• Alternatives to Starbucks
  • Feb 27, 2014
  • Don’t get me wrong by the title; I’m still a Starbucks fan, but it’s the only, or even the best, choice in Beijing. Being from the USA I should probably promote the American coffee giant, and I do, but let’s take a comparative look at three of the city’ biggest and most popular in Beijing: Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Mann Coffee.

     

    Everybody knows that some of the best brews and café environments are in smaller, less known coffee shops. They are everywhere, hidden in alleys, on college campuses and in places nobody would expect to see coffee. But that’s another article for another time. For now, let’s take a brief tour of the three largest chains and then let you choose your favorite.
     

    All three have excellent coffee, so most patrons won’t make their choice based on taste. All have Wi-Fi, but today who doesn’t? And like everywhere else, there are internet problems. I’ve had the least connection problems at Mann, but they’re all pretty good venues for surfing the net.  And they each have so many locations in Beijing that we lost count a long time ago.
     

    If you’re loyal to any particular part of the world, you will be happy to know that all three coffee chains have origins far from different continents. Starbucks headquarters is in the northwestern US state of Washington. Mann is Korean company and Costa is from the UK.
     

    Since I do a lot of my writing and other work in coffee shops, I’ll share some of the details that make a difference to me. Starbucks has the best variety of amenities, including cinnamon. They say artificial sweeteners are unhealthy, but I prefer them, so for me that’s a small point against Mann Coffee, the only one that doesn’t have this simple amenity. But the sweetener issue is too small to keep me out of Mann. Starbucks sweetener is Taikoo and since the ingredients are in Chinese I have no idea if it causes cancer, but it’s probably a lot cheaper than Equal. Costa provides Splenda, which experts say is among the least harmful.
     

    They all provide clean surroundings and a variety of comfortable seating. Mann is the coziest, with a Victorian style library, vintage hanging lamps and antique style chairs, with a few softer armchairs mixed in. Mann, at least in the Beijing locations I’ve visited, uses table-top humidifiers, a nice touch considering the city’s desert-dry air.  Most Costa and Mann locations also include soft bench style seats. All three offer a choice of sleepy arm chairs or hardback chairs. All are smoke-free, so if you’re a chain smoker you better hang out in UBC or one of the others that allow smoking. 
     

    The biggest difference between the three coffee chains is the food choice and service. Starbucks and Costa are the fastest, but Mann offers nice service touches. At the first two everything is pre-made so they just warm it up and give it to you with your drink at the counter. Mann, a little more unique, hands you a cute little teddy bear that you take back to your table. I guess the color of the bear tells the waitress which order is yours. So, you can sit down and start working or talking while they brew your coffee and prepare your food while the teddy bear sits patiently on your table. The poor bear never gets to eat. As soon as the order is brought to the table he (or is it a she?) he is whisked away.
     

    Each features totally unique menus. Mann’s specialties are sandwiches and waffles. Waffles? Yep! All day they serve a variety of breakfast waffles, just like many of the cafés in Korea. But my favorite is their tuna sandwich, which comes with a small side salad. Don’t go to Starbuck’s expecting the same things on the menu you’re used to back home, but the sandwich, salad and sweets choices aren’t bad. Costa has a few sandwiches and more sweets.
     

    Take your pick. Compare menus and features and see if Mann, Starbucks or Costa suits you. For me all three are topnotch, so the main deciding factor is almost always location. I’m typing this article in Costa because it’s near a supermarket where I need to go this afternoon. Some of the places my wife likes to shop are located next to Starbucks, so that becomes the perfect place to work while I’m waiting. And there’s a huge two-story Mann Coffee shop near the school where my kids attend in Shunyi, which has become one of my favorites. For us coffee lovers, it’s nice to be in a city with so many great choices!