The iced mochas and sugary syrups of franchise coffee have failed to overcome Australia’s ingrained bean snobbery, leaving large retail operators with a weak financial brew.
On Friday the embattled Retail Food Group, which owns Gloria Jean’s and Donut King, announced a $87.8 million first-half loss, also announcing plans to close up to 200 stores by the middle of 2019.
It cited “unsustainable rents” and declining performances in shopping centres”. But is it also the coffee?
Food critic for The Weekend Australian John Lethlean told The New Daily the difficulties of franchises such as Gloria Jean’s are twofold – a more discerning Australian palette and consumers opting for online shopping instead of heading to the suburban shopping centre.
Mr Lethlean, who admitted he started a café in Melbourne 20 years ago without one trained barista but lots of fresh beans, said he also wondered if the likes of celebrity chefs Matt Preston, George Calombaris and Manu Feildel are part of our penchant for upscale coffee.
“They’ve shoved down our throats, quality, local produce, good coffee … maybe it’s starting to seep in?” he said.
“The man that used to be happy with Gloria Jean’s five years ago is now saying to himself, ‘I wonder where these beans are from’.”
When Starbucks entered the Australian market in 2000, Gloria Jean’s and McDonalds McCafe were already established in the market.
By 2013, Starbucks had closed nearly all of its 84 Australian stores, handing over the remaining 24 cafes to the Withers Group, which operates the 7-11 convenience store chain.
Starbuck’s emblem of a two-tailed mermaid can be spotted all over the United States, but the Americano brew couldn’t stand up to our love for a latte or flat white.
Jars of Nescafe 95G or Moccona still have their place in the office kitchen or smoko room, but most of us weren’t interested in straying from the the espresso brought by Italian migrants.
Mr Lethlean also believes the theatrics of the European café scene are part of the attraction.
Although the price point of a ‘Cup o’ Joe’ may be comparable at Gloria Jean’s, the food critic explained Australians are after “more than a beverage in a branded paper cup”.
Mr Lethlean said there was theater in the sound of the grinder, the background music, the provided newspapers and watching a specialist, who is completely immersed in coffee culture, make our coffee.
“Americans love a brand they can rely on and have that mentality, ‘We can relax at Starbucks’, but Australians are a bit more maverick,
“To me they [coffee franchises] add nothing to the retail mix that provide life in Australia, and signify the American-isation of Australia. If this is a sign of that phenomenon diminishing, that’s a great thing.”
And while the Starbucks behemoth failed to win us over, the humble Australian-style breakfast cafe has captivated Americans in the coastal cities of San Francisco and New York City.
Australian ☕️ and cuisine continues to take the US by storm! For all you Angelinos, @BluestoneLane is now open in Studio City, in addition to its popular stores in New York, Pennsylvania and San Francisco! https://t.co/m97mSFX94e
— Chelsey Martin (@AusConsulateLA) February 28, 2018
The New York Times has described the arrival of Australian baristas and coffeeshops as “an invasion”.
It highlighted cafes called “The Little Collins (named for a street in Melbourne), Brunswick (also named for a street in Melbourne), Bluestone Lane (named for the paving stones on a street in Melbourne) and Two Hands (named for a Heath Ledger film)”.
“That Australians have anything to teach Americans about coffee culture may come as a surprise to casual drinkers,” the paper said. “But those who nerd out on coffee know that Australia – Melbourne in particular – has a dynamic and professional coffee scene.”