Montreal has an infection. One that is not new, but spreading ever faster. One of people seeking to overcome and dominate the city with their influence and services. No, not the mob (they haven't gone anywhere), or the Hells Angels, or anything nearly as badass. No, this open cabal is joined by their mutual love of coffee. Starbucks, everyone's favourite and friendly corporate cafe is the culprit, a mob of smiling baristas who have strong-armed the city with lattes and frappucinos.
Okay, maybe this is an over dramatic representation of Cafe Starbucks (as its known in Quebec), but no one can ignore the massive surge of Starbucks locations which have appeared in Montreal over the last couple of years, specifically in the downtown core. Montreal houses over 50 Starbucks locations throughout the city, with nearly half of that number located in the city's downtown district, and the number will rise in 2014 as 24 new locations will be opened in Quebec. Montreal, at least in certain areas, has become another city with a Starbucks on every street corner.
North of Mont-Royal and west/east of downtown, the density of Starbucks locations drops drastically. There are Starbucks shops in the upper pleateau and Mile End (Parc and Laurier) but not nearly has many. Tons of cafes still exist in areas outside of the downtown core, most being independently owned third wave coffee shops. But why has Starbucks not spread to these areas as well? Why is downtown Montreal plagued with an overabundance of Cafe Starbucks? What exactly is so appealing anyway?
MTL Needs Its Caffeine Fix
Everyone needs a cup of joe to get them going, unless you're one of those weird superhumans who doesn't drink coffee. If you're a caffeine junky, I'm sure you're jumping with jittery glee at more Starbucks in Montreal. More coffee the better right?
But are more coffee shops really needed? Lets take a look at two recently opened Starbucks locations: the Parc/Milton and the St. Cats/Lamberte-Closse locations.
Both locales are in very busy areas, especially for students. Parc/milton is known as Cafe Corner (at least by me) since it literally has 6 coffee spots in one-block radius, only two of which are not franchises. St. Cats/Lambert-Closse is right next to the Cineplex Forum, which houses an independent cafe, and there are others littered all around the Concordia area. People need coffee, but do we really need that much coffee? Shouldn't Montreal citizens be supporting local businesses?
I think what we’ve created is a sense of community that people are seeking out more than ever. Our stores are a respite between home and work; it’s highly desirable for neighbourhoods.
-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, in an interview with the Montreal Gazette (Oct. 13 2013)
The thing is, Starbucks is good at what it does. People may or may not like their drip roast, but with such a huge menu you can pretty much get anything you want, from iced drinks, to smoothies, to baked good and breakfast sandwiches. Pair that with a staff who is hired based on attitude and personality (I know firsthand, I worked at da 'bux), and it isn't surprising that Montreal, along with the rest of North America, has fallen in love with Starbucks. It just seems strange that Montreal, a city so preoccupied with preserving culture, would follow suit.
The Hip Alternative
Getting out of downtown you'll find less franchise coffee shops and more independently owned cafes. These places usually have a special roast or bean you've never heard of, artisinal baked goods and sandwiches, and a clientele who are the epitome of cool. Some of these "third wave" coffee shops don't even have regular drip coffee, forcing people to order an espresso beverage they can't pronounce or never heard of. If you're a coffee afficianado, these places are awesome, since they serve up great coffee in an interesting atmosphere. If you're a simple drip roast sipper, it can be very intimidating.
Think about it. You know nothing about coffee, except that you drink a double-double from wherever in the morning, and you're waiting in line at the trendiest place you've ever been, looking at a menu with things on it like "americano" "allonge" and "affagato" written on it in an artsy font. You get to the counter, awkwardly point at things, trying to just order a cup of coffee which doesn't seem to be on the menu. Eventually you manage to order an espresso, only to find it much too strong for your young coffee taste buds. In the end, you're embarrassed, out of your element, and wishing you just went to Starbucks and ordered a grande mild.
The Coffee Comfort Zone
And that's why I think Starbucks has done so well in Montreal, at least in the downtown area. Not everyone is a coffee aficionado. Starbucks effectively simplifies all of the coffee jargon into terms people recognize. Even if you don't understand, the staff is right there to walk you through it, garbed in welcoming green aprons. Plus, its fun for everyone, as your non-coffee friends or kids can just order a hot chocolate or frappucino. Starbucks creates a "coffee comfort zone" which makes people think they know coffee culture, at least in a Starbucks context.
There's nothing wrong with Starbucks, and people obviousley love it. What I'm advocating is for people to step out of their coffee comfort zone and support local coffee shops. They need the business a lot more than Starbucks does, and supporting local businesses keeps Montreal's unique identity intact.