Winning The Coffee Competition

Few brands have become as synonymous with what they sell as Starbucks has. When people think coffee – there is almost a reflexive action to think of Starbucks.

Sure they have their occasional dalliances with the stunty marketing beverage – baristas nationwide are still reportedly recovering from the national horror that was the Unicorn Frappucino in April. And yes,  there are the Dunkin’ Donuts lovers out there who stubbornly maintain that Dunks is the way to go for AM caffeine. But as most corporate workers know – the term “Starbucks run” has replaced “coffee run” in office lexicon by and large, because most people associate Starbucks with coffee in a nearly Pavlovian manner at this point.

It should also be noted that most Americans are pretty satisfied with that outcome, a quick glance at consumer satisfaction ratings and figures that forecast the likelihood a customer will recommend a brand to someone else indicates that Starbucks has managed to become synonymous with coffee by keeping a lot of customers very satisfied.

Which means any emerging purveyor of caffeine faces a rather massive mountain to get over in entering the marketplace. How to compete in a world where the definition of what you sell is defined in the market by another, massive and incredibly popular player?

Well, two big secrets – according to the smaller players, both obvious and not.

  1. Keep it collegial
  2. Keep it original

Starbucks has, in its own way, done the small coffee shop a service – by making coffee culture itself something that is part of mainstream life outside the nation’s big coastal cities.

“This market’s so small and niche that if you come in thinking that you’re in competition, you’ve come into the wrong market,” said Bryce Laguer, who owns Charlotte-area coffee shop Basal.

But if it’s not about competition, then what is it about?

Innovation (of course) – even in something as old school as brewing a cup of coffee.  Because, as the small shop aficionados note – there is lots of room in the coffee market, even with the likes of Starbucks defining the space, in large part because as a product it supports such a diversity of experiences.

“‘Normal’ coffee is not a thing…. Coffee is so diverse that there is no such thing as ‘normal,’” coffee bar operator Lindsey Pitman noted in an interview.

It was a sentiment echoed by fellow coffee enthusiast – and shop manager Diana Mnatsakanyan-Sapp.

“Coffee can taste like tangerines and coffee can taste like jasmine flowers, and it can even taste like tomatoes sometimes and that’s just what’s naturally in it.”

And beyond the variety of ways it can taste – there is also the variety in presentation methods.  Want to drink in a bar, fancy a stimulant over a depressant but don’t want to stand out as the person with a cup of coffee in their hand? A need that Pitman’s Suffolk Punch coffee bar within a brewing company can accommodate – with coffee and tea mixtures that look decidedly “beery” served in an appropriate-looking pint glass.

“You can socialize and interact with everybody,” Pitman says. “They don’t have to know that you’re not partaking of alcohol if you don’t want [them] to.”

Or there is the team at CupLux, which has decided to take the small, personalized crafted coffee experience of the proprietor-owned coffee shop and export it to the drive-through.  It, of course, isn’t the only game in town offering coffee to go at a drive-through, but it is the only team keeping craft coffee in kegs in the back or advertising pastries baked fresh daily.

And that focus on quality, CupLux’s Ian Kolb says – exists throughout the organization. The shop adds in freshly roasted coffee every week and changes out leftover brewed coffee about every hour and a half throughout the day. Coffee, the owner notes, is a fruit, and like all fruits it goes bad.

“A barista is only as good as the coffee that they start with,” Kolb says. “You can start with phenomenal coffee and butcher it, but if you don’t have good coffee that you’re starting with, there’s only so much you can do to make it taste good.”

And the point – he and all the other brewers note is to make it taste good – and as important, taste the type of good the customer is seeking.  That might mean a Starbucks run – from time to time.  But when one wants a coffee that tastes like tangerines, or comes in a pint glass, the world is still specialized enough when it comes to coffee to provide.