places we love

How can Big vs Boutique and the Art of Service affect your choice in coffee?

Earlier this week we posted a piece on our thoughts about the art of sketching words and the relationships we forge between the analog and digital tools we use to do our work. To emphasise our point we shared a sketch that outlined our ideas for a future (today’s) entry. A few friends dropped by to offer their thoughts on the sketch and some great ideas were shared about the notion of putting pen to paper in this digital age. If you missed that piece you can check it out here.

Based on that sketch here’s the question we want to ask you today:

“What is your favourite coffee shop?”

There is a reason beyond simply wanting to know your preference in coffee so please stick with us.

Are you a big boys lover like Tim Hortons (mostly Canada), Dunkin Donuts (we see these in Florida a lot), Starbucks (everywhere) or Second Cup (Canada again) or is it one of the small boutique specialty shops that compete in the fray with those behemoths? Yeah, I know, depending where you are from, there are others. For example, have you ever heard of Tully’s who has 101 US stores or Caribou with 464 US stores? Both are pretty big in their own right.

What are the big chains in your area?

With over 7,500 stores in North America you may likely say Starbucks but I am sure there are others that we have never heard of that permeate your city or town.

Here in Toronto, Canada (the center of the universehardy har har har) we have our own fair share of the big boys. Tim Horton’s, while not my style (is it really about coffee there anymore?) is nationwide, has over 4,000 stores and holds 62% of the market share in sales compared to second place Starbucks at 7% of the market share in sales representing just over 1,000 locations nationwide. Both seem like they are on every corner in this town. Wow! Now that’s some volume at Tim’s huh?

But within the fray of these giants what also interests me is the little guy that makes up the remaining 31% of the market. There are literally thousands of small shops doing their own thing. Toronto alone has had over a 100 new independent shops open since 2008. There is something to that.

Those small, individual, sometimes hipster joints.

Each one, big brand or small independent, has its own unique style, offering and atmosphere. I have my favourites and I am sure you have your favourites too. You may be one of those no muss no fuss major chain sort of people or you may gravitate toward a boutique coffee shop. Whatever works for you works for you.

Why all the coffee shop talk? Ha.

Well, we thought about writing a brief comparative opinion between the giants and the small guys as it relates to servicing their clients. In relating that back to architecture + design we wanted to look at how the relationship of service compares between the big national design firms and their approach versus the more boutique firms that exist among their midst.








When we think about the big boys we think about consistency.

Consistency in product, delivery, efficiency and output. If you go to one shop, regardless of the layout, the service levels and product is always consistent. A latte across town is the same latte as you get anywhere else. Every time. These big guys focus on process. Don’t you agree? The process of getting you in and getting you served. There is little time for small talk or really getting to know you. Yeah, I know, if you go to the same coffee shop day in and day out it is inevitable that the staff, if it remains consistent, will get to know you and we all know that’s likely more prevalent in the small shops. The big guys need to make sure they can feed the monster. Get the sales, push a diverse product range and ensure the customers get the consistency they deserve no matter which store they visit. It’s not necessarily about getting personal. There is a job to do and it gets done. In and out!

There is merit in that.

And how about the big design firm mentality?

They become generalists. They can serve a large client base because they have adapted to allow themselves to offer a broad range of services. Specializing in one market sector is not common and rightly so. Developing a broad base of skills allows a client to get the same standard and level of service no matter their location or type of service they require. The art of process is, in this case, critical in order to maintain the volume of work necessary to meet its needs. Diversification into market sectors drives progress and sales and in order to respond to market demand assets are shifted and grown to assimilate the workflow necessary to respond to the projects. Efficiency, consistency and diversification of skills ensure the client base receives the service levels expected from a national perspective.

All good stuff.

Is there room for a one off there? A specialty project? Maybe but not likely on a consistent basis. Small or specialty projects can survive in this environment but not with consistent success. Meeting the expectations a small project demands can burden the processes established to manage workflow in this environment and can derail the efforts of the mainstay projects that the firm thrives upon.

Isn’t the specialty coffee shop well suited to meet these expectations?

Think about the last time you went into a boutique coffee shop. You likely got to meet the owner. The owner who developed the offering, spent time to select the product, develop the brew and served it with care and passion. One cup at a time. Think about the decor. It’s likely eclectic. It reflects the individuality of the owner. The attitude of the shop is in everything from the decor to the menu to the service. The cup is specific, precise and served with meaning and heart each and every time. You may not consider going to a coffee shop like this unless you are willing to wait. There seems to be an ease about the place. The love for the art of the brew is what keeps their customer base coming back; that and the cool factor that seems to come with each offering.

Heart and soul in a cup.

A boutique design firm expends its resources on the art of design. Process is not necessarily the main focus of a project’s resultant output. The focus on precise design and its intricacies take precedent. There is a central edict of care not unlike polishing a fine stone. Every cut, detail and principal of the project is examined. Its intricacies drive the resulting output and are enabled by the attitude of the firm’s staff. The design and its process are derived by the advantage of more personalized relationships developed between the design team and its client. The driving factor for achieving results, its value proposition, is focussed directly on the love of the craft.

