Starbucks Tasting Room vs Simmons Building

In December 2014, Starbucks opened its “coffee cathedral” in the former circa 1920s Packard automobile dealership building in Seattle’s tony Capitol Hill neighbourhood.  It was designed to roast and showcase Starbucks’ small batch, reserved coffees.   The 15,600 square foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room (SRRTR) building has quickly become a mecca for local and international coffee cynics and zealots.

Not to be outdone, in June 2015, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation opened up its “flagship foodie fun spot” in the 1912 Alaska Bedding Company (ABC) warehouse building aka Simmons Building (in 1919 the Simmons Bedding Company purchased the building from ABC).  The 16,000 square foot building has quickly become the epicenter of Calgary’s growing café and food culture and could well be the project that puts Calgary on the international coffee/food map.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle.

Simmons Building facing East Village's Riverwalk. 

Let the competition begin!

As one would expect, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room (SRRTR) dwarfs the Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters’ space in the Simmons building.  While both have roasterie machinery, SRRTR has the look and feel of brewpub - lots of shiny machinery, an amphitheater space for viewing and learning about the bean-to-brew process.  Yet there is still a vibrant café atmosphere with lots of seating, huge windows to watch the “sidewalk ballet” that invites you to linger. There is even a library space if a quiet space to read or have a small meeting is what you’re after. We loved the idea that you could get a flight of coffees (three brews for $15) like you might have at a wine bar or craft brewery. 

Compare that to Phil & Sebastian’s café and coffee where the experience didn’t differ significantly from any other P&S café or other Calgary cafes. Advantage: SRRTR.

SRRTR looks like a science lab.

Seattle hipsters tasting the coffee, food and treats at SRRTR.

Calgarians lined up for their coffee at Phil & Sebastians.

SRRTR has its own Coffee Ambassadors – and there were many - young coffee experts from Starbuck cafes around the world who greet you at the door, find you a place to sit, bring you free water, answer your questions and engage you in a discussion.  On the flip side, Simmons Building seems a bit confusing as you have to line up to buy your coffee in one place, then line up again to buy your dessert, salad or sandwich at another vendor in the building.  Advantage SRRTR.

While SRRTR’s focus is definitely on coffee, it does have a Tom Douglas (Seattle celebrity restaurateur) Serious Pie restaurant on site, which is well known in Seattle for its pizzas and desserts.  Similarly, the Simmons Building is home to Charbar owned by Calgary’s celebrity restaurant owners Connie DeSousa and John Jackson.  I would have to award the restaurant advantage to Calgary’s Charbar with its more interesting menu, which offers up ocean, prairie and local garden ingredients.  It also offers a vegetarian small plates options. Advantage: Simmons Building.

Charbar restaurant in the Simmons Building.

The bar at Charbar. 

Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie pizza restaurants are also well known in Seattle for their desserts but my mouth still waters whenever I think of the Sidewalk Citizen’s Bourbon Bread Pudding and Earl Gray Apple cake we had a week ago.  Aviv Fried, owner of Sidewalk Citizen quietly putting Calgary on the map, has amazing sourdough bread and pastries.  Advantage: Simmons Building.

Sidewalk Citizen bakery at the Simmons Building.

From an overall design perspective, I loved the open, transparent, sunlight feel of SRTR over the Simmons Building that seems dark, closed and confined.  Both buildings have their historical exteriors preserved but there is little sense of history in the contemporary warehouse interiors. Simmons Building wins the design competition with its rooftop patio offer spectacular views of the city skyline and river valley. Advantage: Simmons Building.

SRRTR is a bright and airy space with lots of places to sit and chat, people watch or learn about coffee. It is part laboratory and part classroom. 

The Library at SRRTR

If you like to shop, SRRTR offers a small retail area with all kinds of coffee paraphernalia.  Simmons Building has no retail for those would need their shopping fix. Advantage: SRTR.

The retail space at SRRTR with the Serious Pizza in the background.

In the real estate world, it is all about “location, location, location.” While SRRTR has a great urban location at the junction of downtown and Capitol Hill, it is no match for the Simmons Building’s location on the East Village Riverwalk, next to the Bow River, near the soon-to-be best new urban park in North America - St. Patrick’s Island and what is shaping up to be one of North America’s finest early 21st century urban villages – East Village. Advantage: Simmons Building.

Simmons Building roof-top pato with Bow River and East Village Riverwalk below. (photo credit @GiantBlueRing

Simmons Building rooftop patio. (photograph by Colin Way, courtesy of CMLC) 

My Last Word

Yes, as a Calgarian I am biased.  Yes, I did love the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room and would recommend you check it out if you are in Seattle. It is one of the most welcoming and friendly places I have visited in a long time with a great buzz to it.  But when push comes to shove, I feel the Simmons Building offers a more interesting and diverse urban experience for tourists and locals alike.  

My only wish is that by next summer, Calgary’s own Village Ice Cream has a space in the Simmons Building so I can buy a cone while wandering the Riverwalk and St. Patrick’s Island.

John Gilchrist's Last Word

In chatting with John Gilchrist (CBC Radio One's Calgary Eyeopener food critic for 33 years, best selling author and international food writer and judge) while I was putting the final touches on this blog - he would argue Calgary is already on the North American coffee/culinary map. He reminded me Calgary baristas have won four of the last five national barista championships and Ben Put of Monogram Coffee just finished 3rd in the World Championships. As well, Phil &Sebastian's coffee has been sold nationally for a few years now and is respected internationally.

On the food scene, he emphatically stated "Calgary has become a culinary destination not only nationally but internationally. One small example is that the US-based Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Association is holding its annual conference in Calgary this fall, the first time it’s been held outside the USA."

Insofar as the Simmons building is concerned, he too would like to see Village Ice Cream join the family. John feels, "the Simmons building showcases three of Calgary’s fine culinary entrepreneurs, exposing them to more than the usual foodie cognoscenti. That’s great but we not always want a full meal or even a coffee in the afternoon. But ice cream is always welcome."

He added, "the Simmons is one of the most notable development in Calgary’s culinary scene I’ve ever seen. The partnership between the City and these three entrepreneurs is a fine example of private and public enterprise. And especially impactful in the development of the new East Village neighbourhood."

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Calgary: North America's Newest Cafe City?

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