Founded in Toronto in 1975, Second Cup cafes are almost as ubiquitous in large Canadian cities as the coffee-and-donut empire that is Tim Horton’s. But while Timmy’s has become a Canadian cultural icon, Second Cup has never had a very strong identity. Neither a good specialty cafe nor a homey donut and drip joint, it's mainly known for having cheap coffee with a large assortment of flavoured syrups. I think I have been inside a Second Cup all of five times in my life, and only when there wasn’t something else nearby. It's been everywhere, but it's never been anything special.
So upon first hearing about Second Cup's ‘café of the future’ unveiled this month on King Street West in Toronto, I couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical. It’s the start of a three-year plan the company has to relaunch and sell its “obsession with bringing the ultimate coffee experience to Canadians.” CEO and President Alix Box says in a statement, “Our goal is to be the best, not necessarily the biggest. That means focusing on quality, innovation and the individual experience, and this launch is a major step forward in our revolution.” Brands have tried wild gestures to stay relevant before and they can end up feeling empty and disingenuous. To my surprise, Second Cup’s futuristic grand opening feels anything but those things. In fact, as a friend in Toronto first described it to me, “it just might be the most beautiful cafe in Toronto.” He wasn’t exaggerating.
The interior design is clean but warm–I was surprised to feel instantly comfortable in the space. Instead of the usual retail clutter and point-of-sale branding, it’s minimal, with just a small retail area near the till. A dramatic contrast to their other locations, the stark white walls are complimented nicely by touches of natural wood and simple black menu boards, giving the space a new level of Third-Wave-inspired elegance.
The gaggle of flavoured syrups that the company is known for is still there, but discreetly concealed on a lower shelf behind the La Marzocco GB/5 espresso machine. While the new Second Cup Coffee Co. logo and branding draws obvious similarities to other brands, the interior feels fresh and well thought out enough to not resemble the “other guy” and, perhaps even, do it better.
Although the space feels very toned-down compared to its predecessors, it’s the attention to detail that really sets it apart, including hooks underneath the bar seating—I love when cafes have this!—a beautiful tap-style milk bar, and mini “mobile charging stations” at almost every seat. One of my favourite details is the inclusion of the store operators’ names on the front door as you walk in. Second Cup is a franchise and adding their names is a nice inclusion and immediately sets a personal tone for the space inside. This attention to detail can be credited in large part to notable design firm II BY IV Design with whom Second Cup worked on the interiors (and who also designed the beautiful Cafe Plenty on Dundas and have done the redesign for LCBO’s “urban concept stores”).
In the centre of the cafe, the circular “slow bar” is the crowning achievement, lit up, literally, by a wooden halo above. A wooden bar with seating surrounds a marble countertop that features a Hario pour-over station with an Uber boiler and a Steampunk brewer, which Box says “embodies our new essence, because it is a high-end artful machine that is famous with coffee connoisseurs and trendsetters around the world.” On the back wall, there’s also a beautiful white Mahlkönig EK43 grinder which seems to be used only for batch-brewed filter coffee and retail sales.
The Steampunk is down when I go in, so I settle for an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pour-over. Beans are pre-measured in little glass vials and the barista seems to take great care in making my coffee. The cup looks a bit dirty when she hands it to me but I say nothing. I notice, also, that the cup sizes are the same large-ish sizes they’ve always had. The filter itself is actually quite nice. It’s mildly citrus-y and is balanced with just a touch of woody, roasty aftertaste. Overall, I really enjoyed it. I’m quite pleased and somewhat surprised by the whole experience. The staff is warm and friendly—while I’m sitting at the bar, the barista engages another customer with a “have you tried Ethiopian coffees before” line and they have a brief conversation—and it definitely feels like a cafe where one could comfortably come to sit for awhile. This is not the Second Cup I knew.
Perhaps I wasn’t giving Second Cup enough credit. In fact, I think part of me wanted to go into the new cafe and feel like they were “trying too hard” or that it just felt superficial. I didn’t feel any of those things, rather, I am looking forward to going back and staying awhile longer. It’s a unique space that fits right into its prime location across the street from the TIFF film centre. I’m not sure their coffee is going to compete with some of my favourite cafes in Toronto just yet, but the new space is inviting, well-executed, and right on time for Second Cup’s second coming.
Elyse Bouvier is a Sprudge.com contributor based in Toronto. Read more Elyse Bouvier on Sprudge.