[I]n the great annals of food history, it may be written that 2014 was when giant restaurant chains stopped sniggering about the precious eateries of the bearded and bespectacled and realized those kids were pilfering their lunch money. In Sydney in the last week of 2014, McDonald’s opened a café called The Corner in the space that once housed a ragged McCafé. Like Starbuck’s Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle, though on a much smaller scale and without the worldwide plan, The Corner is McDonald’s attempt to gatecrash the high-end coffee market.
McCafés, which began in Australia in 1993, have always presented themselves as a fashionable step or two above McDonald’s, but the link between the brands was invariably clear, they usually even share buildings. The Corner downplays its golden arches heritage and shoots for a much more sophisticated menu, with single-origin coffees, craft sodas (balsamic and strawberry, apple and elderflower), and food that looks, well, good. The word McCafé does appear, minutely, in The Corner’s logo and the interior décor sports some sly branding. The Nuova Simonelli Black Eagle that anchors the stainless steel bar is powder-coated canary yellow, and it’s gorgeous. Even with the subtle yellow accents, all but the most observant passersby, and even customers, would think the shop was a new, independent café.
Coffee chains aren’t alone in testing this craft-esque model. Last year, Taco Bell launched US Taco Co. (menu item: taco with grits, pulled pork, peach-jalapeno barbecue sauce) and Cinnabon opened Bon Bake Shop (menu item: maple-bacon mini-roll). So far, these are all one-off experiments, not unlike those played out everyday by entrepreneurs who are just as smart if not as well funded.
The reason even solo-shop and small-chain owners should pay attention to these corporate boutiques is they are another attempt to find out exactly how big small projects can get. While all coffee eyes have been on the growth of respected but still not-too-big specialty chains, especially Blue Bottle and its massive war chest, it’s worth a glance at The Corner. Will McDonald’s follow it up with a rash of clones or will the next be The Back Lot, The Avenue, The Mezzanine, each with bespoke branding? And, more importantly, will it maintain the quality it placed into this first shop?
While these goliath chains try to figure out how to go small, they may inadvertently offer clues to small shops on how to grow without losing touch.
—Cory Eldridge is Fresh Cup’s editor.