Here’s an article I wrote for an upcoming edition of Elle/Elle Magazine on Coffee Culture in Toronto
Toronto Coffee Culture - You Pay To Be Picky
By: Natalie Greenspan @ngspan
Traditional. Ritualistic. Full-Sensory. Highly Addictive. Coffee’s more than just a beverage in Toronto, it’s a culture. And a cult of many it is. From the actual bean product to the wi-fi speed, to the staff’s vibe, music, and overall ambiance, the array of options are seemingly endless. With every new indie shop opening it’s doors, the paradox of choice has never been more in play.
That said, here’s a play by play of the scene and what it does and in some cases doesn't offer. From the masters of mass customization to the “everybody knows your name” mom and pops and every craft and indie in-between, the culture of coffee extends far beyond the “just a hot fresh cuppa joe” it use to be.
With a bevy of choices to choose from, let’s start with the big guy. While coffee shops come and go from every corner in Toronto, Starbucks has remained a staple in every hood since it opened it’s doors with five stores in 1996. Forget about the stock price dropping or rising, the sheer number of them today and their longevity in a saturated market speaks for itself. Why? Because at Starbucks, you pay to be picky. The entire brand premise and promise is that you’ll get the exact drink of your choice to your exact liking. The milk, the temperature, the foam, the flavour - you name it - they make it and even write your name on the cup along with the novel that often results on the side of it as an added level of personalization. As to say to the crowds “hey look, this is Danny’s drink.” Talk about a personalized, customized, if you’re not satisfied we’ll make it again and again until you are policy. This is the Starbucks mantra. With zero attitude from the staff - and if there is, they’re way off brand and won’t be there long. Which, is a pity because this is a brand that sure knows how to treat its eclectic and often eccentric group of employees right. The founder Howard Schultz grew up in a blue collar family and his father had no medical and dental coverage for the family. So he pledged that if he ever founded his own company he’d be sure to include these perks. So he did and it shines through in the service with a smile vibe you’re guaranteed when you walk through the designed for your neighbourhood interior door.
The experience is also always satisfying because they know you can go down the street and either get a beverage for half the price at Tim Horton’s or deal with the oft snobbery of craft competitors. Loyalty’s another reward here with free coffee re-fills for card carrying members to encourage them to stay awhile - unlike some of the grab-and go’s like Jimmy’s or Portland Variety. Starbucks also knows a staple to their business is solid, reliable wi-fi. Like many other shops around the city, Starbucks knows there an office or second home to many of their patrons. The routine of coming in, setting up your computer, and making sure you can connect to their network often precedes even ordering a drink.
This is a no-go at places like Early Bird Coffee. During the day they have a communal table for laptop users but the individual tables have little signs that say something like “reserved for no-laptops.” They take up 50 percent of the space as which to say “socialize people - look up from your screens.” I back this concept. Afterall, not all of us have a perma-coffee date with our laptops or desire to be glued to our phones screens 24/7. It’s a great concept I can get behind. Fun fact - In 1997, Starbucks formed an alliance with Chapters - now Indigo - creating what has become the ultimate Canadian book and coffee lover’s experience. From the jazz music, to the tactility of an actual book or magazines, it’s a ritual for many even in this day and age to spend a weekend morning or afternoon at Indigo with a caffeinated beverage and great read in their hands.
Then there’s the pioneers of the double-double since 1964, tried and true quintessentially Canadian Tim Hortons. At least until the fiasco when they decided to take away their employee’s breaks when minimum wage raise was announced and enforced as part of the Ontario Labour Laws. I bring this up because the happiness of employees has a huge effect on the overall brand experience for patrons - or as Tim’s call you - a guest. Anyways, a solid Canadian staple that has worked hard to keep up with changing tastes and dark roast demands. From the interior decor to labelling themselves “your neighbourhood coffee house” to offering soy milk at NO extra charge - a huge bonus compared to the surcharge you pay at most every other venue. But too much sugar and sodium are still on the menu here. So too are digital screens that tell fun facts, horoscopes, trivia, sports updates and more - so the notion of a neighbourhood coffee house includes watching a TV screen. Overall however, if you’re looking for an economical cuppa coffee this is still the place that reigns supreme from a price stand point only. That said, you don’t get to choose the temperature or foaminess of your latte - it comes standardized to their’s. As for the wi-fi, it doesn’t offer Second home or out of office security like many of the other hot spots do.
