What's so cool about Caribou?

Caribou spokesman Ryan King said in an e-mail that while Caribou does not market directly to teens, it does welcome teens to call Caribou "their place."

Jake Holden is the face of Caribou Coffee’s teen market.

He plays baseball and tennis, works at the local carwash, plays the guitar, runs errands for his elderly neighbor, and takes classes during the day. The 17-year-old high school junior is dead asleep when his head hits the pillow every night. What keeps him functioning, Holden says, is a daily boost at Caribou Coffee in Edina.

“I have either a cappuccino or cooler every morning,” he said. “It’s basically impossible for me to wake up without one.

“With coffee’s popularity expanding exponentially, young people are willing to pay to keep caffeinated.

Among 18-to-24 year olds, the percentage of those who drink coffee rose from 16 percent in 2003 to 37 percent in 2007 according to Joseph F. DeRupo, director of communications for the National Coffee Association.

Neither Caribou nor Starbucks, the number one coffee company in the country, said they specifically target teens. But informal conversations with teens like Holden and others illustrate the inroads Caribou is making into teen life and suggest that they are becoming an important part of its consumer market.

Holden and other teens regularly come for the assortment of caffeinated and non-caffeinated drinks offered by the Minneapolis-based coffee chain. Holden, for one, gushes about his favorite flavors (caramel or chocolate) and mix-ins (Oreo or Snickers candy bits).

Cindy Doyle, store manager at a Maple Grove Caribou, says Caribou’s new flavors such as the Acai berry smoothie and the upcoming Heath-flavored drink are aimed at people in their “late-teens to early twenties” with “expendable cash.” Though her store has a number of older customers, she says, teens are “a large part of our consumer base.”

Mahyar Sorour, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, says her Shoreview Caribou is always filled with local teens getting their caffeine fix. She describes it as more laid-back than Starbucks, which she calls “more fancy.”

“One of the things I like best about [Caribou] is that every time I go I can see someone I know,” she said.

Doyle says during the school year, her store is filled with teenagers doing homework or “just hanging out.”

“The number of teens that come depends on the time of day. In the early morning it’s mostly the working class, 20-to -45 year olds. Later in the day or evening are when teens and young adults come,” she said.

Caribou spokesman Ryan King said in an e-mail that while Caribou does not market directly to teens, it does welcome teens to call Caribou “their place.” However, he stated that the “peak hours for teens are typically after school, around 3:30 until about 6 p.m.”

Starbucks spokesperson Bridget Baker declined to comment on Caribou’s marketing strategy, but said that Starbucks doesn’t market specifically towards youth.

“We’re always providing new and innovative beveragesÉfor all of our customers, whether they’re young or old,” Baker said.

Caribou faces stiff competition from Starbucks and new rivals like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Wendy’s.

“Caribou is on a tougher playing field than they were on before because more people are going after the coffee business. People who have a lot more money than Caribou, people who have deeper pockets, and many more locations are going after their business,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, Inc., a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York.

At the same time, Davidowitz said, Caribou has found a niche in the quality of its coffee, its customer service and in the environment of their stores.

“Caribou looks like a cool place to go, and that’s very important to teens,” Davidowitz said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Mark Gislason, a 23-year-old Maple Grove resident, was sitting with a friend on the patio of his neighborhood Caribou.

Gislason said he prefers Caribou Coffee to Starbucks because Starbucks is “too corporate. Caribou is a lot smaller. Caribou is low-key and not loud, I can chill or smoke on the patio.”