Coffee ‘culture’ seems to be really taking off in Nanjing. This isn’t to say that it is a relatively new phenomenon as international coffee house brands have been in China (and Nanjing) for awhile.When I first arrived, Starbucks had a three store presence in Nanjing. The two outlets in Xinjiekou (Da Yang and the now closed Dong Fang stores) were oriented in classic Starbucks tradition – two or more stores situated almost on top of one another. The third (now closed as well) was located in the sleepy residential area of Gulou Square. Although the Gulou store didn’t offer on-location washroom facilities (can’t remember if there was Wi-Fi) it was large, spacious and always empty…and at a 10 minute walk for my apartment hard to beat spatially.
The 1912 store opened some time in late 2004 (or maybe early 2005) followed by stores in Jinling Hotel and Taiping Nan Lu in 2008.
Believe it or not but there used to be a Blenz (Canada’s answer to Starbucks) in the Grand Hotel lobby off Guangzhou Lu. I think it closed in 2005. Lukou airport also has two Starbuck style coffee houses which I am
sure are some sort of chain operation but I can’t remember their exact name…other than the fact that a simple black coffee would break your bank account.
Costa popped up in Nanjing in 2007 and now has at least two stores with one in 1912 and a new outlet above the Zhujiang Lu metro station. There could be additional Costa’s that I’m not aware of as well.
I’ve spent a lot of time in these various coffee houses – as well as numerous local tea houses scattered through out Nanjing and one thing I’ve noticed is that these places follow popularity patterns similar to hip bars and restaurants. For example, the original Nanjing Starbucks (Da Yang) is almost a no-go zone given huge amount of traffic it experiences. Finding a seat is possible, but good luck an electrical outlet. It does remain probably the best people-watching place in Nanjing though. The second oldest Starbucks location at 1912 also experiences similar massive amounts of traffic – including dozens of high school students from Nan Wai which makes finding a seat or electrical outlet at least as difficult.
In an effort to avoid these crowds and enjoy a good coffee in a reasonable environment one must be consistently vigilant in scouting new coffee locations. Based on my personal experiences I’ve discovered that a new coffee store can exist as a place one can be guaranteed a seat, electrical outlet and be kid-free for approximately 2-3 weeks after opening.
After that time frame (+/- a week) the outlet will be found by the rest of the coffee consuming population and becomes saturated. I have been consistently chased from one coffee house to another. From 1912 Starbucks to 1912 Costa to Jinling Starbucks and now to the new Costa outlet on Zhujiang Lu. I began as a patron of this store the day after it opened and enjoyed a 3 week honeymoon in a relatively quiet and open locations which officially ended this weekend as the store dangerously approached saturation
levels (even at 1pm in the afternoon). My next option remains the newest Starbuck location on Taiping Nan Lu, although the location isn’t tip-top for me. I might just buck-up and take the crowds. I don’t have much time left in Nanjing.
In the current coffee climate of Nanjing, Costa represents the upper end of the international bistro names. There coffee is more expensive than ‘bucks and their Wi-Fi (in my experience) is of higher quality and consistency. Starbuck Wi-Fi facilities seem to be arbitrary between stores and I’m unsure if a store is Wi-Fi capable, while all Costas appear to have this ability. The price and perhaps the smaller menu help to keep the pop-tart and coffee tourist population to a minimum. The trade off though is a weaker selection of coffees as Costa appears to only use one blend whereas Starbucks offers a new blend each week (with cool stickers you can use to cover your books/laptop in an effort to give yourself coffee street cred). Costa stores in Nanjing also receive poor marks in the people-watching category as the seating areas are usually windowless. Starbucks also wins points in terms of language. Costa employees are more likely to use English as the initial language as well as the answering language, regardless if the question was
asked in Mandarin. Starbucks baristas are more likely to use the initial language.
One thing that has always puzzled me about Nanjing is the apparent lack of any local Starbuck/Costa clones. There are plenty of tea houses but I’ve never encountered a local bistro and I’m surprised no one has planned a response to the exploding popularity of this kind of store.