Monday, September 19, 2011

About Drive-Thru Coffee Culture

A commenter, katCL, posed a very interesting question in the comments to my last post, and I thought I'd put up both the question, and my response to it here.

katCL said...

I don't quite understand the "no drive-through coffee culture here yet" though. When some drivers stop in front of the neighbourhood grocers and blare their horns for assistance, is that not vey similar to the drive-thru concept? Not done in Dubai? It's very common in Abudhabi.
My response...
You are right that there is a sort of drive-in/thru culture in the UAE. But it's of a different sort. There's drive-thru when it comes to a McDonalds or Hardees or Burger King, or drive-in (and Honk! Honk! Honk!) when it comes to a road-side cafeteria. But those are places where you're grabbing a bite to eat. 
For fast food, drive thru works here. But when it comes to coffee, the situation is different.

Up until now, coffee in the UAE has been of a very European / Upper-crust American experience. People here are used to sitting down with a latte, or tall and expensive dessert type coffee drink, and spending time with friends. They chat, sip some very sweet caffeine, and while away an hour or two. It's a very social paradigm.

Drive-thru coffee, on the other hand, is a very utilitarian sort of experience. In Canada I would grab a cup on the way to work to help me get ready for the day. Or I'd make a run to Timmies for co-workers who were looking for their morning coffee fix. Generally speaking, however, Timmies was never a place to go to, it was a place to go by, on the way to somewhere else - a hockey game, work, etc. What makes it work in Canada is that we don't use coffee as the setting for socializing, but for the set-up to socializing. (There are some people you just do not talk to before their first cup in the morning.)

I do feel that the UAE is primed for the sort of drive-thru experience that Canadians know so well. And with Tim Hortons, there would be a viable alternative to the inescapable ubiquity of burgers and fries here. I think residents of the UAE would like to roll up in the morning on the way to work, and grab a bagel and cream cheese, or pass by at lunch for a freshly made sandwich. Unfortunately the Tim Hortons corporate people don't have that sense, and are setting up walk in locations only. I think the caution is understandable, from their perspective, after their experience in Ireland. But still, I do hold out hope.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Tim Hortons Invades Dubai

I'm kind of proud of a sort of achievement of late. I was finally first at some thing.

Specifically, I was the "First Tim Hortons Customer in the UAE".

Yesterday evening the family and I went down to check out the new Timmies on Sheikh Zayed Road, only to learn that it was yet still closed. But, we saw from the sign on the door, it would be open on the morrow. 

At that moment, two staff members leaned out the door for a bit of fresh air, and I had a chat with them. "Will Timmies be open at 6am?" I asked. "Do you know what a double-double is?" Yes, it seems. They would, and they did. Well, I thought, we'll see about that in the morning.

I set my alarm for 5:30 am, so that I could be there when the door opened. At 6:15 am, when I actually woke up, 45 minutes after my alarm (Dang you Nokia!), I was on my way.

Would I see a crowd? Would I see a line? There had been absolutely zero advertising about this opening, so I wasn't sure what I would find. Thus it was, at 6:55 am, when I got out of my car, it happened.

As I walked to the store, there were two men outside. One in grey slacks and a white dress shirt , hair slicked back like a Latter Day Saint - obviously a representative from head office - and an older South-Asian gentleman, who appeared to be either a manager or franchise owner. The men saw me and fixed their eyes on me. They looked first at me, then at the Starbucks next door, as if to ask silently "Which way is he going?" But as I passed by the Starbucks door, and tilted my frame towards theirs, it was all smiles, and a loud happy shout from the South Asian fellow.

Inside the store I was greeted by cheering, the entire staff overjoyed to see their very first customer. I came just in time, because shortly after I arrived, the people started wandering in, in twos and threes.

I hope they'll do well. I bought a breakfast, and spent some time grilling the corporate fellow with all the questions I had. Why the cup sizes were different (American sizing), why there were no "Everything" bagels (Can't import poppyseeds), and why there were no drive throughs planned (no drive-through coffee culture here yet). He smiled and answered all my questions, but after the first dozen or so, I bet his internal monologue was slightly less Sunday School-esque.

Yet for all the differences I saw, it still felt like home. The coffee tasted the same, the Sour Cream donut just as soft, and the herb and garlic cream cheese on my bagel was just like I remembered it.

Finally! I can get coffee at a sane price. Instead of paying a ghastly 12 to 20 AED every time I want a cup of coffee, I now only need to pay 7. And for a much better brew.

I'm happy Timmies is here, because now I can get a nice soup, bagel, and coffee for lunch. I can grab a pack of Timbits for my kids, or a French Vanilla for my wife, just like how we used to have it back home.

But as much as I am happy, I also wonder... will this be yet one more thing that makes me so comfortable, so complacent, that I end up not going back at all?

UPDATE: I came back, a day later. The place was absolutely overflowing. They literally could not keep stock on the shelves, and one of the managers I had met from the day before was sitting outside, around the corner from the front door, looking like he was ready to just collapse on the pavement. He recognized me, and as we shook hands, he said "Since you came, it hasn't stopped."