Second Cup debuts its cafe of the future

Take two: this is the second time in as many years that the coffee chain has tried a new look in a bid to turn around its sales loss.

Between new decor, milk taps and hi-tech brewing systems, Second Cup hopes its newest concept store is more effective than its previous attempt to put coffee and community at the forefront as it tests a new brand strategy.

Located in downtown Toronto at the corner of King and John Streets, this is the second redesigned store Second Cup has tested as a concept in less than two years. In 2013, the brand redesigned a location just down the street at King and Bathurst. That redesign was meant (as is this one) to put quality coffee at the forefront, but didn’t have the technology, rebranding and scope that this one does. Vanda Provato, VP of marketing for Second Cup, says the new cafe is not a tweak or evolution of the previous concept, but a total redesign.

“That [original] concept didn’t deliver on expectations, so we really felt we needed to start from a blank piece of paper,” she says.

While the “cafe of the future,” which opens to the public today at noon, still offers brewed coffee and the higher-quality, artisinal food it began offering in stores this fall, the centrepiece is the new Slow Bar. Customers that have the time and desire for a more high-quality coffee experience can stop and have an individual cup brewed just for them, choosing from a menu of different coffee beans to be made using a brewing method of their choice.

The most eye-catching element of the Slow Bar is the Steampunk, a brewing machine that combines elements of a French press with precise controls over things like brewing temperature. Second Cup is the first coffee in chain in Canada to use the new brewing tech, which is becoming more popular in hip, independent shops in the U.S. The Slow Bar also features a pour-over area, which is meant to be ideal for lighter roasts.

The brand has also been tweaked  its name to “Second Cup Coffee Co.” to reflect what it’s putting at the forefront going forward, complete with redesigned artistic cups and a new logo. Jacknife Design did the rebranding work.

While highly refined coffee products and brewing are at the centre of the brand’s positioning, the other goal for Second Cup is to present that in an approachable way. The overall decor of the concept location is brighter, with the brown leather and beige walls replace by a plain white, accented by a wall mural depicting the King and John neighbourhood. The milk cartons have been replaced by pub-style taps, multiple portable mobile device charging pads are available and a new music program has been developed to play songs predominantly by up-and-coming Canadian artists in the cafes. Provato says franchisees are also, as always, encouraged to take active roles in their community, but the way the company expresses that role needed to change.

“Business isn’t doing what we want it to be doing,” Provato says. Second Cup posted a $26.2 million loss in the third quarter this year. “We hear from people that, as much as they are passionate about our franchise being their local cafe, they do feel that the brand is tired and they want to see a refresh. We have to change people’s perceptions of who we are.”

Provato says elements of the branding that are well-received at the concept location will be rolled out at the rest of Second Cup’s 350 locations starting in the spring. Any new locations, plus cafes that are set for renovation in 2015, will incorporate elements of the design concept that are working as well, depending on the particulars of each location and tweaks based on what is learned at King and John. Because the new concept is still in the testing phase, Provato says the total cost of the redesign is still up in the air.

“There’s always extra costs when you’re starting up, so we have to prove the concept first,” she says. “We know not everything in here is going to work, but today, we think these are the best ideas to represent where we want to take our brand. The nice thing is that we’ve planned to keep changing things, if something doesn’t work.”