Coffee Shop Culture: Corporate Chain or Local Mom-and-Pop Coffeehouse?

By SHADDI ABUSAID

We’ve become a nation powered by caffeine. Energy drinks, coffees, lattes, cappuccinos and espresso shots are widely available and frequently consumed by the average American. With more than 13,000 Starbucks stores in the U.S. alone, coffee shop culture has become a way of life.

“I really like the taste of coffee,” said Caribou Coffee barista Brent Lambert-Zaffino. “The aroma, the heat, even hearing a coffee machine . . . All your senses get into it. The whole thing becomes centered around waking up and getting started.”

But what has this done to the local coffee roaster, the mom-and-pop coffeehouse down the street that cannot compete with the multi-billion dollar Starbucks and Caribou Coffee shops on just about every corner?

What do people love about coffee? What it is that keeps Americans coming back and spending so much of their disposable income on cappuccinos and lattes when they could brew a pot of coffee at home for less money?

Has corporate coffee’s growing role in the coffee market improved coffee culture in the United States or have these corporations made it nearly impossible for smaller coffeehouses to find their niche within the market?

John Moulton, the manager of Cool Beans Coffee Roasters on the Marietta Square, says he enjoys not being trapped in a corporate place.

“We don’t compete with corporate chains,” Moulton said. “We’re a completely different entity. They came in and took the main ideas of second-wave coffee and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do the Walmart version of this and package everything up for three months, six months, a year’, however long they do it.”

Moulton says that the vast majority of Cool Beans’ business comes from repeat customers.

“We get people who come in on a daily basis, sometimes twice a day. We have a lot of people who are retired or semi-retired, people who run businesses out of their houses. Those are our regulars.”

In-House Coffee Bean Roasting

Cool Beans roasts its own coffee beans in-house in a large red roaster in the middle of the coffee shop that can be found churning out huge batches of Sumatra and espresso beans two to three times a week. The store sells its beans to local restaurants and businesses.

Cool Beans coffee roaster Chad Yochum says that he roasts between 200 and 300 pounds of beans every week in 20-pound batches. He said the amount of coffee he roasts varies, depending on the time of the year and the demand for the bean. He said the company’s sales go through the roof around Christmas.

“We sell to a couple restaurants on the Square here as well as Whole Foods grocery store and Johnson Ferry Baptist Church,” Yochum said.

“There’s [the church’s] order,” he said, pointing to a massive burlap sack on the floor. “Forty-five pounds.”

Samantha Profetta, a barista at Cool Beans, says that the larger coffee chains have paved the way for smaller companies like hers. The downside, she says, is that Starbucks gives people misinformation about coffee.

“What’s a macchiato?” Profetta asked. “It’s not what they’re doing.”

Profetta says that because Starbucks is so popular and so standardized, “it now takes more effort from the smaller company to bust through the fake knowledge that Starbucks is putting out there.”

“Yeah,” Moulton chimed in. “That’s the pet peeve of everyone in the small coffee shop. . . or one of the many. Go look up what Starbucks calls a caramel macchiato and then look up what a macchiato is. That will give you an idea of the general frustrations of a barista.”

“Or ‘I’ll have a mocha,’” he continued. “What does that mean?! I don’t even understand what that means. So you want a cup o’ chocolate?”

Moulton said that Cool Beans plans to offer coffee classes to their customers in an effort to raise the level of culture and education about coffee in the Marietta area.

Brent Lambert-Zaffino, who studies communication and film at Kennesaw State University, works at the Caribou Coffee on Johnsons Ferry Road and says that he loves his job.

“I really like coffee and I feel like because I’m serving something I like to people, the whole customer service aspect feels less taxing and more rewarding, like I’m actually doing something nice for people instead of just working for a paycheck,” Lambert-Zaffino said.

He said that on average, he drinks between three and four cups of coffee every day.

Lambert-Zaffino said that although Caribou Coffee is a corporation, it varies from the way Starbucks runs its business because it’s not as meticulously standardized. He says that because Caribou is in its expanding stages, they have more leeway in the way their stores and workers conduct business.

