For a girl from Minnesota, Caribou Coffee is a taste of home away from home. One day this past spring, I walked into the Crystal City branch eager to order a black mango iced tea and move on with my day. But this Caribou run was unlike all others: It would be the last. My Caribou Coffee was closing, just like the other two-dozen-some in the Washington area and 168 others across the country. About half are becoming Peet's Coffee and Tea.
I've lived many places where Caribou wasn't ubiquitous or accessible. So when I moved to Washington in 2010, I was delighted to find my favorite java joint just blocks from my office in Arlington.
It's easy to shrug off the Minneapolis-based chain's demise as a casualty of the post-recession era or consumers’ desire for non-chain coffee or the dominance of Starbucks. But I was heartbroken. As a kid who grew up just miles away from the chain’s Minneapolis home base, setting foot in a Caribou Coffee anywhere else in the country has felt as comforting as a care package.
It seems strange to feel this way about a chain, as consumer demand for independent coffee grows by the day. But my relationship with the ‘Bou predates my caffeine addiction. I’d walk there with middle school classmates after the last bell rang—no parents or permission slip required. My little corner of suburban Minneapolis had no indie coffee shops. But Caribou, with its Northern Exposure decor, soothing soundtrack, and chocolate-covered espresso beans placed gratis atop of every espresso drink, always felt cozy in a way that’s much like the Upper Midwest: It didn’t try to be something it wasn’t. It afforded the average suburban teen like me an ounce of coolness and independence. The popular kids, jocks, and goths alike lined up for strawberry-banana smoothies and vanilla coffee coolers.
At some point during this time, my parents warned that “hanging out” for too long outside the 'Bou constituted "loitering." But a weekday afternoon or weekend evening spent there provided respite from after-school sports and homework: For a good girl from the 'burbs, this "loitering" was as sublimely subversive as it was gonna get.
At one point, Caribou sold these cute panini sandwiches, before paninis were everywhere. I can still taste the triangular-cut bread with turkey, lettuce, and garlic aioli. It came packaged in Saran wrap—clearly from an outside vendor—the sort of item that would make today’s natural-food nuts cringe. I craved this sandwich often. My mother once surprised me with it at school after a particularly bad argument, the sort of fight 13-year-old girls have with their mothers. We were at peace for at least another week.
Back home, my father has become quite the frequent customer of our local Caribou. He stops for a paper and a small-coffee-but-in-a-medium cup each morning after walking the dog. He shared in my excitement that there was not just a Starbucks, but a Caribou near my new office in DC. He's loaded a gift card with lots of ‘Bou Bucks for my Christmas stocking each year since I moved, covering my coffees and lattes for months. I converted a few Starbucks loyalists this way: “Let’s walk this way to Caribou instead. I’m buying.”
If anyone asks me to go to Peet’s, they’re buying.
Amanda Palleschi is a writer who lives in Northwest DC. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the National Journal, and USA Today. She tweets at @APalleschi.