When Starbucks first store in Canada opened its doors for the first time on March 1, 1987, its success was anything but assured.
“In Seattle, we were well established, everybody knew us whether they drank our coffee or not. But quickly we learned how little Vancouver knew about Starbucks,” said Dave Olsen, a 27-year Starbucks partner who became senior vice president of culture and leadership development before he retired in 2013.
For its first 15 years, Starbucks had been a retailer of whole-bean coffee, where customers could buy, hand-scooped coffee in brown bags to brew at home. But Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz had a different vision, and he teamed up with Olsen to launch new Italian-style cafés. After opening two successful bars in downtown Seattle, they turned their eyes north to Vancouver to prove their concept.
Their first location would be at Waterfront Station, a grand old rail building that had recently been converted into the downtown terminus for SeaBus passenger ferry and the new SkyTrain. Week after week, Olsen drove his pickup truck over the border to interview store manager candidates and baristas, and get the equipment set up and installed. He trained the new partners, teaching not only the craft of coffee but also sharing the company’s culture and values.
“Those first stores were like children,” Olsen said. “You hope for the best for them, and you worry about every little detail.”
The early days were nerve-wracking.
“We had thought our location was very conspicuous,” Olsen said. “But it was only 600 square feet, and you could walk by us in three steps. Our customer count was about 220 on our first day. A good start, but not quite where we needed to be.”
But before long, the store began to attract a loyal following. Word got around.
“The baristas who opened our first store were terrific. They were really interested and attentive to the coffee and the customers. And the customers were also very appreciative of our efforts. Those are the two essential ingredients for success – the people behind the counter, and willing and discerning customers on the other side,” he said.
Two years later, the company opened a larger café nearby on Robson Street, which quickly became the busiest store in the company. Starbucks in British Columbia continued to grow, and served as a springboard for its expansion to Toronto in 1996, Saskatchewan in 1998, and on to Quebec and Atlantic Canada in 2000.
There are now more than 1,400 stores across Canada, and the SeaBus store has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
“People know we’re the first Starbucks store here and they take photos – we’ll pose for them, make it fun,” said Trevor Fitzgerald, a 22-year partner and store manager of the SeaBus Starbucks. “We’re close to the cruise ships, and get customers who are traveling from all over the world. For many, this could be their first trip to Canada, and we love that they can have an experience with us.”
Now, just a short ride on the SkyTrain from Canada’s first store, Starbucks is opening its doors to one of its new store experiences. The Starbucks store in Mount Pleasant is Vancouver’s first to feature an immersive Starbucks Reserve® coffee bar, bringing connection and theater to the company’s rare, small-lot Starbucks Reserve® coffees. The expansive bar features state-of-the-art brewing techniques; siphon, Black Eagle, Clover® brewed and ceramic pour-over as well as featuring Nitro Draft taps.
“This new experience places coffee craft at the center of the conversation,” said Caroline Ternes, vice president, Starbucks Western Canada. “We are thrilled to offer our customers an elevated experience where they can share in our partners’ passion and expertise.”
Reflecting on the company’s journey in Canada over the past 30 years, longtime partner Lisa Essinger, Starbucks Canada’s vice president for operations and licensed stores, sums it up this way:
“While the culture has evolved, the core of it around connection and humanity hasn’t changed,” Essinger said. “That’s what we’ve always been about.”