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Powerful Brand Experiences – The Story of Two Coffee Shops

by Jonathan Barrick

What makes a brand experience so powerful that customers will drive a half-hour just for a cup of coffee?

I love coffee. That’s no secret, to be sure. Lots of us do. But for me, and for many others, the whole ‘experience’ of coffee stretches way beyond just what’s in the cup. It’s a sensory experience that  complete with sights, sounds, smells, and of course the taste of the great coffee.

This is why Starbucks is so successful at charging a premium for a simple ‘cup of coffee’. Their customers place additional value on the environment and the experience that Starbucks provides, and they are some of the fiercest brand advocates you’ll ever meet. Long before I discovered Starbucks, however, I was fortunate to have experienced a similar brand adventure at not just one, but two independent coffee shops. Each one had a totally different approach, but they both turned me in to one of their most dedicated customers.

The first coffee shop that earned my brand advocacy occurred a long time ago. It was a little coffee/cigar shop in the downtown area of Barrie, called Lil’ Habanas. I discovered this place through a high-school friend after he raved about how great the coffee was. We went down there one evening with a group of friends, and what an evening it turned out to be!


It was a totally new experience for me, as I’d never really been in a cigar shop before. The smell of a Cohiba and Montecristo cigars filled the air, mixing with the aroma of fresh brewed coffee. Classic literature filled the shelves, ready to be picked up and thumbed through. Chess boards and leather lounge chairs were setup near the humidors in the back. Lighting was strategically placed where it needed to be, but not so much that it was too bright in the place. The owner of the business was always behind the counter, ready to guide you through their selection of both coffee and tobacco. It was a complete sensory experience unlike any other.

The crown jewel of the Lil’ Habanas experience, however, was a unique coffee that you couldn’t get anywhere else. It was called ‘Chico’s House Swill’, and it was mind-blowing. See, this coffee was created only once in a while. When some of the bean canisters of the different flavours would get nearly empty, Chico would take all the miscellaneous leftover beans and toss them in to one canister, grind ‘em all up, and brew the results. For some reason, this ended up as the best coffee I’ve ever had, even to this day. It was different every time you had it, and you were never disappointed. It was magic.

Sadly, Lil’ Habanas closed its doors after a handful of years, but I’ll never forget the experience of walking in the door, being greeted by the familiar scents of coffee and tobacco, and being overjoyed that one of the coffee pots proudly displayed the ‘House Swill’ label.

The second coffee house that had me at ‘hello’, was called Coffee & All That Jazz. If you live in Toronto, you might be familiar with it, as they still have a location operating on Howard Park Ave. But the location that captured me wasn’t the one in Toronto, but in the small town of Cookstown, about a 45 minute drive north of Toronto, and about 25 minutes south of Barrie. The Cookstown location was in an old home on the main intersection, entirely converted in to a coffee house.


The environment couldn’t have been more different than Lil’ Habanas. Bright windows, eclectic artwork by local artists, gorgeous vintage coffee bean canisters, and the entire home was filled with the greatest in classic and modern jazz tunes. Funky mugs featuring retro coffee brand ads, great baked treats and snacks, and a Baskin Robbins-esque selection of flavours that ensured you could try a new taste almost every day for a month. It was great, and there was nothing like it in Barrie.

Now, at this point you might be asking “You drove almost a half-hour just for coffee?” – My answer: You bet. Did it almost every weekend. It was one of our favourite places for my wife and I back when we were dating. I remember vividly driving down highway 27 in the fall, past forests full of gold and red trees, the cool air blowing through our open windows. Then, walking in to the coffee house, greeted by John Coltrane and the smell of fresh espresso.

I’ll never forget being downright depressed when we heard the Cookstown location was closing. It meant a lot to my wife and I, and we always used to admire the photography on the walls and would say ‘We should buy that picture for our first house.’ Well, a few months before Coffee & All That Jazz closed the Cookstown coffee house, I drove back by myself, ordered a cappucino, and asked them if I could buy one of the photographs on the wall, as a gift for my wife. The one I chose: A black & white shot of the vintage coffee canisters. It was the one image that always popped in to our heads whenever we talked about that place.

coffee canisters
This image borrowed from http://coffeejazz.ca/

Reminiscing here about these two long-lost coffee shops has been both a wonderful experience for me, and also enlightening. It speaks volumes about how incredibly powerful a unique brand experience can be. It creates fierce advocates, who speak with admiration of your business. It creates dedicated brand loyalists who will drive almost a half-hour for a $2 cup of coffee. It creates memories that shape how your customers will view every other similar business they ever walk in to. By creating a powerful brand experience, you can set the standard by which all others are judged.

I miss those coffee shops, but I’ll sure never forget them.