, I met a young man brimming with enthusiasm for new wave coffee bars - America’s contribution to the oldest coffee tradition of all -the “café,” the public place where one can go to enjoy coffee.
The man was Philippe Bloch, and with his partner, he had just created the Columbus Café, Paris’ first and sometimes faltering step towards reinvigorating public coffee (and tea) consumption in France. The first Columbus Café was unabashedly American in menu and styling. In those early days, at the first café, one could watch customers being visibly puzzled as to how to use the store. Many pedestrians stopped to look in, but passed on, uncertain of what value, if any, it might hold for them.
All that has changed in only a few years’ time. Columbus Cafés have sprung up in several locations and are enjoying considerable success. What was at first pioneering is now an established trend that will soon be propelled into higher gear as Starbucks begins implementing its plan to first concentrate large scale European expansion in both France and Spain.
As the traditional and established coffee cultures of Europe face increasing pressure to change, now seemed a good moment to interview Philippe Bloch about what Columbus Cafés has achieved as a small but dynamic chain, how it happened and where it is going.
J.B.: Philippe, I saw your initial concept at its earliest stage. It was excellent but was indeed pioneering in a new retail area, for France at least. At that time you showed some frustration with fully connecting your ideas of a coffee bar and a new coffee “culture” to the French public. Apparently, you found the way to do so - and with panache. Can you please name some of the changes?
P.B.: Our drinks menu has not really changed much since our opening in 1994, but the proportion of espresso versus coffee drinks has been reversed [less espresso, more coffee drinks].
We completely gave up china cups in 1995 and have only offered paper cups; 5 ounces for a solo espresso; 8 and 12 ounces for coffee drinks and teas. The paper cups are now so well accepted at Columbus Café and the coffee drinks so popular that we have recently added a third size - 16 ounces - for our hot coffee drinks.
Quite importantly, we have also developed different store “formats” - street unit, mall unit, espresso cart, food-in-shop unit, office unit, etc. Flexibility has become very significant.
J.B.: You’ve added food and cold drinks to the concept. What results have they had?
P.B.: In 1996, we started offering freshly prepared and baked muffins in each store. The 20 different varieties of muffins have been tremendously successful. In some street units, muffins and other pastries represent up to 50% of our sales. We’ve introduced an interesting line of sandwiches (prepared fresh in the stores that offer them), which are doing very well and account for 30% of our sales in some stores. As for cold drinks, “Semifreddo,” a combination of Häagen Dazs ice cream and espresso, sells particularly well.
J.B.: What other coffee-related concepts have you successfully initiated in support of Columbus Cafés?
P.B.: We’re about to introduce a 250-gram bag of ground coffee with an air valve, in filter or espresso grind, because of strong demand by customers for a product of ours to prepare at home. This is our Barista Blend.
Also, a Columbus Cafés web site (www.columbuscafe.com) opened at the beginning of 2000, whose traffic is growing steadily - up to 4,000 visits per month, now. Interestingly enough, we hire a lot of baristas via the web. It also gives us a good flow of customers’ feedback, as well as requests from potential franchisees, even though we do not franchise to individuals at this point.
J.B.: Can you cite any particular customer behavior that has caused changes to the concept?
P.B.: I don’t think it’s so much that customer behavior has changed us as that their awareness has changed. They have become knowledgeable of new and different ways to enjoy coffee. People travel more and more to the U.S., not to mention England by EuroStar. Many French customers know of Starbucks now, and they really enjoy our products when they come back to France after their U.S. or U.K. trips.
J.B.: Why so much success, so quickly?
P.B.: Principally, I think it is because our customers have discovered the pleasure and convenience of take-away and gourmet coffee. They talk about us to their friends. We have never advertised, but we do get a lot of publicity from positive word of mouth.
Our customers are also incredibly loyal: 40% come to us 1 to 3 times a week, 25% 4 to 6 times a week, and 10% 7 times or more per week - that’s addiction! But we love it.
I must say too that we are more successful now because of what we learned, the hard way. We are no longer young and innocent, which is sad perhaps, but we do operate much more efficiently
J.B.: In part do you see the concept now succeeding because it is more “European Friendly (French Friendly),” or because the market has changed and become more receptive to your concept?
P.B.: Both! We’ve learned how to educate French customers to the specificities of our concept and to coffee in general, and have found a much better balance between our solid and liquid products than at the beginning. Being perceived as a French company with an American twist is also a strong advantage in a country like France.
J.B.: From your experience just how important is location theory to coffee bars?
P.B.: Location, location, location! I still wonder why I tried to ignore this law when we first opened in 1994. The laws of location are most fundamental for espresso bars.
Our first big success was in 1999. We had found ourselves a place in the middle of the Marais quarter, one of the trendiest in Paris. Definitely, to start a new concept, choose a fashionable area. To develop it, you need traffic, true, but particularly traffic of a certain kind.
Location’s going to be the big issue for espresso bars in the coming years, particularly in cities like Paris with exorbitant commercial real estate prices. This is one of the reasons why we chose to team up with such companies as Fnac [a large French chain of music/video/books and computer equipment] and Vivendi [cyber-cafes]. One can not rely only on street units, which are so very expensive to acquire.