Could the Starbucks of Taiwan Become the Starbucks of Everywhere Else?
The bakery and café chain is making significant inroads across the western half of the United States. (Fingers crossed for the other half, real soon.)
Unless you've got time to spare, probably don't mention 85C Bakery Café in the presence of someone from Southern California—not unless you want to hear a whole lot about the joys of, say, milk puddings, taro danish, or chocolate cream cheese bread. Founded in Taipei, this fast-growing chain, sometimes referred to as the Starbucks of Taiwan, has become a staple in the Los Angeles region, just a few short years after opening its first shop on American soil—in the Orange County suburb of Irvine—in 2009.
One visit is all it takes for most people to figure out why—one of the more extraordinary things about the 85C concept is how, not unlike its also-growing Korean competitor, Paris Baguette, it manages to leap past any potential hurdles to crossover-appeal. You don’t need to have grown up in Taipei to want 85C as part of your daily routine—all you need is a love of delicious baked goods.
The concept is simple. Enter the store, grab a tray and some tongs, and start working your way through the cases, which are constantly being filled with up to sixty different types of pastry. A European influence is often apparent (chocolate croissants, or a rough take on a kouign amann), but Asian twists are a constant—there's puff pastry, but with coconut filling. There's taro bread. There are pineapple buns, or boroh—simple, delicate treats coated in sweet butter. (It's one of their most popular sellers.)
These inviting visuals (not to mention the distinctive, same-in-every-store aroma) may get people in the door for the first time, but one of the things that keeps them coming back is the prices. They're astonishingly reasonable by American bakery standards, making a stop here a budget-friendly, everyday kind of luxury—that is, if your waistline can handle it.
The shops—which do a brisk seasonal business in mooncakes, a traditional staple of the annual Mid-Autumn Festival, beginning right now—typically operate as well-oiled machines, to the point where it might come as a surprise to learn that the company hasn't even been around all that long. 85C, it turns out, was only founded in 2004; in a short time, they've managed to open 1,000 stores, all around the world.
After doing a relatively slow, steady test in Southern California, where the company has now become a staple in many communities, there has been a great deal of growth, over the past year, or so—locations in Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston have joined an expanding roster of California stores, bringing the total number of American stores to 34. Hardly a Starbucks killer—not just yet—but that's until more people start trying the coffee. (The clue's in the name—it's a bakery and a cafe.)
The very name 85C comes from what the founder, Wu Cheng-Hsueh, believes is the optimum temperature for brewing coffee. It's a little lower than what the National Coffee Association recommends, but that minor difference is forgotten when you get a load of their rather memorable sea salt coffee and tea drinks. The concept is best understood as a cousin of that current American taste favorite, salted caramel—except blended with coffee or tea, topped off with plenty of sweet cream. Sound good? A lot of other people think so—chain representatives estimate that the cafes serve over 7.5 million cups of the coffee, each year.