Notes on Caribou Coffee

Caribou Coffee (corporate headquarters in Minneapolis) about a month and a half ago opened a franchise on the corner of Packard and East Stadium, a somewhat curious place for a coffee house except for the fact that it’s a one of the busiest intersections in town and will attract, presumably, plenty of vehicular traffic. The same spot used to be an independent market that didn’t get a lot of business and had dust on the shelves. Now the building has been subdivided into the Caribou franchise, a liquor store, and a smoke shop. It’ll be interesting to see how long the Caribou survives on this corner. The other corners of the intersection are occupied by a gas station, another gas station (and Circle K), and a branch of Bank One.

Caribou has an interesting setup. Apparently, the corporate founders’ “‘aha’ moment” was achieved at the summit of Sable Mountain in Alaska, which is the first time I’ve ever heard of a spectacular mountain view being the inspiration for the founding of a coffee shop chain (“the breathtaking panoramic view became the entrepreneurial vision for Caribou Coffee”). The insides of each store are set up to resemble a mountain lodge, although the resemblance is strictly incidental in the case of this particular store, since it’s so small and cramped that it’s more like an apartment done up in corporate-lodge decor. The shop looks deceptively spacious from the outside but when you get inside you realize that most of the space is taken up by the counter and everything behind it. There are several cutsomer tables at the front of the store, smashed up as close to the windows as they’ll go. It’s hard to determine if the idea is to attract sitting customers or to-go customers; there’s not really enough room for more than a dozen sitters, but the room for people to stand in line to order and get their fare is ridiculously inadequate, and there’s lots of awkward cutting through spaces in line and bumping into people who are waiting to pick up their carry-out items.

On the plus side, although the aggressive faux-friendliness of the baristas is similar to that of Starbucks baristas (though not quite as steroidal), and the Caribou slogan is somewhat obnoxious (“Life is short — stay awake for it”), the tea is very tasty, and there’s the nice touch of the barista handing you a small cup along with your order, presumably so you can dump excess and make room for milk/cream if you wish. Not something that Starbucks ever does.