I took the Country Style Challenge last week and boy was I surprised. My opinion of Country Style changed dramatically and I would like to explain why.
I’m going to begin by explaining what prompted me to take this challenge, then what the challenge entailed and finally my thoughts and observations.
I took this challenge because I like to rank the best coffee shops in my world and in doing so, I ranked Country Style 8 out of 11 based on three experiences at a location near my office. I had tried the coffee and a cold drink and left unimpressed. After posting my thoughts, the kind folks at Country Style found my ranking and immediately commented that they too were disappointed with my ranking. Since Country Style is a Canadian Company involved with the Make a Wish Fund and Toronto Rock, I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt so I pledged to go into a variety of their locations for a week and try everything and anything and see how I felt after that week… Then post my comments on my blog
Here are my findings;
Day 1 – Coffee at 5pm from the Country Style location on Dufferin St just north of Eglinton Avenue. This location is quite large, however set back a little bit so when you are driving south on Dufferin, by the time you see it, you have passed it. It’s a drive through so I made a u-turn and went back for it.
I ordered a large, two-cream, two-sugar (I thought double double was a Tim’s expression only) and the coffee I got was a little bit too sweet for my liking but tasted very nice. As a matter of fact, while I was laying in bed at 2am, wide awake, I could appreciate how good a cup of coffee that was since coffee normally puts me to sleep.
Day 2 – Breakfast at the Country Style location on East Beaver Creek Road in Richmond Hill (very close to my office). I walked into this location again and I immediately remembered the confusion that I had last time I was here. The counter is right in front, about 4 feet from the doors, and with cash registers on the left and right, I didn’t know where to line up, and neither did the few other customers that came in. As a result, everyone kind of converged upon counter at random and the staff had a hard time figuring out who was next from the mass of people.
The owner was there and said hello to everyone. He has clearly built relationships with his customers and I know speaking for myself that loyalty keep people coming in over and over again.
The line-up confusion came into play right away when I ordered a breakfast sandwich and a coffee only to find out that I had to go all the way to the right to order the sandwich again, but this time to the sandwich creator. I ordered the Ancho Chipotle Beef and Egg and then stood there feeling out of place whle she made the sandwich. Once it was ready, it was taken back to the cash and me, now out of line, had to go back into the middle of the group and order my coffee again, then wait for it, and pay.
So once that was taken care of I took my food and drink back to the office for the taste-testing. My large double double was bitter and not sweet enough. I think it was a large regular. UGH. The sandwich on the other hand was INCREDIBLE! I could not get over how fresh it tasted. It looked good, smelled good and tasted wonderful. I really enjoyed it and at the crazy low price of around $3.00 I could not understand why the place was not packed or why I was not eating there every day.
Day 3 – Country Style on East Beaver Creek again, this time for lunch. I ordered a large double double and a tuna sandwich which I was told I could have as a wrap on whole wheat. Again, the coffee was terrible but the wrap was incredible! My colleague ate the Tuscan Turkey with Bacon (and I believe some cranberry dressing) and she could not stop raving about how good the sandwich was.
I have had tuna wraps and other sandwiches from various locations in the area but this one was by far the best. It was not too dry, yet not too much mayonaise on it. It was the perfect size and a very reasonable price.
I’m starting to see a pattern here… Unpredictable coffee and amazing food, but with a coffee cup on the logo, I think there is an identify crisis going on here…
Day 4 – My son and I hit up a different location in Woodbridge on our way back from Ikea. This time we had some donut holes and I had – wait for it – a large double double. I was chatting with the one employee in the store while she was serving someone else and I asked how long the coffee sits. She said generally it’s a new pot after 30-40 minutes, so no issues there, but it was at this location where I figured out why my same large double double tastes so different each time. This location has a sugar bowl with a spoon in it for the sugar and uses a container of cream to add the cream, so unless these guys know how to make the perfect cup of coffee it’s a crapshoot.
I immediately thought of the machines they use at Tim Horton’s which are meant to dispense the exact same amount each time and thought that might be a great addition here.
