The Taiwanese Coffee House
In Taiwan coffee has become extremely popular amongst different groups. Business men now tend to meet over a coffee to talk shop, lovers sip slowly and teenagers pretend they are studying. This craze for coffee started in earnest about 5 years ago with various fancy looking coffee houses opening up throughout Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung. It has become fashionable to meet for a coffee and coffee consumption is on a steep curve upwards, not quite to the extent of the British or the Japanese but on the way up.
The Chain Store
Chain Stores opened their doors with entrants like Starbucks opening their first cafe in 1998. Since then they have grown to a network of 50 coffee houses spanning the Island and with other groups like Barista Coffee, Dante, Douters, 3 Royalties, 3 House and Is-Coffee the amount of chain coffee houses in 2002 came to 300. Chain stores work well in Taiwan where trade names quickly become popular and fashionable.
The latest Chain to open up island wide is Crown Coffee who are opening up store after store on overcrowded street corners and pushing occupancy rates on the pavements to the limit. The fashion has changed in emphasis from places like Starbucks who like to keep their trade indoors, on two or more levels and in un-cramped and open seating plans. Crown Coffee has capitalized on winter conditions and pavement style seating (which costs them nothing in rent) and a little booth with a coffee machine in it.
Crown Coffee is the buzz word and should anybody discuss a venue for a future meeting one of these cramped and busy corner tables will invariably be chosen.
Typically though Crown Coffee will lose customers as the summer heat sends coffee drinkers into air-conditioned establishments: another trade chain store will open up that will offer some unthought-of trend and sitting on pavements will suddenly become relegated to the 'non-hip' basket.
The chain stores have not cornered the market. In typical Taiwanese tradition adventure seekers and those with cash spilling out of their pockets have invested in many a fledgling coffee shop start-up, probably hoping to have a chain of them within a year but running out of money after the first one. These now amount to more in number than the Chain Cafes and are forever springing up on street corners, at railway stations and wherever someone sees a buck (not a Starbuck).
These start-ups often prove popular as again in Taiwanese style anything new must be good. Whether though they keep the custom and build up a good client base often depends on where they are situated and whether they provide something new or fashionable to attract the ever conscious society around them.
Coffee houses in Europe go with tradition. Houses are remembered from childhood and all are well established, homely places to relax in. In Taiwan the tradition is non-existent and so every coffee house is brand new in looks, furnishings and décor. The idea of building or renovating a coffee shop with old chairs and a sense of history to gain atmosphere is not wanted and would certainly not be profitable.
For a Coffee Shop to survive in an ever increasing market place they must be brand new. They must eek of plastic and massive glass windows, tables and chairs must be unblemished straight and plain and direct from the factory and paintings must adorn the walls by western artists - the quality being immaterial. Servers, cashiers and 'gofers' must open doors, serve with a smile and wear the same uniforms. Menus must be in Chinese with badly translated English subtitles that confuse the English readers even more.
Coffee Houses that fail are not yet that many in number but some never achieve the owner's ambition of mass profits. The ones that fail often do so as a result of simple happenings in the world around them. An office block closing down next door might be enough of a loss of customers as to reduce profits or the trend might have shifted away from Viennese swirls and imitation Welsh Scones to cold coffee and walnuts and club sandwiches. Many fail because they offer traditional Taiwanese food and thus end up with the ever fast and changing restaurant scene. Some fail simply because the owner spent too much on glitter and gloss and did not leave enough to keep the bank manager happy.
Fashionable items at the time of writing this article is to have pavement seating (as per Crown Coffee), to have English names on all the coffees and drinks and to offer some form of sandwich or small meal in a western style. So sausage rolls and coffees with weird swirls of cream like Egyptian pyramids are well sought after whilst a good hot cup of coffee with milk is just not wanted.
The actual quality of the coffee on offer at any of the many coffee houses would not pass muster at any European establishment. Without doubt Taiwan's Coffee Houses would not get through the door at the World Coffee Committees annual meeting and they would certainly not be able to go International with their products. Somehow the whole idea of a good cup of coffee has not caught on, with the ability of just getting a straightforward cup of hot coffee being nigh on impossible. Coffee is something that must be churned out, mixed with UHT cream and lots of sugar or served cold.
Coffee is something that comes out of a single machine and whether a Columbian brew or a Café Latte is ordered it comes out of the same protrusion. The idea of Cold Coffee is something that only the Taiwanese can serve in style with a paper napkin and a paper umbrella on top.
In other words the coffee establishments may be nice and comfortable and the latest in fashion but the coffee doesn't do justice to an airport self-service vending machine offering.
Coffee though is only a fledgling newcomer into Taiwan and with time these 'sterile' cafés (those that survive), may turn out to become gems in a rushed and ever moving society. Even now some places are becoming regular haunts of business men talking shop, of lovers making futures happen and with husbands having affairs. Slowly and surely some places may become part of life as one gets older and maybe they will gain their own style and sense of character instead of just being another coffee shop in Taiwan.
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Published on 1/5/04