Column: Small coffee houses ground out by big business

By Toby Bartlett

Small coffee houses ground out by big business

We love the idea of the quaint small business with the owner who works every hour of operation and knows his customers by name.

We crave something different, something that stands out from the norm. Or do we?

Everyone loves to voice support for independent business – “the little guy” in a dog-eat-dog world of faceless multinational corporations.

Canadians adore an underdog; perhaps because we feel like we’re perpetually in that position on the world stage.

After all, we’re getting shafted in the softwood lumber dispute, right?

Coffee house culture has made a comeback in the last decade. People flock to these shops for the caffeine (over 65 per cent of adult Canadians drink coffee daily, according to the Coffee Association of Canada), variety of flavours and the social settings they offer.

The offbeat nature of coffee house culture seems like the perfect opportunity for variety.

The more quirks and twists, the more interesting the coffee shop.

While Tim Hortons is a player, the “real” coffee shops are a touch more upscale, more sophisticated, which is why we feel cool and intelligent when visiting them.

But maybe we’re not as clever as we think we are, because while cookie-cutter coffee shops like Second Cup and Starbucks continue to pop up, the windows of the Roasted Cherry on O’Connor Street were recently covered with brown paper and a sign on the door reads “closed.”

Centretown has eight Second Cup outlets, four Treats and three Starbucks.

Throw in a couple of GrabbaJabbas/Timothy’s and some Tim Hortons and there isn’t much room left for independents, except in some downtown malls.

It’s not that chain coffee houses are bad – it’s hard to argue with consistent, good products and reliable service. But there is something more at an independent.

Maybe it’s a more open feeling, unlike many chain shops whose management and employees sign a contract that they will not talk to the media. Maybe it’s the good feeling of helping out the “little guy,” who may have the ownership of his home riding on the success of his business.

The high level of support given to franchises and branches of large chains gives them the upper hand.

Advertising and funding from their parent companies amount to enough support to effectively squeeze out the independent coffee house owner, especially in areas with high real estate prices, like Centretown.

Starbucks is not a franchised business. All stores are owned by Starbucks and have managers, called partners, who run them. Obviously there is a lot less risk for a Starbucks manager than there is for the owner of an independent business.

Another factor, pointed out by Gerry LePage, executive director of the Bank Street Business Improvement Area, is that the big chains like to compete head-to-head. Therefore, wherever you see a Second Cup, you’re likely to see a Starbucks nearby.

This, compared to the trials of an independent business owner, who often has trouble capitalizing his operation to begin with, is a stark contrast indeed.

There may not be room for independent coffee shops.

The chains are there to provide a competitive advantage over each other, making them efficient and high quality.

That, along with capital support and the instant credibility gained when hanging a chain logo in the window, seems to have given them the upper hand.

Maybe the coffee-drinking public is not as supportive of small business as it would like to believe.