Cafes of B.C.

altBelieve it or not, living in one of the prettiest towns in North America as well as having one of the densest concentrations of gourmet coffee shops, does have its downside. Perhaps more famous for its "little bit of Old England" character, Victoria does have an impressive collection of unique coffee and tea shops as well as a higher than average choice of bricks and mortar coffee roasters. I know what you are thinking: "Colin, dude.. I live in Iowa (or Alberta) and fresh roasted coffee.. well it doesn't exactly grow on trees around here." True enough. The streets of Victoria are not really lined with whole-bean coffee. That would be Seattle. Victoria is the kind of town where you can stagger from one mediocre coffee experience to another, all day long and well into the night and not actually ever cross your own path twice. That said, there can be some fabulous experiences at some of the dodgy places, some consistent experiences are certain cafes and some espresso so awful that you might just swear off coffee forever. So, what is the secret? How can one find a good cup or a consistent cup in this town, or your town, or any town for that matter? Additionally, what are the mechanisms that contribute to a good or consistent coffee experience?

Victoria has three cafe models to draw from; Chains, independent franchises and unique coffee houses. What I have discovered in about 25 years of observing the evolution of the coffee house, in this city, is that chains, like Starbucks seem to be able to deliver product, of a certain quality day in and day out year after year. It is a pretty safe bet that when you walk into a Starbucks, and there are about 25 of them in the region, that you are going to have an experience that is virtually indistinguishable from any other Starbucks experience anywhere. Yes, they follow the fast-food model perfected by none other than McDonalds. Where ever you are on the Planet, a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac. In that wise, a Starbucks cappuccino tastes the same everywhere.

The second cafe model is the independent franchise. Certainly not unique to Victoria, the franchise has its own set of challenges... especially for the consumer. In this model, anyone can get in on the cafe culture phenomenon by shelling out the franchise fee and opening their own pre-branded cafe. Depending on the franchise agreement, they are free to locate where ever they want, decorate how ever they want, hire the most inexperienced people they want and serve coffee in whatever form they want. Obviously a bunch of conditions may apply. What I have seen, more often than not in Victoria, are people eager to cash in on the coffee craze and they haven't a clue about great coffee or espresso based beverages. I have actually been in two privately run cafes when prospective coffee house franchisee's (the same people actually) came in to ask about the differences between cappuccino and latte! Other than the sense that it was a great way to make lots of money these people could not tell the difference between a coffee bean and a lima bean.

Call me crazy folks, but there IS a zen to gourmet coffee. More on that later. Back to the independent franchise operations... There are places in B.C. that sell fabulously fresh fairly traded organic coffee. Generally, I love the coffee as purchased as whole bean! I would not actually order a coffee or espresso at any of these places because they are just so hit and miss. These cafes are part of a growing 'chain' of independently owned and operated coffee houses operated under a pre-branded moniker, kind of like Starbucks except that these places have way more free hand as far as decor and staffing is concerned. They are springing up like so many weeds in a rose garden. Now don't get me wrong people! It is possible to have a great experience at one of these places. I have not managed to achieve this with any consistency. An example: I walk into one of the locations to buy some whole bean coffee. I am greeted by an employee with a completely blank expression. No 'hello, may I help you' or 'good evening, what can I get for you?'... a blank bored expression. I make my order. They don't listen. They ask me to repeat myself. Soon some of their friends come into the Cafe. Now they are interested. While I am trying to communicate my wishes to the disinterested person behind the counter, they are now fully engaged in an animated conversation with their teenage peers lounging at several tables in the Cafe. What is wrong with this picture? Scenario number two: While waiting for my whole bean coffee, two regulars come into the cafe. They make a note of who is working the espresso machine. One says to the other, "XXX is not working tonight and YYY does NOT know how to make an Americano to save their lives.." Folks, I hear this over and over and over and over and over. This is a problem with virtually every cafe except for remotely controlled cafes like Starbucks. Why? This is what I see throughout Western Canada, in Alberta and virtually everywhere across Canada.

Colin Newell lives and works on Vancouver Island. He enjoys coffee as much as the next person but chooses to write about it.