Intelligentsia coffee beans commonly served in Toronto indie coffeeshops

Caffeinated conspiracies and indie economics (1)

(This is the first of two posts looking at Toronto indie coffee shops. My next post will talk about the recently launched Toronto Coffee Conspiracy.)

When was the last time you applauded the opening of a new Tim Hortons or a Starbucks? Now think about your reaction anytime a new independent coffee shop opens up in your neighbourhood. Unless you live under a rock, you know that the right answer here is yes to indie and no to corporate. Lately I’ve been questioning the wisdom of some of our dearest knee-jerk reactions, one of which is the coffee culture hierarchy.

If you live in Toronto, you might have noticed more than a few indie coffee houses popping up on just about every corner. Last time I visited my hairdresser along Dundas, we counted about five just looking out the window. Toronto Life published three different round-ups in 2009 and another just a few weeks ago. By their estimate, 22 new cafes opened shop in 2009 and they’re already counting another dozen or so for this year.

Those independent businesses are one of the things I like best about this city. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about economics and eating, and how those independents fit into our food landscape. Mostly, because I’ve been thinking about local food and questions of cultural authenticity, which I talked about in a post recently. Coffee adds a layer of complexity to the issue, bringing with it questions of gentrification and elitism—largely because, unlike food, we don’t view coffee as a human right. (Yes, I know, many of you would disagree, especially on a Monday morning.) A recent discussion over on the Spacing blog about the Tim Hortons and Jet Fuel in Cabbagetown—The Changing Face of Cabbagetown—reminded me just how poorly the corporate=bad, indie=good dichotomy serves us. Because while it’s easy to compare Tim Hortons and Starbucks drinkers, tossing an indie against a Tim Hortons is far more challenging.

A lot of commenters, myself included, noted that Jet Fuel can be intimidating if you’re not in the know. When Tim Hortons opened up at the corner of Winchester and Parliament (I was living on Winchester at the time), the place filled up within days with people I’d hardly seen before in the neighbourhood. Certainly not at Jet Fuel, and not at the perpetually desolate Coffee Time across the street.

Regardless of how any individual person is treated at Jet Fuel, there’s no denying that it caters to a certain clientele, and that clientele doesn’t include an awful lot of the people who live in Cabbagetown. I find it a little odd that this article talks about what a great mix of people live in Cabbagetown and how bad gentrification is, when I’d say Jet Fuel is a prime example of exactly that. The Tim Hortons was a great addition to the neighbourhood, as evidenced by the number of people who use it—it’s almost like a community centre…I’m a big supporter of Toronto’s indie coffee shops…but you can’t deny that those shops tend to attract a certain type of customer, thanks to the prices, the vibe, etc…for a lot of people, Tim Hortons is more affordable and more welcoming.

In other words, while we’re busy applauding all the new independent coffee houses, and looking down our caffeinated noses at the lines at the corporates, we’re forgetting that the indies don’t cater to all clientele. Besides price, their hours are usually best suited to freelancers, part-timers and anyone else not tied to the 9-5 grind. If you want a coffee at 10 at night, or just an evening sitdown that’s not at the local watering hole, well, I suggest you check out that Tim Hortons on Parliament. In fact, walk into any of the coffee houses listed in the Toronto Life round-ups, and you’ll notice that the clientele is somewhat uniform. But pop into the Tim Hortons at Parliament and Winchester, and you’ll see a Muslim study group talking well into the night; or the Tim Hortons at Bathurst and Dundas, which is always packed with Asian students hitting the books. Neither group seems interested in what independent coffee houses offer. And it seems to me that if we’re going to tout the diversity of this city while also screaming against the corporates, we might want to start thinking about why people keep lining up at the Tim Hortons.

Personally, I hate the dreck at Tim Hortons, and Starbucks is tolerable mostly out of habit. So yes, I’m happy to make the effort to get my coffee at Lit, which is just down the street from me, or at the newly opened Belljar Cafe, around the corner. I’m just not convinced that the knee-jerk hostility for the corporate chains is entirely warranted. Until there’s a local independent to serve every type of clientele, the chains aren’t going anywhere and neither are their customers.

(Look for the second part of this post in a few days, about the new Toronto Coffee Conspiracy, a collection of indie coffee shops looking for your disloyalty.)

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