“The coffeehouse atmosphere is meticulously crafted by Starbucks in mass-fashion,” he said. “It’s a lot like going to McDonald’s or Burger King.”

“Of course there’s a variance in certain types of coffee beans, but overall, the biggest [difference] is the size of the corporations and how it weighs on the individual coffee shop,” Lambert-Zaffino said.

“Our store is a bit more experimental,” he said. “We work three stores down from a Starbucks and you can tell the place was built quickly, efficiently, and that they make their coffee exactly like the Starbucks two miles away.”

Kennesaw State student Cole Hale, who is studying history education and also works at a Caribou Coffee, says that the customers are his favorite part of the job.

“Working out in Buckhead, I’ve met celebrities and CEOs from different companies,” Hale said. “That’s actually how I got my internships for my degree.”

“In Atlanta, Caribou Coffee is about a sixth of what Starbucks is,” Hale continued. “We definitely get a lot of repeat customers, though. Eighty percent of our business comes from 20 percent of our customers.”

An Office Away From the Office

Jeff DeWitt, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University says he drinks about three cups of coffee every day and visits Starbucks once or twice daily. He says he “likes the taste and the boost it provides.”

“I make coffee at home first thing every morning,” DeWitt said. “But I do like the change of scenery I get from visiting coffee shops.”

DeWitt said that he starts to feel sluggish if he doesn’t have his late-afternoon cup of Joe.

“There are so many Starbucks,” he said. “There always seems to be at least one within a couple blocks of wherever I am. The quality of their coffee is dependably good and at the local Starbucks, they know my drink so it’s really nice to show up and have it ready.”

DeWitt, who says he spends about $150 per month on coffee, uses the local Starbucks as a place to get his work done for several hours at a time, calling it his “office away from the office.”

Lambert-Zaffino said he is a huge fan of the coffeehouse atmosphere.

“There’s a nice vibe about coffee and that’s one of the reasons people meet at coffee shops,” he said. “I think coffee brings people together.”

He spoke of a group of older gentlemen who come into his Caribou Coffee every morning around the same time. He said they were really funny and he knew them all by name.

“They like their coffee dark and strong,” Lambert-Zaffino said. “I feel like the coffee wakes them up and gives them a connection they might not have if there wasn’t a place to go for a drink that got them spunky again.”

Lambert-Zaffino said he believes that coffee acts as a “social lubricant” for individuals who “want to bring their A-game on first dates.”

Cool Beans roaster Chad Yochum, says that what keeps his customers coming back is the way the place makes them feel, mainly “the ambiance and the welcoming atmosphere.”

“Above all else, I think what keeps people coming back is the location and the staff,” Yochum said. “They feel welcome here, ya know?”

Ron Davis, a Marietta resident and Cool Beans regular, says that after coming to Cool Beans for so long, he won’t drink Starbucks Coffee.

“It’s all about the way they roast the bean,” Davis said, “and this guy is a coffee genius! He’s like a chemist.”

Starbucks is now infringing on Cool Bean’s territory by opening a new store less than 500 feet from Cool Beans.  The Krystal, which was a Marietta Square landmark since the mid-1970s shut its doors last year and the property, located on North Marietta Parkway, was leased by Starbucks. The store is expected to be fully operational later this year, according to a recent Marietta Daily Journal article.

Grace Beales, a Cool Beans barista who worked at Starbucks for six years, says she isn’t too worried about the new competition.

“You really can’t compare the two stores,” Beale said. “They both serve coffee and they both want to excel at customer service but with Cool Beans, not every drink tastes the same.”

She said that Starbucks is geared towards a different type of coffee consumer, those who want their coffee sweet and fast.

“Starbucks is more of an industrial line, whereas Cool Beans is more relaxed and intimate. There’s a sense of community here. We’re small, tight-knit and we’re always working toward something new as opposed to always maintaining the same thing.”

Beales says she enjoys the laid-back aspect of Cool Beans, adding that she thinks Starbucks is far less personable. She said she doesn’t think that the new Starbucks will take Cool Beans’ regulars away.

“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” she said.

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