Has it really been a couple weeks since our last third wave rant? A few years after we thought this topic was dead and buried, lately newbie third wave coffee articles have been cropping up in local newspapers like teenage vampire profiteers. London, Oakland, and now Vancouver: Indie cafés perfectly poised to quench coffee aficionados’ palates – The Globe and Mail. What makes this incarnation worth pointing out is that it attempts to colorize the progression of coffee standards as an independent café vs. chain store debate.

The new Momento Coffee House in Kitsilano has great coffee in order to remain viableHelping to cement our theory that the phrase “third wave” has been co-opted exclusively for marketing purposes, the article makes no mention of coffee consumers as part of this “third wave” — only coffee purveyors. And as usual, all this talk of distinct coffee waves seems oblivious to an outside world where “Himalayan rock salt” has become part of grocery store vernacular. We’ll even overlook that the article’s cited Piccolo brothers have been making outstanding coffee since a decade ago.

But what’s different here are suggestions that small mom-and-pop coffee houses, the ones that were nearly exterminated at the hands of big coffee chain stores, are making something of a comeback.

Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years

We see things quite differently. Rather than being about indie-vs-chain coffee shops, this is just the natural progression of a continuous rise in consumer expectations for coffee quality. Many mom-and-pop coffee shops died at the hands of big chains because they sat on their laurels and languished from poor quality and poor management. All it took was a coffee chain that thought a little about improving their coffee quality and consistency — while also replacing the flea market furniture and cleaning up their bathrooms — to put many mom-and-pops out of business.

Truth in advertisingBut as these coffee chains grew (and grew and grew), their quality could only plateau at mass production standards. And in extreme cases such as Starbucks, their quality even declined as their business volume and number of employees ballooned out of control. This opened a major gap for a handful of independents to raise the quality bar further.

But here’s the major catch: do not mistake the independent status of these notable new cafés as a revival of the mom-and-pop coffee shop. If anything, opening an independent café is more challenging than ever. In fact, the only way that new independent cafés can remain viable in this environment is to differentiate themselves through higher quality standards.

In our espresso ratings for San Francisco over the past few years, we’ve noticed the great number of new cafés that typically break in the Top 40 rankings. However, we also noticed very few new café openings that rank below that. The reason being that the big coffee chains will chew up and spit out any new independent café that does not differentiate itself with some of the best coffee out there.

As chain coffee stories continue to expand (e.g., Peet’s Coffee & Tea has grown new outlets like a metastasized cancer over the past 2-3 years), the notable rise of these quality independent cafés is less about a better business environment for independents and more about the fact that they honestly have no other choice to survive.

UPDATE: Dec. 29, 2009
Today’s Toronto Star also published an article on the rise of local independent coffee houses: Grinding out their own niche – thestar.com. However, contrary to our opinions above, they suggest the Toronto independent café market is currently growing by 20-30 cafés each year.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on without some additional numbers. For example, the ubiquitous Canadian coffee & donuts chain, Tim Hortons, is still growing in Toronto — so it’s not clear if these independents are yet eating into the market for chain coffee shops.

You also need a sense for the city’s baseline of annual independent coffee shop openings and closings before, say, a decade ago. And regional markets will also differ based upon their saturation and customer demand for higher-end coffee.

In any case, let’s not forget that the leap to a Starbucks-sized megachain started with independents that quickly grew to the size of our current day Blue Bottle or Ritual Roaster chains.