Thursday, February 07, 2008

Coffee Plantation

Before there was Starbucks in Phoenix, Arizona, there was Coffee Plantation. I met an elderly medico, Dr. Joe Kennedy of the VA, in the chain’s Biltmore Fashion Park store on East Camelback Road. “You used to come in, it would be crowded, and you’d hear every language on the planet!”

It’s still popular but to a visitor, it has the feel on an also-ran – Starbucks in the measuring stick now, the brand to which other coffee chains are compared. The fact of the matter is, Barbara and I were in Phoenix for family business, weren’t really out to enjoy ourselves – and could hardly find a good cup of coffee. (We stayed in the McDowell & 32nd Street area…not much around there.) First, anybody who thinks Dunkin’ Donuts is a challenge for Starbucks needs to drop into one or two of the DDs in Phoenix: Yuck. Second, even McDonalds coffee didn’t seem to have a good taste.

Yes – I’m a coffee snob. Then somebody told me about Coffee Plantation and I thought riding the brand would be worthwhile. I ought to be clear: the cup of “Ethiopian” coffee I had at Coffee Plantation was as good, as fresh and powerful as any African I’ve had. Thanks for that.

On the other hand, this isn’t a chain that goes (or has gone) out of its way to make itself more competitive, at least not based on my single visit. Because of the ubiquitous nature of Starbucks trade dress, this Coffee Plantation store looks similar, but a bit bigger. It offers a couple of computers and plenty of seating. There are fresh pastries available.

But there’s a real sense of has-been to the Coffee Plantation store. (As far as I can tell, the chain was once owned by Diedrich Coffee, but no longer – perhaps some managers bought it out?) No billboards I could find. No strong brand merchandizing, no back-story material. None of the customer involvement devices for which Starbucks is famous. Presuming I’ve even got the right website, Coffee Plantation is stuck in the last century electronically. There’s worse, and I’m not alone in perceiving it.

Take a look at the store reviews on Scottsdale’s Christy L noted, “As I approached the counter the employees were bent over by the milk cooler, so engrossed in a conversation that they failed to notice my presence.” Thomas S of Phoenix chimed in, “Just because you have the word Plantation, implying old Southern American charm, in your name doesn't mean you can’t provide modern services like clean restrooms? Perhaps you could sweep the floor. And wipe down the counter. Oh, I know, maybe the pigeon poo could be scraped off the tables.”

The feeling of the store is cheap goods and cheap labor– the polar opposite of bustling, smiling Starbucks baristas. And yes again, this is based on a single visit.

Bad service drives out good customers. No matter how popular the chain was once upon a time, it seems as though Phoenix’s Coffee Plantation brand could use a double shot of espresso right about now.

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