Next up is Second Cup. Worth a mention because they’re one of the only shops in town that still serve flavoured coffee. While my beloved other flavoured bean brew Timothy’s are nearly impossible to find, you can still find a Second Cup in most neighbourhoods. Price wise, it’s comparable to Starbucks and you get four to five choices of roasts verses three. Vibe wise, there’s not much of one unless you consider the pop-ups they host inside of them. Kiva’s bagels - the quintessential Jewish bagel and Pinkberry Frozen yogurt being two example of them. If you ask me, this place owns the Hot Chocolate game with their Vanilla Bean exclusive. At 4+bucks it’s not cheap, but it’s well worth it if you have a soft spot for the nostalgic beverage and wanna cozy up with something non-caffeinated for a change. Also, if you do fancy a flavoured coffee, you can always hit up my personal favourite Brioche Doree for their Hazelnut Cream brew. A pseudo French cafe, their roasts are high quality and priced competitively with Second Cup. It also always smells delicious with freshly baked croissants and the butter-based pastries.
Which brings us to the fourth and last of the chains you’ll find throughout the city, Aroma. With healthy, if not a little pricey for the portion size fare, great wi-fi, decent curated cafe playlists and coffee that comes with a free piece of chocolate, it leaves a good taste in generic’s mouth. I tend to put my piece in the actual coffee to give it a mocha like taste as a quarter of the price.
Now it’s time to talk about the so called “craft” coffee shops that fancy themselves indie even though many of them serve the same Pilot coffee roast that has a very distinct flavour Toronto has come to love. Many are also the anti-thesis of Starbucks. You pay a premium for what they’ve connoisseured (I made up that word) as your ideal taste. They have one roast - often highly acidic and often not even in a steel vat - which I’m convinced keeps the coffee taste, and body, better longer. Instead, it’s in a cheap plastic canister and they look at you like you’re beneath a basement level suite if you order it. Why? Because it’s three dollars so they just want you to prescribe to their snobbery and order an Americano instead for three-fifty. Seriously. A coffee shop that goes out of it’s way to not serve coffee should change it’s name to the Americano or Espresso Shop. This is the opposite of how a so called coffee shop or house should roll. Also worth a mention are the indies that have moved beyond accepting cash.
A cash-free coffee shop - who’d ever conceived of that. A place that charges more than a few bucks for one is the answer. Now this is certainly not the case for all craft shops but I’ve had the experience too many times to not vent-i about it. Sorry, I just had to!
But let’s move on to the positives - because there are a great selection of them. The first being that while your still paying a premium for drinks, paying to be picky extends into the non-generic nature of the joint as well. Original decor, a curated collection of limited-run niche magazines and even board games make you feel like your somewhere unique. One of my favourite touches is some shops use of spaghetti as stir sticks to save on waste. How savvy is that? This is the local flavour that’s made craft coffee shops pop-up like wildfire in the past few years. Supporting local, not the big guys is a big thing in our bustling city. That and catering to the more health conscious even vegan crew that’s on the up in the past year especially.
One of the more interesting and authentic craft shops is Strange Love. They actually offer by-invite hosted coffee tastings in their backrooms. Just like a wine and scotch tasting, yogurt the pleasure of smelling and trying different blends and are educated on the craftsmanship that goes into the final brew. From the bean, to the processing, to the acid levels - the whole shebang. It epitomizes the art of coffee and captures the obsession we have with it in a not so strange way. Their lover’s latte is to die for - complete with the craft touch of a latte art heart on top. They elevate the game here.
Believe it or not, there’s also room for department stores in this conversation. Yes. They’ve managed to slide themselves into this equation with all the at home brewing options that now exists. That’s how deep our obsession with coffee goes. Those of us who love it don’t just drink it out, we want the same sensory and taste experience as a ritual at home. Enter Nespresso, Tassimo and the likes. Hit up the bottom floor of the Bay for your free samples of coffee & espresso based beverages made every which way under the sun at one of the booths selling hundred dollar machines that require an individual packet or ‘pod’ for each cup you desire once you bring your new baby home. According to them, gone are the days of just brewing a pot of coffee with a re-usable filter. It’s all cup by cup servings here. Even though they have a recycling program - talk about waste. What’s more, is that after you have your free samples at the Nespresso stations and crave a bigger cup, there’s at least three locales on the same bottom floor you can grab a real-size cup to stay or go. How telling is that?
Finally, we have the true originals. The mom and pops. The solids that have been around since before Starbucks, and perhaps even you, me and Timmies. They don’t need to write your name on the side of your cup because they know it. They’re the little bakeries in the little Portugal's and Italy that haven’t and aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Speaking of going, asking for your java to go is a no no at one of these heritage sites. Be it an espresso, cappuccino, latte or bottomless drip, you sit down, take a breather and enjoy your beverage in a glass mug knowing the value you got it for. You’re with family here and it’s old school all the way. From lotto ticket sales, to 50 cent ciabattas, to a yard sale at a back table courtesy of elderly women and they’re retired jewelry, this is the original coffee culture in our city.
Lastly, if you happen to be in any of the aforementioned places when they cut open a fresh bag of coffee or espresso beans, you’re in luck because the smell is truly heavenly. So while trends may come and go, coffee’s one that has no end. Even in a saturated, over caffeinated market like Toronto.