I was too chicken to smoke, so caffeine was as cool as it got for me back in high school. Since the habit stuck, it's no surprise that a trendy teal and orange café in Yorkville would pique my interest.
Inside, Far Coast is the perfect image of upscale coffee consumption: abundant comfy seating, foreign publications, ample natural light and unobtrusive music.
And there's a bonus: the shop promises eco/social responsibility, offering a fair trade choice and cups made from recycled products in a space constructed with green building materials. When things are this perfectly crafted, you have to wonder who's behind the curtain. You won't find out by checking the logos, but the fact is, the big name behind all this is none other than Coca-Cola.
Yes, that global leader in sugary beverage sales has chosen 95A Bloor West as the site of its first North American concept store (Singapore's opened last week and Oslo's will follow). According to a press release, Coke picked T.O. for our multicultural atmosphere and "highly developed brewed beverage market." I guess we should be flattered.
On the other hand, what we have here is the mother of all branding quagmires a company that personifies American cultural imperialism, targeted by boycotts all over the world, is trying to grow a new market out of us green urbanites.
That's why Far Coast is consciously hiding its Coke connection it doesn't want to turn anyone off with old associations.
"Decisions were made to make sure Far Coast was positioned as a premium brewed beverage,' says Silvio Annosantini, Coca-Cola's region director of premium brewed beverages. "To get that position, we felt an association with carbonated soft drinks was not necessary.'
To say the least. But there's more: a large part of the orchestrated Far Coast methodology involves the product "manifesting itself as very responsible not only to the environment, but also as a culturally sensitive brand," Annosantini says.
The company contracted K. Paul Architect Inc., who, Annosantini says, "felt this was one of the most environmentally friendly' neighbourhoods in North America. The firm proceeded to install double-insulated large windows and reclaimed wood in the flooring, ceiling and handrails.
Far Coast also put in waterless urinals and has the "capacity" to be better in the future, says Scott Stronghill of K. Paul.
Another source of corporate pride is the café's cups. At 12 per cent post-consumer, Annosantini says they contain more recycled material than most. He admits they can't actually be blue binned, but adds that's true for all cups.
Well, no, actually. Jennifer Wright, founder of Green Shift, which pioneered the biodegradable coffee cup now found in over 150 Toronto businesses, isn't impressed. "They don't have enough to brag about. They are basically appeasing people with the bare minimum,' she says.
Still, Far Coast does use biodegradable utensils and napkins, and its stir rods are made of quick-growing sustainable bamboo.
Then there's the coffee selection. Annosantini is quick to point out that a fair trade coffee is always available (perhaps taking a shot at Starbucks, which only brews some once a month).
But where are the rest of the beans from? Well, I guess you have to take Coke's word for it that it's playing nice with coffee farmers a little hard to swallow if you add up all the charges made by global human rights groups like New York-based Killer Coke.
"Coca-Cola is a company who's reality is ugliness, not caring or beauty. That's what people need to know about Far Coast," says Ray Rogers, director of Killer Coke.
The group alleges that Coke hired paramilitaries to crack down on workers trying to unionize its Colombian bottling plant and that some have died or been tortured. (The United Steelworkers of America filed lawsuits on behalf of victims there.)
Then there are charges by ecologists that in countries like India and Mexico, where water is at a premium, Coke has been responsible for draining water tables while poor people struggle for a drink. The government of Kerala even shut down Coca-Cola's largest plant in 2004 to ease drought conditions. (These matters are detailed on Killer Coke's site, killercoke.org, not to be confused with clever Coke's own killercoke.com, which links to CokeFacts.org.)
Company rep Pablo Largacha denies all allegations. In the case of Colombia, he says the confrontation was really one between right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas. "The paramilitaries, as the new bosses in town, sent thugs to threaten workers,' he says. Two investigations in Colombia, he says, cleared the company.
As to the water matter, "The beverage industy in India is responsible for less than 1 per cent of total water usage. It's one of the most efficient users in the country.' He adds that "Mexico has no problem whatsoever with water shortages.' The company, he says, is simply being punished because of the "visibility of the brand.'
Is all this enough to convince conscious coffee-swillers? Green Toronto's never been an easy target for stealth marketing (just ask Nike about its Presto fiasco). We'll always be asking who's whipping up our lattes.