amw (amw) wrote,

Let's talk coffee.

I have a whole list of journal topics i would like to get around to at some point - mostly observations on my life here in China - but with work and everything i find i never get around to posting them.

Here's a great quote from a recent email from my now re-retired mother that shows me the apple did not fall far from the tree:

I now realise how caught up I had become (again…) in the workplace. There are multiple things I pushed to the side and didn’t pursue – even where it would have been in my own interests to do so. For instance, I have now spent time researching energy plans and medical insurance plans – and negotiated better deals with my providers. I could (should…) have done that ages ago but told myself I didn’t have the time/patience to look into it.

She goes on to list a bunch of other things she has neglected. I am exactly the same.

One thing i do not neglect is my daily coffee. kishenehn just posted a short bit about making coffee up on a fire lookout in Big Sky Country and it got me thinking i should write that coffee entry.

So, the coffee thing. China. They don't fucking drink coffee here.

That needs some explanation, since i am sure all of you read the news last week that Starbucks is teaming up with Alibaba to expand their operations here.

China is Starbucks' second biggest market. But it's Starbucks' second biggest market because China has got lots and lots of people, not because Chinese particularly like to drink coffee. Fortunately the strategy of Starbucks is to rebrand "coffee" as "a hot milkshake that comes in many different flavors, sometimes including coffee".

Even still, it's a tough hill to climb. I saw a crazy statistic the other day saying the average person in China drinks something like 6 cups of coffee... per year. Hell, i get through that many by Tuesday lunchtime.

I fucking love coffee. Let's not get it twisted. I am only semi-serious about being an alcoholic, but i am definitely a caffeine addict. If i don't get my first cup on time i am incredibly cranky. I drink three or four cups a day. I get headaches without.

The reason Starbucks is running scared at the moment is because this year's latest buzzy Chinese unicorn is Luckin Coffee. Starbucks had a stranglehold on the coffee market here through uncompetitive practices like writing into their rental contracts that the entire property was not allowed any other coffee vendors apart from Starbucks. Luckin works around that by setting up in unusual locations. They have tailored their strategy 100% toward yuppies. You can't pay cash for a coffee. You can't even order it at the counter. You need to book in advance through their app and then it will either be delivered to your office or you can pick it up from a hole in the wall.

For this reason, i am not a fan of Luckin Coffee. I do like to sit down for that first cup.

On the other hand, i am also not a fan of Starbucks. A black coffee from Starbucks is about 25 kuai. At the current exchange rate, that's around US$4 or 3€. Now, ignoring the fact that in China 3€ pays for two dishes from a back alley greasy spoon, that price is insane even by western standards. Who the fuck pays 3€ for a coffee? Oh, wait. People who go to Starbucks, that's who.

I remember when Starbucks first entered the Australian market in the mid-2000s. They faced another uphill battle because Australia has one of the best coffee cultures in the world. The Italians and Greeks made sure that literally every dive bar and fast food joint in the country sells top-notch espresso for a couple of bucks.

But marketing prevailed and now Starbucks is big in Australia. People learned to pay more.

When i left Australia i moved to Canada. And Canada, despite being right next door to America, has a very different coffee culture to America. Canada's most famous fast food joint is Tim Hortons, which is a thunderingly mediocre donut and coffee shop. They don't have espresso machines. Don't make me laugh. But they do have very, very cheap drip coffee. Tim Hortons is more than just a coffee shop - it's a meeting point for the proletariat. The Greyhounds stop there, the newcomers work there, the drug dealers operate out of there... They are open 24 hours and open to all. And if there isn't a Timmies nearby, there will be a Coffee Time or similar dive. These types of coffee shops are central to Canadian communities.

Meanwhile, there is also Starbucks, which doesn't even bother marketing itself to the flannel-wearing, Hip-listening, hockey-watching crowd. And they do fine, because there are plenty of Crazy Rich Canadians.

And there are plenty of Crazy Rich Chinese.

Aside from Luckin Coffee being a brand that differentiates itself on being more tech-savvy than Starbucks - not to mention proudly local - it also differentiates itself on price. I mean, that would have made me interested. Coffee should be a working class drink, goddamnit. I downloaded the app to check it out.

21 kuai for a black coffee.

My brand here continues to be the Taiwanese 85°C. Also known in mainland China as "that bread shop". Here they are more famous for selling cakes and pastries than for selling coffee. Meanwhile i am like. Dudes. You realize a black coffee at 85°C is, like, 13 kuai? And if you buy a coupon book, it's only 11 kuai? That's less than half the price of the other coffee chains!

But, you see, 85°C doesn't sell the image of being a luxury coffee shop. No self-respecting member of the bourgeoisie is going to proudly walk around town with that red cup in their hand. It doesn't have the cultural cachet of Starbucks, or - now - of Luckin. 85°C is for the plebs.

Except, of course, it's not at all. A coffee from 85°C is still a lot more pricy than picking up a 豆浆 (soy milk) from the roadside 油条 (donut) vendor, or plunking a bunch of leaves and herbs into your own plastic flask to make the tea that gets most working class Chinese through the day.

This is one of the biggest challenges i have found with fitting in here. The middle class is very middle class. Not much different to the middle class in other countries. But the working class is much poorer. There is not really a gap for people like me who work highly skilled white collar jobs but don't feel comfortable amongst our professional peers.

One of my colleagues recognized i was far too good for this company and asked me why i don't do a startup here instead. He shared his idea of making an app to link Filipino housekeepers with the nouveau riche who covet them. Technically Filipino housekeepers are illegal here because China has a relatively strict immigration policy, but the rich find ways to get around it, and my colleague was convinced he could make bank off the app before the government caught up with it. Or perhaps they'd turn a blind eye, because the government don't seem to care very much about rich people bending the rules to get more rich. They sure do like to clamp down on anything that excites the kids and the working class, though - hip-hop, short video apps, tasteless joke sharing sites, anime...

Anyway, during that conversation i said if i was really free to start any business i wanted in China, i would try to kick off the idea of working class pubs. Or Canadian-style coffee shops. Basically, places where regular people can go to drink for cheap and socialize without being pretentious about it.

He thought that was hilarious. How would i get rich targeting the poor? They don't have any money!

That exchange made me think.

When i was in Guangyuan (population: 2.5 million - an insignificant backwater by Chinese standards) there was one Starbucks and that was it. I got a coffee from a kid in a kawaii drinks shop who was utterly thrilled to have a foreigner in her store. It was a Nescafé with a splash of condensed milk. You could barely call it coffee, but somehow it tasted better for being the same stuff the kids in that town were drinking to get a taste of cosmopolitanism into their lives. Those are the kids i'd like to make coffee for, not the ones who can afford a brand name beverage. And their parents are the ones i want to open a pub for.

But, yeah. Why would a laowai bother? Why would anyone?

Tags: canada fuck yeah, china, food

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