Starbucks Better Be Asking: “What’s That Smell??”

[Cache – #97]

Coming soon:  Best and Worst Brand Names of 2012


There has long been an opportunity for someone to challenge Starbucks in Canada. Those who know me know that I ought to know – that’s how dedicated a Starbucks’ customer I’ve been.  So I’m aware as anyone of the brand’s shortcomings:  dirty stores, inconsistent espresso drinks – and now, I realize, truly substandard food, and espresso that doesn’t taste that great after all.

My epiphany arrived on the premises of Aroma, an international chain of high-end cafes with 13 stores in the Greater Toronto Area, six in the U.S. and a total of 150 around the world.  In one of their downtown Toronto locations, their lines are noticeably longer than at Starbucks.  With good reason:  their espresso is vastly more flavourful than Starbucks, long the gold standard for mass-available bold coffee in North America.  In a beautifully-simple touch that catalyzes word-of-mouth, they include a small piece of dark chocolate with every java.
aroma coffee and sandwich
And then there is Aroma’s food, anchored by absolutely spectacular-tasting and -looking sandwiches.  As a testament, Aroma also runs a catering business, and I suspect they will do extremely well.  You see, Aroma has full kitchens in their cafes.  They make their sandwiches, breakfast and lunch fare fresh-to-order, whereas all of Starbucks’ food arrives chilled and plastic-wrapped each day – a universe away from Aroma’s sensationally fluffy fresh bread.

starbucks sandwiches 2
Aroma is not trying to challenge Starbucks on the quality of its people.  While there’s always a few Starbucks staff who got up on the wrong side of the bed, overall they are by far the most cheery and service-aware people in the cafe and quick service food industry.  In contrast, Aroma’s people are not exactly getting by on charm – they are quiet and do not engage with customers.  They merely manage to meet the Canadian service standard of manifest disinterest.

So the Aroma brand is mostly about product, and the Starbucks brand is mostly about people.  Solely on the basis of these relative positionings – keeping in mind that there are many other factors that determine business success or failure – Aroma has a real shot at being a real pest.

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