Step into a Caribou Coffee store, and even if you know nothing about the brand or its history, you can instantly tell what they’re aiming for: a mountain cabin/lodge, replete with warm tones and woody walls. Designed to feel bright but snug, Caribou Coffee locations almost universally feature golden-hued lanterns, stone-and-wood fireplaces, and other trappings evocative of an inviting Alaskan outpost. Some Caribou stores actually contain architecturally gratuitous lofted wooden frames to further the “just in from snowshoeing” sensibility – even in the middle of Chicago or Atlanta. Cozier than the average Starbucks, and a distant second to the rival Seattle chain, Caribou Coffee has carved a niche as comfortable as its stores with quality coffee and well-feigned friendliness. Yet companies of this ilk – or should I say elk? – tease and mislead with their contrived atmospheres.
I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong in trying to endow commercial space with inviting decor. Restaurant and coffeeshop owners understandably want to create a vibe for their location, and patrons often need to feel like they’re leaving the rest of the city behind at the door. Some escapism is not only appropriate; it’s welcome. But the mass-produced, calculated precision with which Caribou Coffee stores have quietly gone about populating parts of the United States counteracts any charm the faux-Alaskan lodge interiors can muster. Sure, the coffee itself has gleaned accolades, including a notable award from Consumer Reports in which Caribou won a taste test over nearly 40 competitors.
But the taste of the coffee bitters up when I think about how they sell such a contrived atmosphere over and over again to an unquestioning public. After all, Caribou isn’t just a grab-n-go coffee shop; part of their brand is the unabashedly socially engineered atmosphere of their stores. Like many Caribou Coffee customers, I once heard the romanticized story about the creators of the brand. Heck, it was passed on to me by an aggressively friendly barista while I was waiting on a drink. Picture a young entrepreneurial couple visiting Alaska’s Denali National Park in the early 1990s. Taking in a beautiful view atop Sable Mountain on a clear day, they supposedly saw a wandering herd of Caribou and decided to open a gourmet coffee chain and call it Caribou Coffee. They were just so…inspired.
Hmm. So inspired by the glory of Alaskan nature that, even today, there isn’t a single Caribou Coffee store in all of Alaska. Or even in rugged northwestern states like Oregon, Washington, or Montana. Instead, the first Caribou Coffee store was opened outside the Twin Cities in 1993. Anyone who’s ever visited the pretentiously dull Minneapolis suburb of Edina, Minnesota, can tell you there are no giant antlered animals roaming the wilderness there. They’d be bouncing off of the SUVs and into pristine driveways. As it turns out, the Caribou founders (who have long since sold their interests) were just two greedy Boston MBA types unhappy with their jobs and scouring market data before deciding that Minnesota would be the best place to start selling coffee and a contrived image to counter Starbucks. Such supposedly dramatic inspiration during a trip to Alaska, and the best they could do was open a suburban coffeeshop in a plains state?
So if you were hoping to believe that a small Alaskan coffee-lodge had honest Last Frontier roots and developed its trademark atmosphere organically before heading to the Lower 48…well…you’ll be disappointed. Caribou Coffee was just quietly herding you along.