Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Caribou Coffee Protects The Rainforests While Caffeinating Me!
The Good: Some delicious coffees, Tasty limited time flavors, Brownies
The Bad: A little pricey, Dining-In experience
The Basics: Providing amazing drinks in the summertime, Caribou Coffee becomes another great place to stop when traveling!
Because my basic rule for writing restaurant reviews is that I must dine there three times, I decided after hitting a Caribou Coffee in Hunt Valley, Maryland, that I was going to keep trying food there on my cross country adventure. Lucky for me, there were a few Caribou Coffee shops at the Mall Of America (reviewed here!)! As one of the few places I succeeded in eating at multiple times before I went to Las Vegas, I am actually surprised it has taken me quite this long to review this wonderful little chain.
Caribou Coffee is a chain of coffee shops that seems to have its largest concentration of restaurants in the Midwest of the United States. It also has a smattering of coffee shops on the East Coast in Maryland, for example. There are approximately five hundred Caribou Coffee locations in the United States spread across sixteen states and the District Of Columbia. It is somewhat surprising, then, that the Mall Of America would have three all on its own!
For those - like me - keeping track of such things, Caribou Coffee seems to be a remarkably apolitical company as far as political contributions go; its CEO is not a major donor to any political party. However, the company is political in its world view. Money from Caribou Coffee sales goes to communities where the coffee is harvested and produced; the company build a clinic in Guatemala where the beans are harvested, for example. As well, the company has a stated mission of protecting the rain forests and that's a pretty decent goal for a coffee company to have.
Caribou Coffee is a franchise-operated coffee shop that specializes in coffees and a limited section of baked goods like muffins, cakes, breads (like a lemon poppy seed bread), and scones. Caribou Coffee has a mint green and black logo featuring a leaping caribou, which is what one gets - I suppose - when they give a caribou coffee.
The average Caribou Coffee shop that I've experienced opens into a discrete standing area where patrons are filed up to a counter where they place their order, pay and are ushered toward a nearby area to pick up drinks (especially if it is busy). Most locations have a sitting area with two or three tables and/or booths that customers may sit at to eat. Cleanliness of these facilities seems universally great. The Caribou Coffee shops I have visited have each been spotless.
I only ate in one of the Caribou Coffee shops I visited mostly because at the Mall Of America, I was very much on the run. In Maryland, though, I sat outside at a little table and it was nice.
Like most fast food restaurants, Caribou Coffee does not so much have waitstaff as it has cashier/cooks who take orders, money and assemble orders. The workers at each branch I went to seemed to know what they were doing. They were usually perky twentysomethings and they knew their drinks well, even if they were not familiar with much about the company's corporate philosophy.
So, service has largely been great at Caribou Coffee.
Caribou Coffee has a mix of stable elements and a rapidly changing menu, especially in their drink department. As I write this, two of the three drinks I sampled are no longer in circulation. Bummer, but they were too good to not write about. On my first visit, all I had was a large coffee, black. Having never had a Caribou Coffee coffee drink before, I opted to start with the basics. Because plain black coffee is - as I described it in my last novel - the missionary position of the beverage world, there's not much to say about it. It was good, hot, slightly bitter, everything one expects black coffee to be. It was also very fresh, which I appreciated. I had a friend attempt to convince me that the peak of local coffee quality where I live is McDonald's coffee (no, she wasn't punking me, she actually believes this!) and it was burnt and old. The Caribou Coffee black coffee was vastly superior; fresh, hot, real.
Then, at the Mall Of America, I had one of the most amazing drinks of my life! Having been sober for over seventeen years, I tend to delight in caffeinated beverages probably more than I ought to. Caribou Coffee had an Andes Creme de Menthe Cooler. For pennies over five dollars, I snagged a large and this amazing drink was a mix of coffee, chunks of Andes mints and cold milk with mint flavoring in it. This might well have been the most perfect melding of coffee and a milkshake of all time. In every sip there were icy flecks of chocolate mint and the flavor of coffee. That Caribou Coffee had this as a limited edition flavor is something of a crime against tastebuds.
I accompanied my Andes Cooler with a cinnamon chip scone. Like most scones, it was dry, but this was very soft and it complimented the flavor of the coffee drink perfectly. The cinnamon chips were reminiscent of coffee cake in their flavor and the scone was a pretty delightful pick-me-up in the afternoon. I wished I could have tried another one warm, but I was already half a floor away in the mall.
Having had such good luck with the Andes Cooler, I decided to try the Milky Way Cooler. This, too, was a mix of coffee, milk and crushed up Milky Way bars with caramel drizzled in. I'm much more partial to chocolate mint flavoring, but what ought to impress anyone considering this drink is that it tasted precisely like a Milky Way bar. It was chocolatey and caramel-flavored with a hint of nuts (I did not find any in the cup) balanced with the flavor of coffee. This was a great blend for those who wanted something more rich than a simple coffee flavor! However, where the ice flecks of minty goodness served the flavor of the Andes Cooler well, the broken up bits and pieces in the Milky Way Cooler were a bit more intrusive.
I accompanied the Milky Way Cooler with a M&M Cookie. It was soft and delicious and exactly what one might expect from a cookie (save that it was a little more expensive than I was happy with).
For those who have not yet figured it out, Caribou Coffee is a great place to get a hot or cold coffee for breakfast or throughout the day drinking or snacks. It is not, however, a place for those who are obsessed with nutrition or not eating at all between meals. It's not that kind of restaurant. As I experience more of their drinks and snacks, I will update this listing. Regular drinks include flavored hot coffees and cold coffee drinks like the coolers that are flavored more like chocolate, vanilla and (for autumn) pumpkin. Their baked goods seem to rotate on a daily basis but most Caribou Coffee locations I've seen seem to have multigrain bagels available.
Caribou Coffee is a mid-price range coffee shop (slightly more expensive than Dunkin' Donuts, not quite as pricey as Starbuck's) with a wonderful creative sense of drinkmaking. In fact, if there is a serious drawback it is that Caribou Coffee's emphasis on innovation undermines the stability of the chain. There's no good reason I can think of that drinks like the Andes Cooler which is such a successful concept shouldn't be on the menu all the time. Then again, because it isn't when I go next, I'll be forced to try something new . . .
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© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.