That perfect cup. The jewel.

So, after all that what’s your preference?

Just like a preference for coffee you most likely feel more aligned with one or the other attitudes and offerings of the two extremes we looked at here. Sure, there are all sorts of permutations out there with formulas that work and that don’t. It’s really about where you feel you fit in and which approach holds better value for you whether you are the customer or the employee.

So, which camp do you fall in?

Or do you feel there is scalability to each approach?

Can a boutique shop deliver the consistency that large scale project delivery demands and not lose its individuality that makes it unique and niche? Can a national big gun deliver highly specialized service that is finely tuned and focused on the true art over the generalized consistency necessary to maintain its market share?

It’s just a coffee, after all. Right?






About this Author: Ralph Dopping (199 Posts)

A quirky sense-o-humour coupled with an indelible sense of stylish sarcasm makes it difficult to take the world too seriously doesn't it? My faves: fun, passion and hard work. I work here everyday:

Vidya Sury
Vidya Sury

:-) I know I am late.  But my coffee never is. I hardly ever have coffee outside - as tolerant and as cool as I am about almost everything, I simply draw the line with coffee. I live in the home of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) - which Hajra mentioned which is pretty good. There is also the Barista chain, more expensive than CCD.  And then, we have something very unique to the place I live in - fast food not-quite restaurants, because they have no seating - only little counters where one can stand and eat. Now, these serve the best coffee. And when we do happen to visit one - they serve great food, hot food, although the menu is limited - we're thrilled at how the guy remembers our preferences. Things like - an extra cup, less sugar, stronger coffee - all with a huge grin, with constant attendance. There are some boutique restaurants we frequent that are also very personalized.  We generally stick to these. 


For our other stuff - banking, insurance, other services - we do deal with large firms and they seem to solve the customization issue with "relationship managers"" who are dedicated to a small group of customers.  I'd rather go to a small local place and "boost the local economy" than be a fresh face at a large chain.


Lovely post, and interesting comments, Ralph!


I am of the "Cheers" variety. I like the place where everyone knows your name. There is a benefit in the warmth that comes with that. If the big guys can hire baristas and managers who can make that happen for them good things come from that.

Latest blog post: The Birthday Girl


I'm going to go out on a "Betsy" limb here and assume we're not really talking about coffee. 

I don't drink it. LOL!

As I was reading I was jumping between thoughts of efficiency, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe (sp?), creativity, getting what you pay for, and ...well my mind is spinning! HA! 

I thought and thought and thought, and for me it comes down to money and vision (if that's the way to put it).

Stay "small" and in control, raising rates because you can only serve so many clients (of course the product would have to be exceptional. Right?), or train mini-you's because your vision is bigger.

Some of us crave self-expression and will pay for it or anything that sells it to us.

But if we can only afford the cookie-cutter things in life, we find ways to make it our own somehow, too.

So much to say, so little time!!

Have a great weekend, Ralph!




It does a lot of times. When I was in India, we have this coffee joint called Cafe Coffee Day (CCD); and it served some amazing coffee. And it has amazing ambiance, the staff was very particular about how they served you and they recommended good combinations - what would go well with this kind of coffee, recommending the kind of food that went well with your hunger level (telling you about portions and how a muffin won't do if you are very hungry) and somehow it was a place where you could sit for hours and still feel like being there.


But over time, it became about everything else but coffee. The atmosphere got crowded and it wanted to cater to the youth of the college nearby, so they thought of putting in loud music which made it very difficult to even receive a phone call. So, as expected, they lost a regular! And shifted to a smaller joint nearby and it was just something what CCD had! So many a times, it is about the experience. 


As for Starbucks, it is always too crowded. But some joints are nice. I went to a Tim Horton's recently and liked it! Have no favorites at the moment. Just anywhere I can have nice coffee, with it being more about the coffee and experience rather than anything else!


Several years ago when I was running a Lanier office in a neighboring town, there was a local shop called Richard's. It was located at the library, off the park, in downtown. It was comfortable, consistent and you knew everyone.


I came back to Lakeland, and there was a Starbucks by the gym I frequented in the morning. Over time, it became comfortable and I gradually became familiar with most of the people. However, I just changed gym memberships and now Starbucks is somewhat out of the way. So for now, my coffee 'shop' is the break room of Lanier Upshaw.....good ol' Folgers............


I try to support the 'local' guy because I like the uniqueness it can provide. I think there is a place for that with other businesses as well. 


I'm a Tims fan through and through. But I also frequent small, independent coffee shops. Each has its own purpose, reason and timing.


At the hockey/lacrosse arena, while en route to a meeting, after my morning's Tims all the way. Consistent, fast and I love their coffee.


When I'm in a linger-longer mood, or I'm having a meeting with a potential client or friend, it's the small boutique shop, where we pick a special blend, and socialize or meet over a cuppa.


