When Good Gas Station Coffee Looks Bad

December 5, 2012

Does one of these cups scream “cheap” to you? From left, cups from Holiday, McDonald’s, BP and SuperAmerica. [Photo: Evan Taylor]

The surge in coffee culture over the last 20 years has conditioned us to expect good coffee, no matter what. And we’re usually not disappointed — you can travel just about anywhere these days and never be far from a good coffee shop, whether it’s a Caribou, a Starbucks or a locally owned shop in even the smallest town.

One great ripple effect is the improvement in coffee at gas stations and fast-food joints. Most of the big gas station chains — OK, call them convenience stores if you want to be fancy — sell very good coffee, and for about half the price of a coffee shop. I’m a frequent coffee customer of both SuperAmerica and Holiday.

So it was a bit jarring recently when I noticed that SuperAmerica had rolled out a new cup design. It’s a plain, stark, white Styrofoam cup with the SA logo on it. They’d previously been using a rust/brown-colored cup, similar to the one Holiday uses (see photo above).

To me, the stark white foam cup screams “cheap gas station coffee.” It doesn’t have any warmth or visual richness or sense of luxury. It’s downscale. It makes their coffee seem less than it is. Really, SA puts out a good cuppa joe. But to me, they’re undercutting it with the cup.

Look at the lineup above. Holiday and McDonald’s both use white foam cups, but they wrap them in a rich, warm-colored wrapper. The other cup is from a BP station. It’s also foam, but it’s done in a sort of elegant, faux-aristocratic design that I guess is meant to evoke images of British country estates. Not my preferred style, but at least they’re striving.

I asked a few of my colleagues for their opinions, and they mostly agreed with me. The dark cups seem more upscale, less like “sludgy, gas station  coffee,” in Jenji’s words. Natalie didn’t take a stand on the aesthetics — but added that from a branding perspective, she understands why SA would go with the white cup. It makes the brand stand out more, she said. It’s clean and uncluttered, with nothing to distract from the logo.

Diane had nothing but universal disdain for the lineup of foam cups: “Not sustainable!” she declared with finality.

What do you think?