Caffeine IV: Strange Brew

Second Cup has been on the Canadian upscale coffee scene since 1975, with mixed success. Perhaps it comes by its name because it gets things half-right, so needs two cups to fill expectations. In general, the Second Cup experience falls somewhere between Starbucks and Tim Hortons. It sells coffee at upscale prices, but pinches pennies obviously - a cabal of stringent bean counters offering astringent beans.

Since the early part of this decade, it's been owned first by Cara Operations - caterer to students and airlines - and later something called Dinecorp Hospitality, headed by a former Cara CEO. The affiliations may not inspire confidence among current and former Cara-feteria diners, aware of Cara's parsimony. Food was all 'bidness' and mouths were mere units. So, Cara and luxury coffee may appear to be a schizophrenic match, and in fact the Second Cup experience reflects this in some ways.

In Ottawa, the chain often matches Starbucks outlets corner for street corner, but seems to be trying to do it on a more restrained budget. Certainly Second Cups have the the iconic large espresso pumps, and many are possessed of large potted plants and big comfy chairs grouped around gas fireplaces. These are nice touches for people looking for a cosy little upscale experience for the price of a coffee. Inside, correct colours have been carefully selected by decorating consultants, staff are personable, but the spaces remain feeling barer and acoustically more live than is desirable. For the Ultra Cosmic Top Sekrit Project to succeed, acoustics are important. The Second Cup's distract. True luxury enfolds one in discrete muting. If one accepts the proposition that upscale is warm, the gestalt here is cooler than it should be, even for Marshall McLuhan.

And Second Cup's current logo, like its retail spaces, sports a somewhat stripped feel. Earlier logo iterations were gold leaf on darker backgrounds, often in three-dimensional carved wood. Artistically, they looked edgier and more stylized. An interim version attempted to duplicate the wood in thick Styrofoam. Closer than, say, five metres, it looked like the cheese it was. The current minimalist version is a one-dimensional, bland, over-homogenized pabulum of commercial art cliches that substitutes painted drop shadows for actual depth.

SC's trademark brew bouquet is emblematic also: it's a lighter roast than that favoured by Starbucks - thinner-bodied, fruitier and more acidic on the palate. In earlier times, espresso drinks sometimes tasted of coffee tinted dishwater, rather than the requisite velvet darkness, because baristas drew so inconsistently. Latter-day coffee machines may have cured this, but as in the case of Starbucks, automation reduces the luxurious sense that a skilled artisan is crafting a small treasure just for you.


Aggie said...

Nice. I like what you guys are doing. What is it that you are doing?

coyote said...

Laying the necessary groundwork. Stay tuned, ma'am.

Pandora said...

This is great: "stringent bean counters offering astringent beans" !!!

what a great ultra cosmic top seKrit project partner you are, coyote!

Aggie said...

You two were made for each other.