McDonald’s in expensive commercial real estate districts, this is a tight spot with mirrored walls trying to make the place seem less like a closet. In front is an ever-present refugee-from-a-methadone-clinic as your doorman. (For tips, of course.) In part, the attraction for voluntary doormen is due to the heavy tourist traffic that flows through here — a lot of it from Asia for some odd reason. And at one corner of their serving station is the McCafé setup.
The McCafé signs even provide an espresso-drink-ordering procedure as follows:
Naturally, for us it was only steps #1 & #2, and they use dueling superautomatic Franke machines to pull shots with a large pour size and a blonde, even crema. The existence of any crema thickness was actually a little surprising, given the machines and staff skills, even if its color is way off. Served in a large, insulated McCafé-branded paper cup, it has a tepid flavor of cedar and some pepper. While it isn’t ashy, like some Starbucks and their blackened coffees, it is one-dimensional but not entirely unpleasant. Their ads may call out “the bold and rich flavors of McCafé,” but we find that statement to be accurate only if you’ve been mostly nursed on Maxwell House.
Their coffee is supplied by three main roasters — Distant Lands, Gaviña, and S&D Coffee. And just as McDonald’s buys food staples from multiple suppliers in huge lots to blend out the flavor profile to a single, consistent stew spread across entire nations, their coffee is little different. Although their supply chain for coffee appears to be a lot more thoughtful than the one for, say, beef, another difference is that McDonald’s makes bigger, nameless vats of “mutt” coffee from multiple suppliers who each produce vast nameless lots of “mutt” coffee.
But as we mentioned up top, the espresso here may not be good, but it isn’t outright awful. And therein lies the marketing foolishness of Starbucks: years of dumbing down their product to fill an ever-expanding armada of cafés has made it rather push-button and brain-dead. So much so, that any fast food chain with an ounce of ambition, such as McDonald’s, can make a relatively legitimate quality play for their customers. Slap on a recession and a cheaper price tag, and Starbucks is suddenly dog-paddling to stay afloat in the deep, rapid waters of fast food competition.
McDonald’s espresso quality also depreciates the value of many superautomatic home espresso machines, such as the Nespresso. Why should consumers spend hundreds of dollars on a home machine, plus a subscription of premium-priced coffee capsules, to essentially achieve McDonald’s quality at a similar price point? That just doesn’t cut it.
In a way, this all makes us commend McDonald’s espresso for helping to draw back the curtain on the “Great Oz” of Starbucks — or superautomated home machines such as the Nespresso system. When you are charging a premium for your product, or if you are promoting it as some premium espresso experience, you had better set your standards above McDonald’s (for crying out loud) to be taken seriously.
While we would never go to a McDonald’s McCafé for the espresso unless we were extremely desperate, we like the McCafé if for nothing other than shining some humbling truth behind the many hot-air claims of “luxury” mass-produced espresso out on the market today.
Read the review of McDonald’s at 609 Market St. in San Francisco.
You can make coffee hot or cold, weak or strong, and even good or bad. But one thing you shouldn’t make coffee is scary. And what’s making coffee scary today — in a way that mysterious substances such as Jamba Juice‘s “immunity boost” only used to scare us — are con artists who now target coffee with health claims as varied as weight loss to Viagra lattes.
It’s probably too much to ask of our species to evolve beyond the days of carnival barkers hawking health tonics. Today’s appeals are much the same — just replace the outright fraudulent health claims of yesteryear with today’s more modern implied health claims, “backed” by the medical-research-du-jour on single molecules or ingredients “as seen on Oprah” and the subject lines of countless spam e-mails. (Açai berry colon cleanse, anyone?)
Which brings us to a newer café in the Metreon called Bean Island. Perhaps fittingly, its name — when combined with the promoted health claims of its coffee roaster — suggests the location of a sinister, science-gone-wrong, H.G. Wells horror novel.
Bean Island replaced a former Starbucks kiosk next to Chronicle Books as part of the Metreon’s post-recession retail space scramble. The Metreon, once under Sony branding, has since resorted to filling their vacant space with things like the sad, sprawling, flea-market-like Island Earth Farmers Market — and their switch from a weak Starbucks to Bean Island appears to be part of that shift.
The café itself is by no means comfortable, as any seating is limited to the “mall food court” in front of you. But what disturbed us most about this café was its over-the-top health marketing pitch from its roaster. The coffee, from SoCal’s The Bean Coffee Company, comes emblazoned with a snake-oil-like “100% organic antioxidant rich coffee” come on. There is even signage telling us that their coffee has “500% more antioxidants” than regular coffee.
Perhaps anti-oxidants are like inflating your car tires: if a little is good for you, a lot can only be that much better. But we can imagine that if this were 20 years earlier, the people behind The Bean would have been selling oat bran shakes.
Even if we could possibly stomach coffee that’s sold like a pharmaceutical, what we cannot tolerate is coffee of meager quality — and this is where Bean Island particularly fails. If you’re going to make the delivery mechanism for our medicine so inferior, please — just hand out syringes and skip the coffee.
The problems started with the single-group Astoria machine they first used here — which they did at least recently replace with a two-group Bravo. But while the shot sizes got smaller with the machine switch, they still serve it out of 12 oz paper cups.
The machine upgrade also seems to have completely obliterated what little crema that was once there. The body is still thin with the smaller pour size, and it has flavors of primarily smoke and tobacco (how ironic for coffee sold as a health elixir) — and no sweetness nor roundedness to the cup to speak of.
The result is a place that’s no better than the Starbucks kiosk it replaced, but with a lot more health claims. Coffee that is almost as annoying as the nearby electronic train whistle on a kid’s ride.
Read the review of Bean Island.