The boutique shop can offer consistency, but it also offers ambiance and personality. The big gun can train its people to deliver more than the standard script (my local Tims is excellent at this). And's just coffee...but it's also much more than that. Cheers! Kaarina





rdopping moderator

 Thanks @Vidya Sury  It's great to get a different perspective. You know when I wrote this piece I really only considered the perspective from where I reside. Both you and @Hajra  have different experiences from your surroundings and both are great additions to the ideas here.


There seems to be a resounding thumbs up to the independent or smaller shops mainly because of their ability to service well and actually give personal service.


Thanks for dropping in. Always appreciated.

rdopping moderator

 Cheers @TheJackB ! It is a great feeling when the same people serve you every day. It makes you feel special and maybe that's really what it is all about Can the big boys do that? Maybe.


It takes some considerable focus when you are part of a big machine. Certainly there can be pockets that have the ability to personalize service but as a whole it is unlikely. Unless you are Zappos (beaten to death analogy, I know).


Thanks for coming by Jack. You presence is always appreciated.

rdopping moderator

 @CrossBetsy I have to say I am ROFL reading this! Hilarious. You know that's the merit of not publishing something when it still needs work. I think I learned a rookie blogger lesson here. Trying to express an idea with clarity should be paramount, don't you agree?


Sorry I made you work so hard. OMG! I am still laughing. You are awesome.


Betsy, thank you so much for thinking through it and yes, it does come down to money and vision to me too. There is the focus and the jewel that vision is to a smaller boutique shop that can afford to polish and polish the idea until it is the exact vision a client sees. And then there is the giant whose focus is corporate, big business. Two different worlds, two different approaches. There is merit in both and I am keenly interested in if people think the ideas can cross the boundaries and how.


I love your response and thanks a ton for taking the time. Always appreciated. You have yourself a great weekend too!

rdopping moderator

 @Hajra  You went to a Tim Hortons? Where? I know there are a few in the US (400 or so) so I am interested where you visited it. Shamefully, I have no idea where you reside {frowny face}


You bring up an interesting point. It is about the experience for a lot of people isn't it. I rarely go to a coffee shop to hang out but the atmosphere is still important to me but what's much more important is the quality of the coffee. So, I have been to Tim's but will only go if that's the only choice, Stabicks more often than not because i want decent quality and am in a hurry and then will seek out a nice shop (there's one nearby my place) that makes a coffee the right way. With care.


Thanks for your thoughts and let me know where you are *he asks embarrassingly*

rdopping moderator

 @bdorman264 Huh. I agree on supporting the local guy. It's small business after all and for some reason it just seems that they "get it." Not saying that the big shops are oblivious to the customer experience it somehow feels more comfortable to go to a place where you feel like you are getting personal service. Sort of like a refuge in the big city. I wonder if the big boys can bring back the personalized service? 


Sometimes the break room is the best too. Make your own and chat with the peeps you really know. Thanks for dropping in Bill. Great piece at your house. Loved it.

rdopping moderator

 @Danny Brown Great point Danny. The idea is that the big ship can still bring personalized service. I hit the Starbucks here more often than not mostly because of convenience and I am usually in a rush. They are consistent and that staff is usually well trained to be friendly. There is one store that is close to home and I have developed a "Norm!" a la Cheers type relationship with a few of the staff.


There is another place nearby (on Queen St W) where are live that is owned by a couple from Argentina who have developed this oasis in the city. their place is very eclectic, the staff is unique and very genuine, great music (always different, pleasant) and their product is top shelf. It is so radically different than the corporate feel of a Starbucks.


You know, I can appreciate that it's a business and that the giant machine needs to be profitable so i will tip my hat to Starbucks because they have been able to keep the customer experience at least in the forefront of their minds. 


Thanks for your thoughts on the topic. Appreciated.

rdopping moderator

 @KDillabough So, I see you appreciate both. There is merit in both approaches but it is funny how people I have asked fit the majority and normally go for convenience. Quick. In and out. In that case consistency really matters. There are a few who stick to their local tried and true. I really think it all comes back to convenience unless you really want to go out of your way. And if you do then the factors of great service, experience and great product bring you there. That was where I was going with the comparative. Service.


Guaranteed the experience is much different in small town stores than in the big cities. When we are at the cottage near Parry Sound the Tim Hortons staff is significantly different and much more friendly that here in Toronto but to be fair I rarely go to Tim's here at home. There are just so many better coffee shops in this city.


As always thanks for chiming in. Always appreciate your input here.


 @rdopping I live in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Recently I went to Dubai and there is a Tim Horton's there! There are planning to open one in Abu Dhabi.... let's see. I did like it a lot! 


 @rdopping I read somewhere that is has 4042 outlets! We need to get our stats right!

rdopping moderator

 @Hajra  Too funny. Somehow I got the number of stores incorrect. The National is saying 3,600 and I read over 4,000 fro another site. Ah, well, what's a few hundred stores between friends. Thanks for the link.

rdopping moderator

 @Hajra  That is soooo hilarious. There must be a lot of Canadians there or something. You know, Canadians love their Timmy's. :-)


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