The caffeine scene

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May 26, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Tim Sturrock
Tim Sturrock

How so many coffee places exist side-by-side in the skyways

Standing in the skyway between One Financial Plaza and Rand Tower there\'s a choice. Turn north and get a mocha, latte, espresso, etc., at the Starbucks with its dark earth tones. Or turn south and 20 feet away get the same thing at the Caribou Coffee with its light earth tones.

Five days a week, people decide all over the skyways among coffee shops that have the same products and a similar look - with the bare wood, earth tones, and the long, sometimes winding, counter.

Nearly all the office buildings in the skyway system have a specialty coffee shop; Caribou Coffee and Starbucks have a combined 13.

The skyways are unique, offering coffee drinkers numerous choices at close quarters, all accessible without leaving the climate control of an office building. And although coffee shops spend a lot of time and energy getting their shops just right, sometimes what brings in business has more to do with a customer\'s own convenience, politics, idiosyncrasies and indifferences.

Bye-bye bagels, hello frappuchino

Ten years ago, these skyways were filled with yogurt and bagel shops, said Kim Gritmacher, who has owned restaurants in the skyway system for more than 20 years. But as fancy coffee\'s popularity grew, so did its purveyors. \"Starbucks did everybody a big favor by coming into the market,\" said Gritmacher. \"Everybody\'s coffee sales increased.\"

That explains how several dozen coffee shops crowd the skyways, offering barely varying specialty brews amid the barely varying wood grain.

Gritmacher is an example of a local who has changed with the times. The owner of Park Caf (cafeteria-style eateries) opened his own coffee shops to compete for a sip of the specialty coffee business. His two Park Javas - in the Government Center, 300 S. 6th St., and 5th Street Tower, 150 S. 5th St. - have the same products, similar aesthetic, with the print lettering, and wood grain as other shops.

Gritmacher said the only limit to saturation might be the exclusivity clauses some coffee shops have to keep competitors from opening in the same building - he\'d like to open more but has to wait for a new building to go up or someone\'s shop to go out of business.

The big chains can elbow the little people out. Dan Lechter, director of operations for Grandma Gebhards, the company that owns Limit Up Coffee Exchange, said one Limit Up Coffee Exchange that offered specialty coffee closed because of competition. (Others have closed for different reasons, he said without specifying.) When Limit Up\'s lease ended in The Pillsbury Center, South 6th Street and 3rd Avenue, its owners chose Caribou to take over the space. A Steep & Brew suffered the same fate at about the same time.

Gritmacher said Limit Up couldn\'t compete, partially because of a lack of seating that other shops offer. That\'s why some independents survive by imitating chains.

Lee Hall, the owner of Passport Coffee in the Northstar Center, 625 Marquette Ave S., is surrounded by four buildings - all with Caribou Coffees. But he has a strategy. He said he chose his business\'s name because it sounds like a chain\'s name. He tried to copy the corporate look of a coffee shop, with bare wood and a printed menu board. \"The look has to be professional and corporate, but on the other hand, people come here because it\'s an independent, and the owner works here. It\'s more personal.\"

Hall wants to start a chain, not of Caribou or Starbucks proportion, but a few stores. It\'ll lower overhead and increase his profit margin, the way it has for the chains, he said.

He insists the market is not saturated. If it were, he said, only the chains would have the profit margin and capital to exist. Hall said he thinks his shop will survive by using its niche among people who don\'t like chains.

From basic to strange

Amid products that are increasingly interchangeable, feelings play a potent role in consumer choice, at least according to random interviews. Reasons can range from basic to strange.

As Larry Tholkes walked briskly to a meeting from the Rand Tower Caribou, he said he didn\'t think there was any difference in coffee between Caribou and Starbucks. He said he goes to Caribou because there\'s one close to his house and he\'s familiar with it. But he said he likes Caribou\'s workers, and not Starbucks\' workers, who seem like typical coffee- house people - not necessarily pretentious, just bored.

Charlie Mahar doesn\'t go to Starbucks either, because he\'s a Timberwolves fanatic and Starbucks\' owner, Howard Schultz, is also part owner of the Seattle Supersonics. \"I feel like it\'d be helping the bad guys.\"

Pat Gibbons said this year\'s Timberwolves didn\'t have to worry about the Sonics; he goes wherever there\'s the shortest line.

Pat Strong walked past a Caribou to get to the Starbucks in the IDS Crystal Court, 80 S. 8th St. He likes the Starbucks caramel sauce and the darker flavor of coffee. But he\'s not sure he\'d be able to tell the difference in a double-blind test. He also enjoys the long walk before work.

Sipping a mocha from Caf Patteen in the Kinnard Financial building, 920 2nd Ave. S., Eric Buschner said when he opens his coffee shop, it\'ll look like a cross between a Starbucks and a Dunn Bros. \"There have been a lot of different coffee shops that have tried to do different things and haven\'t been as lucrative.\"

Buschner said he wants uniqueness, maybe having a ventilated room for smokers, and neon signs, he said.

Doug Bergert went to Patteen, too. He avoids chains because \"it makes it hard for places like this to exist,\" he said.

Still, Bergert acknowledges the similarities between the little and big coffee vendors: \"Everybody wants to be successful, if you want to be successful copy (the successful).\"