Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Coffee shops and cafes

Atlanta is seeing some interesting developments in the coffee shop/cafe category, perhaps in response to Starbucks' recent attempt to win back its alienated customer base by returning to its more modest roots.

The Caribou Coffee near my house recently commenced 24-hour service, becoming the first major chain to offer such a benefit (besides greasy spoons like Waffle House, which have a different clientele and atmosphere). The Caribou location has 8-10 signs proclaiming its new offering, but the company website doesn't seem to be hyping it at all. I've driven by as late as midnight, and it does seem the message has gotten out; the number of cars in the parking lot and customers on the patio rival that of the evening.

Marketing-wise, this is a great move for Caribou. It's an excellent point of differentiation from Starbucks, and a clever way to gain customer loyalty from those who appreciate the new hours. Business-wise, I'm not sure how smart it is. The cost of running the coffee shop through the night can't be insignificant, especially with energy costs rising. Most of the customers are likely to buy a cup of joe and maybe a snack, then hang out for several hours. There may be enough customers until 2am to make it worthwhile, but what about 4am? Even if there is just one employee, the store needs to be ringing up several tickets an hour to break even.

As a former resident of a college town, however, I can attest to the fact that 24-hour cafes are a valuable thing to have. It's nice to see a city like Atlanta is finally evolving to provide these safe, informal, reliable meeting places.

Caribou site

The second newish concept is called Roam, a cafe/business center hybrid located in Alpharetta. Roam positions itself as a "third place" for telecommuters and other businesspeople looking for a break from the office. It offers WiFi, conference rooms, copy and print services, as well as a full menu of fresh breakfast and lunch dishes. It's possible to rent out conference rooms or its 50-seat theatre, a cheaper and more casual alternative to holding business meetings at a hotel. Roam offers a professional environment conducive to lively interaction, in contrast to the subdued atmosphere of a Starbucks. I foresee Roam being quite successful, and I wouldn't be surprised if its owners bring the concept intown in the future.

Roam website

AccessAtlanta article

UPDATE: Caribou recently cut back to closing at 2am.

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