Friday, May 14, 2010

Guest Judgment: Starbucks v. Caribou

A guest judge, Doug Ullman, has written the following post:

If you live in America, you know Starbucks.  Check that.  If you’re a living, breathing animal—mammal, reptile or (especially) nocturnal bird—you know Starbucks.  This ubiquitous café chain has brought its peculiar brand of designer coffee to the masses; and regardless of how you feel about Starbucks coffee, convenience often commands that you drink it.

As a recovering New Yorker, I am more than accustomed to finding little corporate coffee havens on every corner, often relying on them to slake a summer thirst or prevent hunger with their frequently pathetic baked goods.  Not being a huge coffee drinker, I have two staple orders: hot chocolate for those frosty wind-swept nights, and the ever-popular Mocha Frappuccino during the warmer months.  Thus Starbucks’ diverse drink offerings kept me in their custom for nearly ten years of city dwelling, including four years of college, and despite my invective about corporate coffee, I was pretty much hooked.  Well, as much you can be when your drinks are designed for children and high school girls.

Starbucks, like any good American food chain, has its imitators and competitors, each trying to bite off a portion of the designer drink pie and each achieving varying degrees of success.  But in the nation’s capital, a modest entity threatens to usurp Starbucks place as America’s premier corner café.

The place is Caribou Coffee, an Alaskan themed chain of coffee shops that have nearly the same look and feel as Starbucks, minus the pretension.  Indeed, the decided frontier feel of Caribou seems to provide an openness and calm, despite their often crowded urban settings.  So while you can also bring your laptop or a book to Starbucks and camp out for hours, at Caribou you can do the same without fear of being inadvertently included in the loud conversations of the faux intellectuals and hipsters that typically haunt the joint.  It’s just not that kind of place.  On top of that, Caribou is purportedly more eco-friendly than its Seattle-based forerunner.  If you care about that sort of thing.

Ambience: judged as low-key and cool.

But where Caribou truly succeeds is the way in which their menu seems to outclass Starbucks’ in every category.  Though Starbucks may have coined the term Frappuccino, Caribou’s Coolers have made the blended frozen drink an art form.  And though I have often braved the crowded lines of Starbucks for the warmth of a hot chocolate, I can promise you that as long as I’m in DC, Caribou is where I’m going for my three dollar Swiss Miss.

The secret to Caribou’s coffee coup lies in the way in which one can customize their order.  In other coffee shops, the hot cocoa drinker is entirely at the will of the distributer.  The specific chocolate flavor of hot chocolate is not often something considered.  Thus, the darkness or sweetness of your liquid choclification is largely out of your control.  Not so at Caribou.  Here, customers can choose milk, dark or white chocolate flavors provided by mini chocolate chips that are melted into the steaming milk.  The result is an out of this world blend that puts mom’s snow day recipe to shame.  A similar process is applied to their frozen-blended drinks, which also have low-fat offerings for the calorie conscious.

Choosing your own flavor of chocolate: judged as genius. 

And if that wasn’t enough, Caribou recently released a new line of low-fat breakfast sandwiches that blow Starbucks’ feeble attempt at the Egg McMuffin out of the water.  On my favorite, hearty turkey sausage is placed on a genuine buttermilk biscuit with scrambled eggs.  Judged as awesome.  Two of these minis go for just $3.50.  If you must eat a pre-fab breakfast sandwich, do it at Caribou.  Check that.  If you need go to a corporate coffee joint, make it a Caribou.

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