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Convenience store coffee has a nasty reputation with most coffee lovers, and it used to be well-deserved. Not more than ten years ago, the typical convenience store served coffee from a single pour-over drip coffee maker, usually made by Bunn. The “coffee bar” was a few square feet of counter — if that — which held the coffee maker, a stack of styrofoam cups, a canister of powdered non-dairy creamer, a paper cup holding plastic stirrers and a plastic container full of sugar packets.
Usually, there were three coffee pots — one under the brewer, one on the warmer plate and one with an orange handle, filled with decaf coffee for those who wanted to sleep at night. If you were lucky, the pot under the drip spout had finished brewing sometime in the last ten minutes, in which case, it was probably palatable. In fact, depending on where the store got its coffee, it might even be pretty good — in my region, Caravan and Good as Gold coffees were always 100% Colombian coffee, and since it came in pre-measured packets, it was brewed in the right proportion of coffee to water. More often than not, though, the pot had been sitting there for an hour or more, and the coffee in it resembled oily tar more than it did coffee. In short, drinking convenience store coffee was a test of strength — or stupidity. If you were willing to drink that stuff, you were a diehard caffeine addict in dire need of a fix, or you’d burnt out your tastebuds years ago, and had a cast-iron stomach to boot.
Then some time around 2001, we entered a new era of convenience store coffee bars. En masse, it seemed, the convenience stores had decided to give the drive thru coffee franchises a run for their money in the competition for the morning drive customers. Around here, it started when White Hen Pantry took over the old 7-Eleven and closed for remodeling. When they re-opened, the front of the store featured a Formica-topped coffee island that held half a dozen pump top vacuum carafes, each of them fronted with a hand-lettered sign announcing the flavor of coffee it held. Instead of the ubiquitous generic canister labeled “coffee creamer,” there were three thermos pitchers labeled “half & half,” “milk” and “skim milk.” The stack of styrofoam cups — all one size, thank you very much — had likewise been replaced with a shiny pop up dispenser that held coffee cups in three sizes, including a giganto-cup that could get you through the entire commute to work and half the morning at your desk. The vacuum pots were quickly joined by single-serve coffee dispensers that drizzled out your choice of cinnamon, French vanilla or hazelnut cappuccinos. The carafes of half and half were replaced by colorful dispensers that pumped cream or milk into your coffee cup and many of the little stores added an iced bowl of flavored coffee creamers in little plastic pots.
In the ten years since, convenience store coffee may not have generated headlines, but it certainly has attracted attention. In cities where a dozen convenience store chains vie for a fragment of the same market pie and most have the same items at the same price points on their shelves, the coffee bar is often the single distinguishing characteristic. Customers who pass six different convenience stores on their way to work often base their decision on which one to patronize on the coffee served up at the coffee island. Around here, Honey Farms served Boston Bean, Store 24 brewed New England coffees and 7-Eleven offered up Green Mountain Coffees. In other parts of the country, the brands may have been different, but the general idea was the same. Coffee — real coffee — is a definite selling point for convenience stores.