Experiencing Yinzhou’s Coffee Street |?远离写字楼的咖啡街一览

Written by (作者):?Agnes Tong 童安然

Photos by (图片来源):?Summer Kong孔维阁, Agnes Tong 童安然

I remember my first year in business school at UNNC. The teacher asked us a question about whether Starbucks is a landmark in a second-tier Chinese city like Ningbo. Then they added “put it this way, would you tell your friends ‘lets meet at the Starbucks in Tianyi?’” I doubted it, but my classmates didn’t. I felt that since there were many coffee shops – local and foreign – challenging Starbucks in Ningbo that there was definitely a better choice. I remained skeptical for a few years until a few weeks ago, when I spent an afternoon on Coffee Street near Wanda Plaza in Yinzhou.

The Coffee Street is basically a lane of several artisan, locally owned coffee shops situated along a compound a few blocks from CBD and Wanda. The striking thing is how similar all the shops are. All of the owners we spoke with started the business out of their love for coffee, there were only one or two customers at most when we entered around peak hours and their location didn’t fit their target customers. To really put the nail in the coffin, not one of them had an eye-catching or impressive product that made them unique except fancy interiors.

All of the owners claimed they started the shop for the same reason: to share their love of coffee with others. One owner we spoke with even gave up his successful trading business to pursue his dream. Trouble is, these dreams weren’t quite lived out. When we walked into most of the shops, we didn’t feel at all welcome. The employees were either minding their own business or making a mediocre attempt at a latte, let alone conversation. Each new shop we went to, I missed Starbucks more and more: with baristas that remember your name, how you like your coffee milked or the amount of ice you prefer. My point is, the way you are served a certain product leads to affection for said product. In this case, even assembly-line manufactured smiles and training beats lackluster service.

All the shops said that they had a different target market than Starbucks, but I didn’t see much of a difference. While I would have once agreed with them, their location completely changed my mind. First of all, the distance from the major sections of Yinzhou really matters. For instance, if I was shopping in Wanda and felt the need for a coffee break, I wouldn’t bother walking a few hundred meters to this place when I could get something in the mall. Furthermore, the old compound isn’t bohemian or chic. The only potential customers to the place live in the compound, aka the senior citizens, their children, their grandchildren, and housewives. These people didn’t seem like the type to grab a cappuccino with their besties or arrange a casual business meeting over coffee and snacks. Based on my observations, I felt what the compound residents needed was several down-to-earth restaurants and reliable to-go service.

When one thinks about Starbucks, the first thing that comes to mind is their signature product, the Frappuccino. Admittedly, it is creamy and high in calories, intimidating for a gym rat like me, but there comes a time when you get a sweet-tooth and feel like a treat. That’s where the Frappuccino comes in. A beverage represents more than something to drink, and that builds up brand value.

Meanwhile, on the Coffee Street, none of them had a unique product or theme. One of them came up with a smart movie reference when they started out, which attracted customers at the beginning. All it ended up being was a business gimmick, though. There was no follow-through to make the reference an integral part of the shop’s culture, just a temporary gimmick.

To sum it up, Coffee Street carries with it no bold ideas business-wise, but at least it gives people some variety where they need it. For the record, I’m not a fan of Starbucks, but it is easy to understand the business of coffee shops with the franchise as a parameter for comparison. Some of the coffee shops are doing great by baking their own beans, hiring certified baristas, mixing dancing classes with coffee tastings. Still, there is room for development. Feel free to check the place out though, you might get a different perspective.