A post over on bwagy‘s blog got me thinking about coffee. Ben asked why people think that Starbucks is struggling in New Zealand. he put it down to;

Star Bucks ignorance to adapt to the local market

A commenter chipped in with his vision (if seven words constitutes vision 😉 ) saying;

Could just be the Coffee is crap….

No no no.

I’ve had a slight involvement in the coffee industry for awhile now. I was one of the (admittedly minor) partners in C1 Espresso, a Christchurch cafe opened in 1996. Back then there was very little coffee culture in Christchurch and we attempted to bring the Havana vibe to the Mainland.

Since then I’ve been something of an informal adviser to one of my co-founders who went on to found C4 Coffee, arguable Christchurch’s best coffee roaster (whatever that means).

I routinely have the argument regarding the ability or otherwise of the New Zealand consumer to really differentiate between a good coffee and a crap one.

My viewpoint is thus – Starbucks is suffering in New Zealand almost entirely because of a perceived lack of quality. Their funky menu (mint soy caramel frappe anyone?), their cookie cutter store layout and their obvious American franchise all result in a perception that their coffee is crap.

How many times have we heard people say they wouldn’t drink at Starbucks because the coffee tastes like s&$t? The fact is that I contend that the vast majority of New Zealand coffee drinkers, when faced with a blind tasting, would not be able to differentiate a starbucks ristretto from a ristretto drawn from “quality” beans by a quality barista on a well maintained machine.

It all comes down to brand – exclusivity, the ellusive “cool” factor, some edgy tunes and a generally rude and dreadlocked barista all give the customer a perception of quality.

I’m guilty as well – I’ve been into provincial towns in New Zealand, walked into a “coffee shop” seen a coffee machine in between the 4litre packs of oil and the sunscreen and run a mile – but that dash was purely based on perception – not on any actuality.

Right – ready for a lashing from the coffee geeks. Anyone keen to arrange a double blind coffee test?

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

16 Comments
  • I would agree, the definition of a good coffee does vary and of course it all comes down to the barista making the coffee. I have found that I tend to like the Dunkin Donuts coffee seems to be better. Be keen to try some blind tastes sometime.

  • Dude, ambience CAN be everything. Sometimes (like when your 3 year old screams all nite) dark water loaded with caffiene would do.

    But for the most part, I drink it for the taste, almost every morning i walk past the closest cafe, navigate one of aklds busiest roads just to drink their coffee cos its better…

    There is no SB in Italy (well wasn’t when i was there). Coffee not good enough

  • Actually more on this. ALL the best coffee houses I visit are owner operated… People who Care about what they pour, the beans, the whole experience

    If you got pimply minimum wage workers doing your brew, you get what you get

  • Canadian innovation expert Ed Bernacki recently suggested that a strength for New Zealand business innovation was our resistance to homogenised customer experiences. Like him, I love that almost every small town in NZ now has a funky independent cafe nestled away somewhere:

    http://www.nzte.govt.nz/common/files/br29-p41.pdf

  • I completely agree with you Ben – quality perception in coffee is not enhanced by a cookie cutter environment.

    Thought I would add my piece as well, which discusses other possible elements of the mediocre performance of Starbucks in New Zealand.

    http://www.pocketsmith.com/blog/2008/12/02/my-take-on-starbucks-struggle-in-new-zealand/

    I feel like dragging out some brand aversion academic papers now…

  • While Starbucks coffee beans may taste fine, it all goes pear-shaped when they add milk to make a cappucino, latte, macchiato or mocha. So maybe it is in fact the milk (or the technique used to heat it?) that is so wrong, because the whole concoction ends up tasting like a watered down cup of dishwater. I guess that’s why they offer so many flavoured coffees..

    I do dig their fruity frappes though.

  • Ben, at the heart I think you’re right. I couldn’t tell a good coffee or a good merlot from another more mediocre one; most of the time.

    But drinking coffee has such an appeal to it and some of it’s not in the cup. I don’t know whether this explains anything but… The coffee cart in Cathedral Square serves one of the best coffees in Christchurch. I put that down to the love that he puts into each cup. Coffee Culture pre-franchise used to be an awesome coffee too [but no longer such a sure-fire hit], C4 under your place was fabulous the day you bought it, the following week it missed that pinnacle somehow. I used to use a Café I’d done the branding for, they were awesome. They used Laffare beans! I figure I loved the way I never had to order and they knew my name. Illy at Little River also used to be awesome, but that got spoiled with new owners and a wife that had left.
    This rambling only seems to concrete the idea for me that it’s not about how recently the grind was done or the other coffee snobbery that goes on, but about the relationship that you -|- barista -|- the machine -|- and the coffee have with each other.

  • The coffee tastes bad, the chairs are uncomfortable, the snacks are outrageously priced and it’s all too American.
    That’s what I though when I lived in the USA, and I have had the same experience here. The issue is that here there are plenty of better alternatives.

    Starbucks was responsible for bringing expressos and cappuccinos to the USA, so we should not knock them too much.

    I happen to feel that they over cook (burn) their coffee so that it needs milk or milk-like products to counter the bitterness. This means they sell more of the much more profitable drinks with loads of milk than expressos and americanos.
    These days it is all just too expensive in what has finally been confirmed as a USA recession. Stsarbucks has closed/is closing stores all over the world as a result of soft demand.

  • My personal problem with shops like starbucks is the Americanization of bigger is better, not only do you get asked “what size would you like your flat white sir” but the smallest size often leaves the coffee drowning into insignificance from the milk. This said it’s very easy to hide poorly extracted coffee with a large quantity of milk so maybe its not just the American ethos. The type of coffee generally defines the cup it is to be served in but the mythology flies right out the window at starbucks and similar cafes. I was in at esquires the other day (solely for the free internet) and the smallest cup they could serve me was at least 300ml.

    I’ll agree with Adrian that coffee culture use to be great, they still have the culture but no longer serve decent coffee. They are obviously doing something right though as you can glance in their riccarton cafe and see ten people for every one at starbucks across the road.

  • Great article – spot on. Here in Hong Kong the only coffee you can get is Pacific Coffee Co. or Starbucks (where I was offered Xmas coffee today) – I miss Melbourne, Australia.

  • I wonder if they gave out free wifi for an hour with every coffe like esquires do, they would find their sales going through the roof? Especially in a country like nz packed with tourists.

  • Coffee is so 90s……..try some real hot chocolate at Xocolatl in Fendalton Road.

    I’m hooked.

  • Falafulu Fisi |

    Ben said…
    It all comes down to brand – exclusivity, the ellusive “cool” factor…

    I agree with your point Ben. It is brand and perception.

  • Its not all about brand and local mentality plays a major role in the company’s success… espeically in the food business.

    Take Starbucks in Israel for example. We Israelis like our coffee STRONG. As middle-easterners we also had a coffee drinking culture before Startbucks arrived.
    Instead of fitting in to the existing culture it kept making weak coffee… the kind Americans like…
    (Startbucks makes 2/3 milk, 1/3 espresso… we like 2/3 espresso, 1/3 milk. In fact, the only time I got a real good cup of coffee when I was in the states was when the waitress apologized for making it “too dry”)

    McDonalds, on the other hand, quickly adapted to the local mentality and replaced the tiny samples they called burgers with big ones… we like meat 🙂

  • Nice post, keep up the good work!

  • McDonald’s mocha coffee is actually not half-bad. Well, for McDonald’s, anyway…

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