The donut holes were a little stale and a lot sweet but the boy and I managed to finish them. He gave thumbs up to the ones with the pretty colourful sprinkles but could only eat 3 of them because of the vast amount of sprinkles on them, and the chocolate ones he said tasted funny. He was disappointed there were no blueberry ones, but I think we were both surprised at how sparse the donut section was at this location and the one on Dufferin where he had been with me.
Day 5 – Breakfast again on East Beaver Creek Road. I had the Skinny breakfast sandwich which is basically egg, tomato and lettuce. The Skinny is advertised as having on 5g of fat, but instead it should be advertised as having a TON of flavour. I inhaled this sandwich and like the other one I ate, I could not for the life of me figure out why I had not heard of this by now. The flavour were wonderful and the sandwich was so fresh and so tasty. Yum. I want one now. My coffee, on the other hand, I could not finish. It was, sadly, terrible.
Day 6 – A variety of donuts and muffins for the office with a coffee for myself. When I asked my staff if they wanted a coffee, no one took me up on my offer, calling the coffee “terrible”. Sorry guys. I did enjoy my coffee this time, it was pretty much perfect but I had to add a little more sugar to balance it out. The donuts and muffins were inhaled by everyone. Again, the variety in the store was vast, but limited. There was one pumpkin muffin in a display, and one other variety and two of a different variety which I thought was challenging as they were locatied on the counter, on the food prepareation station and on the back wall. By the time the employee weaved in and around the other employees to get all my muffins I noticed a different flavour but didn’t want to make her go through that again for me. I also noticed the sizes of the muffins differed with the new specialty muffins being much smaller than the regular sized ones. I found that odd too.
Again, it got me thinking… Muffins and donuts. You can’t have all the varieties, and after tasting the food I would really expect the sweets to be on the unique side, but of a higher quality, ala Starbucks and less common, like Tim Horton’s.
Day 7 – Soup! Cream of Mushroom, Red Thai Curry Chicken with Rice, Broccoli and Cheese. Le Swiss breakfast sandwich and a house salad. The soups were very nice and the salad was fantastic, even the Le Swiss tasted like they used real swiss cheese. Ordering the food was chaotic and it took almost as long to order it all as it did to eat it, but it was worth it. I had to check the bill twice to see if they forgot to charge me for something since it was so reasonable.
So after one solid week of visiting Country Style I can safely say my ranking for the coffee is accurate. The coffee was given to me 2 out of 7 times where I enjoyed the cup. I was not sure if it was stale, or just not made properly, but I was greatly disappointed in this.
The food, however, was amazing. I cannot tell you how many people I have mentioned this to. The breakfast sandwiches were fabulous, the lunch selection is vast, the food yummy and the prices are more than reasonable.
The sweets were disappointing. As someone who would bring in treets for my staff, the selection of donuts and muffins did not shout out to me to buy them. It looked like the stores were stocking just enough for the anticipated crowd but what it told me was that the selection was not fresh and there was not enough of a selection to bring in 2 or 3 dozen of anything without clearing out the total supply.
So in concluding, since I hear ads for Country Style on the Virgin Radio morning show, I can only think that they are trying to get people to notice their new menu choices through Bistro and these ads – if I recall correctly – are not coffee commercials, but commercials for a destination to eat. That tells me that Country Style know they have an identity crisis and are trying to work thorugh it and I have just the solution. Aside for getting better coffee in there – something different, maybe flavours, or maybe organic or fair trade, they need to go full throttle on the food. Super low prices, a sandwich of the week, giving out samples, getting them in the media somehow like on CP24’s Breakfast television, something, somehow, they need people trying these fantastic sandwiches and they need to promote the healthy side of it because their competitors are either very expensive (Starbucks) or high in fat and salt (Tim Horton’s).
I know they need better coffee as most people I see in the mornings going into places for coffee usually grab something to eat too. I would for sure go in for the food, but not for the coffee.
Good luck Country Style.
See you soon.