Author: Shirley & Mike Wong
“It’s a start, a work of art.”
-Public Enemy (from “Fight the Power”)
Mount Pleasant’s new Starbucks Reserve café opened a week ago. It’s unique in that it’s a project of Starbucks “firsts”. That is, it’s the first Reserve Bar in Vancouver and Western Canada – and the first and only Starbucks in Canada to have the reputable Black Eagle espresso machine.
Looking back, this used to be your regular Starbucks. Then they closed and took a sledgehammer to a wall which separated them from a grocery next door. In the same way, it seems this chain is hoping to knock down the mainstream Vancouver coffee drinker’s perception of what Starbucks is all about.
It’s a retail test of survival, opening in a neighbourhood already densely populated with independent coffee shops.
To understand the Reserve brand, it’s necessary to visit the original Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle. Although we didn’t expect it, we were won over by this massive coffee destination.
Most surprisingly, even if you’re not a big fan of Starbucks coffee, it doesn’t matter. What counts: only that you’re passionate about coffee. The Reserve Roastery shows learning about the coffee process can be educational and entertaining.
(To date, one of our all-time favourite barista experiences was at Seattle’s Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room. Check out our post here.)
Also interestingly, the Reserve brand is a completely different concept from your average Starbucks. For one, Reserve coffees are rare, small batch roasted (in Seattle) and therefore more expensive. Two, the hallmarks of the Reserve brand – personalized customer service, coffee education, upscale design – sometimes make me forget this is Starbucks altogether.
This Sunday morning, we park on Main St and East 15th Ave. From the outside, it doesn’t even look like average Starbucks. Their sign is subtle, with a font in white neon (instead of the usual bright green).
And just like Seattle’s Roastery, you push through a giant set of heavy wood double doors in a little foyer, then push through a second set of doors.
We enter a big L-shaped room. The left side is a big lounge area where the grocery store used to be. The showstopper is an art installation with their signature mermaid made of intricate thread, surrounded by a constellation of stars.
To the right, you lineup to order and get a view of the branded merchandise (coffee brewing toys plus beans). It’s a very bright room with large windows.
Early as it is (open at 6am on weekends, 5am on weekdays) on Stop 116 of our Search for Vancouver’s Best Coffee, the weekend crowd is here and it’s busy.
What really surprises us about this location? That they include merchandise from both the Reserve brand and regular Starbucks Classic brand. In the past, Seattle’s Roastery was careful to use only the Reserve brand, but here you get both.
It makes sense when you consider the Vancouver market. As a barista later explains, the average customer here asks (maybe a bit anxiously) if their favourite (non-Reserve) Starbucks Classic coffee is still sold here.
And another barista reflected that many Vancouver Starbucks drinkers may have not have even heard of Reserve coffees. So it seems the role of this location is to two-fold.
One, they welcome the typical Starbucks customer who likes their “usual” (ie. drip or espresso with non-Reserve coffee). Two, they’re nudging them to try something out of their norm (ie. pricier Reserve coffees and more expensive drinks at the slow bar).
It’s a move certain to transform the local coffee scene. Especially if Starbucks eventually expands the Reserve slow bar concept to more Vancouver locations.
We take a look at their huge chalkboard menu on the wall. When we see the calories listed per drink, there’s a subtle reminder that this is a chain.
Oddly different from other Starbucks, they list only the grande (16 ounce) price. Still, we find it hard to believe they wouldn’t accommodate other Starbucks sizes.
There’s two menus: one for Reserve coffees and the other Starbucks Classics (non-Reserve). We love how there’s a diverse range of brewing methods: espresso, drip, cold brew, pour over (Chemex or Starbucks Reserve onyx cone) and Clover. Although not officially listed on the menu, they also offer Hario siphon and French Press.
If you’re here, check out their daily fresh sheet which features a choice of three Reserve Coffees, rotated monthly. This month, it’s Rwanda Abakundakawa, Malawi Sable Farms and Peru San Ignacio.
There’s about five staff there that day: one barista and four cashiers. Mike orders a siphon ($10) and chooses Starbucks Reserve’s Malawi Sable Farms (citrus with cranberry and chocolate).
It’s breakfast but I’m going for affogato. The staffer asks if I want the Classic (unsweetened) or House Affogato (sweetened with demerara syrup and cinnamon). I opt for the Classic Affogato ($6) which is two shots of the Malawi espresso poured over vanilla ice cream by Vancouver’s Mario’s Gelati.
Another sweet option is Cold Brew Float ($7.50 – $8). For a few cents more, you can experience it with nitro brewed coffee ($8 – $9).
