Tales from Bostonia

We spent a few days in Boston last week, and the trip reinforced my belief that Portlanders are very spoiled by the amount of high-quality coffee available to us.

The first thing you notice when you drive around Boston (rather, the first thing I notice) is the presence of Dunkin’ Donuts shops everywhere. There are even more Dunkin’ Donuts than Starbucks. Apparently, Massachusettsans (or their less-polite fellow citizens) like bad coffee. Dunkin’ tried to establish itself in Portland a few years back, but the city’s coffee connoisseurs ignored the company, so it left town.

But Boston is not Portland, and Dunkin’ Donuts has a special place in the hearts of New Englanders. The chain was founded in 1950 in Quincy (pronounced quin-zee), Massachusetts, a few miles south of Boston. From the original shop, the business has grown to approximately 7,000 stores in the US alone (10,000+ around the world). Earlier this year, Dunkin’ announced it wants to double the number of US stores in the next two decades (a sign of the impending apocalypse?). The success of the business is unquestionable. The quality of the coffee, on the other hand…..

Give it a shot

Trying to keep an open mind, I stopped in at a Dunkin’ Donuts one morning and ordered a small coffee. The server asked if I wanted it “regular,” which, in Massachusetts, really means “with milk and sugar.” I said yes.

The coffee, unfortunately, met my expectations. It tasted like lightly-sweetened water. Bleh. It puzzles me that Dunkin’s coffee is so popular, but there is more behind the company’s success than just coffee.

In Boston, drinking DD coffee is almost a badge of honor, a symbol of loyalty toward the place New Englanders call home. People drink Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee, not because it is high quality, but because it communicates something about their values. They identify with Dunkin’s working class, egalitarian American ideals (“America runs on Dunkin’”). In other words, Dunkin’ serves the common coffee drinker.

When I worked for Starbucks in Boston, customers would occasionally come into the store and grumble about the cup sizes, saying something like, “I just want a large. I don’t speak Italian, or whatever that is,” implying that Starbucks’ use of a foreign language was elite West Coast snobbery (I wonder what the customer would think of this post). In the least snarky voice I could summon, I would reply, “That’s okay, we speak English here too.” (Hopefully, they detected some sarcasm, but not too much.)

The marketing/branding lesson in the story is that it takes more than just a quality product to be successful. You have to have something that resonates with your customers’ values.  

Hope for future coffee snobs

Given Dunkin’s history in the Northeast, it would be a challenge to separate New Englanders from their DD coffee, but people are building a better coffee scene in the “Hub of the Universe.”

Thanks to some enterprising Bostonians, it is possible these days to find good coffee with a little effort. One shop providing better beverages is Thinking Cup, a café across from Boston Common that serves Stumptown coffee. The shot of Hair Bender they served me was not quite what you would get from Albina Press (where I’m sitting as I write this), but it was tasty.

Other quality cafés are popping up around the Boston metro area too. Unlike five years ago, when DD or Starbucks was about all you could find (in addition to the Italian coffees in the North End), these days you can find Stumptown, Counter Culture, Intelligentsia and George Howell coffee if you know where to look. That’s a significant improvement, and I expect to see the trend continue in the future. Boston will be hosting the 2013 Specialty Coffee Association of America Event, which means that the pressure will be on for Boston cafés to show off their best stuff. Boston might not be ready to take the title of America’s Best Coffee City from Portland, but it is heading in the right direction.

Friday (the 13th) Links

The lines in your favorite cafés might be a little longer next week. Portland is gearing up for the Specialty Coffee Association of America 2012 Event (annual conference) next week.  Thousands of coffee enthusiasts are expected to attend the event, which runs concurrently with the US Barista Championship. Kelly House, from The Oregonian, has a preview.

OregonLive.com (the online partner of The Oregonian) has selected the finalists for its coffee photo contest. The winner gets a $50 Starbucks gift card. I'm rooting for the Case Study picture.

One of the stranger things I’ve seen in a while: A few cafés in Tokyo let you pet rabbits while you drink your coffee. You just can’t make these things up.

Starbucks recently announced its policy favoring “marriage equality”. In response, the National Organization for Marriage, a K-Street lobbying firm based in Washington, D.C., created a “Dump Starbucks” online petition to get people to forego Starbucks until it changes its position. The petition has about 31,000 signatures so far. That’s an average of about 2 people per Starbucks store.

It appears that SBUX customers are not going anywhere, although they might if they knew how good the coffee at their local micro-roaster can be.

The New York Times has a long article about Andrew Rugasira, founder and CEO of Good African Coffee. Rugasira wants to use trade to develop the economies of Africa instead of aid. 

Truth in advertising? In Seoul, South Korea, Dunkin’ Donuts is enhancing its radio ads on commuter buses by having an atomizer spray coffee fragrance on the bus while the spots run. I have two questions. First, is DD really doing this or is it just an internet rumor? Second, would you consider this type of advertising intrusive? I would. Then again, it might be a welcome intrusion if they were spraying something that smells like Ristretto, Sterling or Extracto.

This week, the Huffington Post readers got their chance to hear about how Portland is such a fine place to visit, sharing “10 Things We Love about Portland, Oregon” (coffee was #7). HuffPo editors managed to spell Extracto and Coava correctly, unlike Fox News a couple weeks back.

Smarter Travel, a travel blog, called Spunky Monkey one of America’s Best Coffee Shops. The café certainly has a lot of PDX character.

Seattle techies have come up with a coffee machine that takes orders by text message

More cafés should do what a café in Norwich, England did. Baristas will no longer take orders from people talking on cell phones.  If you can’t put your phone down long enough to talk to the person behind the counter, you’ve got a problem.

