Friday, May 23, 2008

Three-Buck Chuck

I know it's heresy, but I really dislike Trader Joe's. One of Stella customers dispelled the rumor that one is coming to the new building on Granville and Broadway, and I'm not the least bit disappointed.

If I did like that place, or at least emulated its ways, Stella would have a different business model. Our lattes would cost a buck fifty, but there would be no need to spring for the fancy beans, the fancy machine, or all that costly barista training. We would offer bona fide, albeit low-quality versions of stuff that appeals to today's young sophisticates.

Of course, this business model works remarkably well for Trader Joe's. The little plaza it shares with CB2 is forever abuzz with Volkswagens and Subarus. CB2 must be ecstatic about the spillover business.

The business model works best of all, it seems, for three-buck Chuck, also known as Charles Shaw Shiraz, which retails there for $2.99. Apropos, did you know they call it two-buck Chuck in California? Some crazy shit, that.

As you walk into the store, you see boxes of the Chuck stacked high against a wall. You will also see those Jetta/Outback drivers loading up on the Chuck. The Outback people even have the foresight to get entire boxes. The Chuck is used for dinner, entertaining, bringing the requisite bottle of wine to a party, the works. Where once guests shot inquisitive looks at the pretty labels, wondering how much the bottle cost, today certainty rules. How lovely and strange, no? Well, it's not that lovely, and it's surely not strange. Moreover, the same will happen to coffee soon.

The other day I read a feature on CNN Money about Fred Franzia, or Mr. Three-Buck Chuck. He is not to be confused with Mr. Wine-in-a-Box. That's a cousin of his. Anyway, Mr. Three-Buck-Chuck is an extremely successful businessman who espouses a philosophy, and he'll explain it to anyone who'll listen, especially if it will end up in print. His claim is that only an idiot would pay more than $10 for a bottle of wine, and he wants to convert the world to that point of view. Of course, it's all a bunch of bullshit and he knows it. A sixty-dollar bottle can blow you away. Even a twenty-five dollar one can, if you are know how to pick'em.

The whole thing is just an act he puts on, a persona that he uses to market his product. Still, in the process he is, in fact, fighting pretentiousness. He sells a bona fide, although low quality, cab that is priced as low as it can go. Its popularity makes it impossible for anyone to charge ten bucks for a bottle of crappy wine.

Today you can find a variety of wines between $4 and $20 in your neighborhood liquor store. They all taste about the same - sour and, well, cheap. But, if you were to opt for Whole Foods instead, the stuff there is quite good. This is mostly because Whole Foods is Trader Joe's closest competitor, especially in the crunchy demographic. Surely, you can't very well sell swill for $10 if the other guy charges $2.99.

The neighborhood guys are catching up. The Korean dude underneath the Sheridan El is the biggest one in my hood, and he's improved his selection a lot in the last year or two. Once the wine market truly matures here in the United States, we will have carton wine on supermarket shelves. Check out exhibit A, from the Wine90 blog.

Note the price. Cheap, yes? No one brings that stuff to parties, because they can pick up something nice for 8 euros. We can't, because most of us still can't tell the difference. We are getting there, though.

Now, the coffee market is a different story. Here in the Chicago area, there are only a few shops that control the quality of their espresso. There are hundreds that don't, including Starbucks, but they all charge the same for a latte, and get away with it. Dunkin Donuts is the one trying to undersell everyone, but apparently their war is not a holy one - they only knock off about 10%.

One day, someone will force most of these places to lower prices or raise quality. Of course, we here at Stella Espresso are not afraid, because we - brace for a shameless plug right here - we chose to start with quality. Actually, the Three-Buck-Chuck of latte would do us a favor - eliminate most of the competition in one fell swoop. Bring it on.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Dispatch from Paris

Welcome back to Coffee Talk. After a bit of a hiatus, we're back to talk about coffee, New York, daughters, dogs. No big whoop. Stop me if you're too young to get this.

Well, Maya and I crossed the pond for the first time in 9 years. I am ecstatic to report that Paris has not changed a bit. I had my doubts, at first. The view from our hotel in Bagnolet, a few hundred feet outside the city limits, was a dead ringer for New Jersey, complete with the turnpike.

But, cross the turnpike, and suddenly, you are in Paris. It's the outskirts, so the men at the bistro bar will be Africans in tracksuits and the Vietnamese owner will speak some of the funniest French you'll ever hear. Still, all the accouterments of bistro culture are as present as they are on the Champs-Elysees.

Just like in the posh 8th arrondissement, the uniformed waiter will approach you right away, take your order, and if coffee is what you want, he will be back within a minute with two tiny cups on a tiny tray. Just like anywhere in Paris, he will deftly slide them off the tray one-handed, with a flourish, and add a few paper-wrapped sugar-cubes. And just like anywhere in Paris, the coffee will taste like shit. Sandy, bitter and vile, it'll deliver a good jolt of caffeine and a long-lasting aftertaste that will linger until you capitulate and smoke a cigarette, even though you quit years ago.

No one knows why coffee in Paris is as bad as it is. Most blame the 'zinc Mafia' - a clan of migrants from Auvergne that reportedly have a stranglehold on bean distribution. If you dare serve single-origin coffee, the Auvergnois will kneecap your mom. I don't buy it. I mean, is it so hard to imagine a city, or even a whole country that consumes huge amounts of really disgusting coffee?

When you pick up a 32-ouncer of hot swill at a gas station outside Wichita, you don't have the same expectations as when you are served a demitasse on the Rue Rivoli. In reality, though, the two situations are identical. They are both about ritual and caffeine, and neither is about coffee.

At the end, the whole thing just serves to underline the differences between the two cultures. Americans like things big. The French like them pretty. Both borrow, rather unsuccessfully, from the Italians, to make the experience of feeding their addictions more palatable.

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