when is a chain not a chain?

When I was in Milwaukee last summer I visited an outlet of Colectivo Coffee, a local coffee business with 13 cafes in the Milwaukee area, three in Madison, WI, and four (soon to be five) in Chicagoland.

I liked the ambience, the coffee was very good (if not exceptional). Felt like a small, independent cafe, definitely nothing like a shop that’s part of a multi-outlet behemoth.

So I found it interesting to learn that a recently opened Colectivo cafe in Evanston, IL, is catching some flack for being an outlet of a chain from outside the area. Apparently some competitors are none too happy about the Wisconsin transplant coming to town.


On Monday, Unicorn Cafe put a sign outside its store that said “eat LOCAL, drink LOCAL, support LOCAL,” with an asterisk that clarified that local “does not include Milwaukee.”


Daum, Maddy. “Three months after opening, Colectivo draws crowds, but struggles with chain reputation.” The Daily Northwestern [Evanston, IL] 7 Jan. 2019

This raises a lot of questions of how to define, and what it means to be a part of, a chain. Is it a matter of the number of cafes – anything more than 1? 5? 20? Does geographic footprint matter? If you have two or three shops in the same market, as is the case with two of my favorites (Northside Social in the northern Virginia suburbs, High Five in Asheville), are you really a chain? At what point is being part of a chain a ‘bad’ thing? Does it make a difference if one is talking about a local chain, a regional chain, a national chain, a global chain? Does the composition of the ownership group count? And, quite frankly, does any of this even matter?

I like to think, like many things in life, the answer to these questions taken together is, “it depends.” It’s sort of like the view taken by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said of hardcore pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

For me, calling a cafe part of a chain is not so much the number of shops but the feel of the place. If the building feels charmless, if the physical menus are on high-sheen plastic laminated sheets, if the menu boards are backlit displays that wouldn’t look out of place above the counter of a Wendy’s or McDonald’s, if the logo on the to-go cups is a little too professional looking, then definitely a chain.

If I visit an outlet of Blue Bottle or Bluestone Lane or La Colombe, to give a few examples of operators of multiple outlets in multiple markets, I’m sure there are hallmarks of an operator striving for efficiencies of scale and consistencies across multiple outlets. But I’m less likely to notice, to care, or to even think of the place as a ‘chain’ in the more negative connotation of the word, because there’s also a high premium placed on quality.

However, I recently visited a shop in another city that has only two outlets, and it felt very much like it could have been a 1,500-cafe nationwide business more concerned with efficiency and branding than the quality of the drink it produced.

So back to the final question, does any of this really matter? Eh, probably not. It’s what’s in the cup that counts. Let’s give our business to the ones we think meet the mark on quality.

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