We also order a Bacon & Cheddar Breakfast Sandwich ($4.95) and Spinach Quiche ($6.25). Starbucks is reliable for providing sweet and savoury options, so it’s nice to see a good selection.
The staffer says we can head to the counter at the end of the room and they’ll bring our food to us. The newly expanded area is also where they have a slow brew barista bar to watch our siphon being made.
We take a seat at some bar stools in front of three siphons already on the counter. Strange to see, there’s a low protective glass installed between the customer and the siphon.
It makes us think of the corporate side of Starbucks, which might think a glass like this is necessary to prevent the curious/inexperienced from touching a hot siphon. In fact, it would be hard to find a Vancouver cafe that would think this precautionary step makes sense.
In a few minutes, a staffer delivers our warmed breakfast sandwich and quiche. We decide to start eating. They’re both both fine, but nothing outstanding. What does stand out is how they’re presented: on little wood trays with the Reserve Roastery logo and oversized brown parchment – just like in Seattle. It’s elegant and consistent branding.
After a ten minute wait with no barista appearing, we wonder if we’ve been forgotten. It looks like most of the crowd is not ordering slow brew, which is interesting despite the hype around their new bar.
Finally we’re noticed by a barista that’s been working the espresso machine. He’s friendly and asks if we’re ready for the affogato.
He comes back in a minute with a glass of vanilla ice cream and the two shots espresso poured over. It’s one of the best affogatos I’ve had. The coffee seems bitter and almost salty, which makes for a lovely contrast with the sweet ice cream.
Our barista’s name is Max. His apron identifies him as Coffee Master. He’s friendly, chatty, upbeat and well-trained in coffee – consistent with our previous barista experience in Seattle.
Also impressive, he spends about 45 minutes total in our company, not once leaving his station to do other tasks. Another barista has taken over the espresso machine duties while he serves us.
He asks us if we’ve had siphon before and we mention a favourite independent that’s popular around town. He hasn’t heard of it, but says he’ll look out for it.
The water is heating in the Hario siphon (the second out of three brewers displayed). He explains he’s waiting for the little bubbles to form and gives us an overview of the siphon process. It’s entertaining because he uses his hands to gesture and express the process. Funnily enough, that seems to be a prerequisite of Reserve baristas.
Unfortunately, in a few minutes he pulls the top off the siphon and steam is billowing out from the flame. He says it’s too hot because the last barista did not properly assemble the siphon before putting it back.
Apologetic, he quickly cleans up the mess and says he’s learned something new. He says he’ll use a different siphon and do this correctly for us.
Remarkably, for an embarrassing situation – not his fault – Max is still smiling and recovers like nothing bad happened. He asks if we’d like drinks (no charge) while we wait, which we think is great service. Mike declines an espresso and asks for water. He pulls out a bottle of sparking water and pours us each a glass.
After about ten minutes, Mike’s siphon is done. Max carefully pours the coffee from the brewer into a pretty stainless steel carafe, places it on a wooden tray with a Reserve mug and tasting card describing the coffee. Before he leaves, he shakes our hands and thanks us for our time, patience.
Mike has a taste of the coffee and says it’s good. It’s citrusy with dark chocolate – not his favourite flavour combination but he says it’s been executed well.
In conversation, Max mentioned some of his previous background. I think it was theater and lighting – which we find a charming fun fact.
He might best represent how far this project will go. And if we’re right, there’s one thing that’s certain. The show must go on, and it will.
VANCOUVER BARISTA REVIEW
Name of coffee: Starbucks Reserve’s Malawi Sable Farms
Location of roaster: Seattle, WA
Brewing method: Hario siphon
Roaster’s tasting notes: “Delicate citrus aromas with cranberry notes and creamy chocolate finish.”
Mike’s comments: Citrusy flavours with dark chocolate finish. A sweet coffee.
- Experiencing the barista theatrics of slow brew at Starbucks in Vancouver is a first.
- The Reserve brand excels at making a memorable and educational visit. They even have brewing method classes every third Tuesday of the month (7-9pm).
- Gorgeous space that’s larger than the average Starbucks. The luxe design reinforces elements of Seattle’s Reserve Roastery.
- Presentation of food and drink is done beautifully, and very different from any other Starbucks.
- Barista failure at first attempt at siphon. However kudos to how he went above and beyond to turn it into a positive visit.
- Pricing for Reserve coffee is high: our final bill was almost $30. Yet if you want to experience Starbucks of the future, we think this is the way to go and the place to visit.
Seating availability: 5/5
OVERALL RATING by VANCOUVER BARISTA: 4.75/5
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2980 Main St. (near East 14th Ave)