Loyalty card for Toronto Coffee Conspiracy

Caffeinated conspiracies and indie economics (2)

(This is the second of my posts on independent coffee shops and socioeconomics. The first looked more specifically at the microcosm of Cabbagetown coffee culture.)

Like the Tim Hortons and Jetfuel debate in Cabbagetown, the newly formed Toronto Coffee Conspiracy (TCC), is equally applause-worthy and depressingly elitist. In an effort to encourage people to support their local independents, seven cafes have gotten together to form the TCC and encourage customer disloyalty through a unique twist on the old coffee reward card. Instead of getting stamped at the same coffee shop, you get a stamp at each of seven different cafes around town. It’s more like a passport, really. Once you’ve collected all your stamps, you get a free coffee back at your original locale. It’s a great idea and a recognition among seeming competitors that a little competition is a good thing, and so too is a little cooperation. The card is cleverly dubbed the disloyalty card, with a cheeky tagline that reads “Sure. Go behind our backs” and an invitation to tour Toronto’s coffee scene.

The media response so far has been uniformly positive, with most outlets playing off the various conspiracy angles. Criticism is almost non-existent, apart from a brief mention by the Toronto Star‘s Jennifer Bain who notes that “Since news of the initiative broke, there has been unexpected backlash at the whiff of exclusivity.” The answer? Quoth Geoff Polci, owner of Crema Coffee, “You don’t want to exclude people … but you want to maintain some integrity.” But no one is asking where that line falls between excluding and integrity. That Bain seems surprised by the “unexpected” backlash is actually the surprising part. Canada is not, on the whole, comfortable with anything but the average, the middle ground. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating—just look at the people we put in power.

I think the TCC is a fantastic idea, and I’m actually surprised that more coffee shops didn’t join in, considering how many there are now in the city. I just wish there had been more critical discussion, especially about the upward mobility of caffeinated beverages with indie cred. Why are our only choices as stark as Tim Hortons et al or Manic Coffee?

And is the TCC really going to have an impact on who drinks coffee and where? I just can’t shake the feeling that they’re just preaching to the converted.

While I was trying to pinpoint what exactly bothers me about the TCC, I came across an essay in The Edible City, “Viva la (coffee) revolucion!” by Liz Clayton, which takes on the independent coffee scene in the city. Clayton gives an astute breakdown of the multiple meanings of Tim Hortons; unfortunately, she’s a little too enthused about the potential of the indie cafe to bring together a cross-section of Toronto. Until I see a swath of construction workers choosing the indie over the chain, or a group of new immigrants meeting to discuss their new lives, I don’t buy the argument.

If Timmy’s is the national emblem, is upgrading to a venti rejecting the country itself? …what does it mean to formally turn one’s back on the homegrown coffee of the working class—even if it’s now owned by Wendy’s? –Liz Clayton

Of course, the flip side here is that once you’ve established your indie cred, you’re obligated to maintain it and stay small and quaint. Remind people that you’re a business, and you open yourself to accusations of selling out. This type of thinking though, does nothing to move us out of the Timmy’s vs. the indies stand-off. It’s hard to imagine a mid-size coffee shop, with perhaps a dozen locations around the city and a cheaper, more basic brew, successfully managing to steal away the Tim Hortons Loyalists while maintaining a sense of independent respectability. It’s something I would love to see in this city—a sign that we’ve finally matured beyond simplistic dichotomies.

Perhaps the explosion of independent cafes and initiatives like the Toronto Coffee Conspiracy will help propel us towards some happy middle ground, a balance between the fierceness required of the independent movement and just a regular cuppa of the sort Tim Hortons serves. But until then, double standard with your double latte?

As for the TCC, who are these hyper-caffeinated renegades? Get your disloyalty on at the locales below. I’ll probably see you there.

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