In a blind taste test, the Huffington Post determined that Starbucks Via Colombia was the best tasting instant coffee. If you bother to click on the link, be sure to read the comments of the people who tried the coffees, especially on the lower-rated ones.

Not-so Laconic* Links

Looking for a way to keep your coffee warm? Apple’s latest iPad will keep it warm for you (do the wonders of Apple ever cease?). Some enterprising programmer, taking advantage of the fact that the new iPad runs hotter than previous models, wrote an app to turn the tablet into the world’s most multifunctional hot plate. I bet Steve Jobs never thought of that one… [update: the sfluxe.com site seems to be down as of 3/26, so here's an alternative link.]

It was time for the Starbucks annual meeting last week, so there’s lots of news about the Big Green Apron. Starbucks announced it would be bringing some manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., opening one factory in Ohio to make coffee mugs and another in Georgia to produce instant coffee (VIA). The company continues its evolution toward becoming the next big consumer food conglomerate (a la Kraft or Yum! Brands) with its recent purchase and rollout of its Evolution Fresh juice bars. The rollout was a little rough, though, at least in the spelling department. Starbucks is also trying to get into the fast-growing energy drinks industry, selling a new line of beverages with green coffee extract in them.

In other news, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times interviews Todd Carmichael on his project to make the coffee trade in Haiti better support the farmers. As always, Carmichael calls things as he sees them.

If you’ve ever tried to like coffee but just could not do it, you can probably identify with the author of this article in the Washington Post.

Another reason for Bostonians seeking alternatives to Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks to rejoice: Counter Culture is coming to Somerville as early as this summer.

Drip coffee enthusiasts, tip your hats. In 1972, two friends came up with an idea to brew better coffee at home, creating a home brewer called Mr. Coffee. One of the friends, Samuel Glazer, died this week at 89. 

Portland’s coffee scene (and this blog!) got a mention on FoxNews.com this week. Fox must have sensed the love that the New York Times has been giving Portland lately and did not want to miss out, writing an article called “10 Reasons to fly to Portland, Oregon right now.”  The news outlet, known for its ‘fair and balanced’ coverage, did not win any points for being ‘accurate,’ however. Whether intentionally or not, the author misspelled not one, but two local roasters’ names. Perhaps some editor at Fox wanted to tweak Portland because of its left-leaning politics.  

Don’t forget to sign up for Happy Cup’s Roaster for a Day contest. You can win the opportunity to learn how to roast your own coffee, plus win 52 bags of coffee to take home. To enter, “Like” Happy Cup on Facebook or enter at the company’s website. The deadline is March 27th.

*brief, short, to the point

Can I have a tall blonde, please?


Yesterday, I went to Starbucks today to try the company’s new Veranda Blend. Starbucks calls the blend a “blonde roast,” and its marketing campaign touts the coffee’s soft flavors of cocoa and toasted nuts. Roasting the coffee lightly and preserving its subtleties would be a significant change for the company, known for its dark roasts. Perhaps they realized that the competition (small roasters) are carving out market share with their lightly-roasted coffees full of interesting and diverse flavors (Heart or Coava, for example).

When I made it to the register, I asked the barista what her impression of the new roast was. She seemed enthusiastic about it (granted, she gets paid to be enthusiastic), saying that it was a lighter than most Starbucks coffees, and it tasted  “kind of like toasted marshmallows.” She said she never drinks coffee outside of work, so she could not compare it to other roasters’ coffee.

I almost ordered a pourover (Starbucks does that now), but she was pushing the drip coffee they already had brewed. She assured me the coffee in the urn was fresh, and I figured that since most people order the already-brewed coffee when they visit the big green apron, I would be getting the experience a typical customer would.

On the right track

The Veranda Blend is distinctly lighter than a typical Starbucks dark roast. The barista was right about the toasted marshmallow aromas too. The coffee’s sweetness was the first thing I noticed, and for just a fleeting moment, a blush of fruit flavor passed over my tongue. It did not last long enough to tell what it was.

For coffee connoisseurs, the blonde roast is a step in the right direction. However, I still would not go as far as saying it has a lot of subtleties. The flavors were more like sepia tones than vibrant colors—there was no burst of crisp acidity or deep chocolate notes, for example. If you’re looking for nuances in your coffee, you have better options around PDX. As Starbucks continues to innovate, the company might someday push closer to producing the kind of coffee Portlanders expect, but for now, the local roasters still win.

Coffee Links for the Week September 26, 2011

Lots about Starbucks today…When you are the world’s biggest coffee company, you’re going to make news.

A Starbucks employee got fired recently after making a video of himself singing about his day at work. Oops. For anyone who has worked as a barista (especially for the big green apron), or any other service industry, there is enough truth in the song to be funny (warning: contains family-unfriendly language). link

Can we just go ahead and label coffee a superbeverage? A study now shows that the drink helps older female smokers avoid depression (but what about younger male non-smokers?) link

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Starbucks has released a t-shirt with a coffee-stain design that costs $85. Anyone running out to get one? link

A car running on coffee grounds recently set a speed record, reaching 77.5 mph. Looking at the pictures, is that a flux capacitor they’ve got in there? link

Coffee + hard alcohol = Four Loko for the upper class. link

National Coffee Day is coming September 29th. Krispy Kreme is giving away free coffee. link

There are some sick people out there. No question about it. I would be mad as hell if this happened to someone in my family too, and I hope that they nail the sick sonofabi--- who put the camera in a Starbucks restroom. But suing Starbucks for being negligent? That doesn’t make a lot of sense either. link