Waves Coffee House – 715 Columbia Street, New Westminster
Open Monday-Sunday (and holidays), 6am-12am
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In a decision which must go down in history under the column “why didn’t we think of this before?” New Westminster’s first Waves Coffee House location opened June 1st in the first floor of the Westminster Trust Building, in the former Provincial Government Office space at the corner of Columbia and Begbie.
In a building full of small businesses, within spitting distance of newly remodeled Hyack Square, and at the foot of what could be called “Bridal Row,” it seems strange that this prime location in a heritage building has only now attracted a chain coffee shop. What remains to be seen is what this new coffee spot brings to the neighbourhood.
A made-in-Vancouver chain, Waves Coffee House locations provide coffee, deli-style food, desserts, tea, and an array of the popular drinks in coffee house culture: chai lattes, red tea lattes, matcha, blended iced coffee drinks called Frappes, and Waves’ specialty, fruit Frappes in five flavours. Thirteen locations have opened across the Lower Mainland since the flagship store at Richards and East Georgia opened in 2005.
My previous experiences with Waves have placed it out of my top 5 for coffee chains – the locations I’m familiar with have often been crowded and in poor condition, with a generally unmemorable atmosphere. Their coffee is occasionally burnt and certainly wouldn’t satisfy a true coffee connoisseur, but in general better taste and value than Starbucks. Pluses for the chain include frequent promotions (including free ‘Canadiano’ beverages on Canada Day), discounts and a much larger variety of drinks for the non-caffeine drinker than most other locations. I am told by a friend in the know that Waves’ matcha tea lattes are among the best available from Western coffee shops.
With this in mind, I set out to see this new location for myself – and because Waves’ food and drink is familiar enough, my main goal was to find out how this location fits with downtown New West, and to find out where it sits on our map of Wireless Cafes. A second goal was to learn how Waves Coffee Houses line up with competition in New Westminster.
One of the first things you notice is that this location has some serious curb appeal. Along with a well-chosen location in one of downtown’s most iconic buildings – ‘the city’s first ‘skyscraper,’ built in Beaux-Arts style in 1912 for Westminster Trust and Safe Co. – the shop blends well with the building’s architecture, and actually uses the large bank windows and high ceilings to great effect. The first thing I noticed on Friday’s very hot afternoon was a row of customers enjoying frosty beverages at a high counter in front of a huge open storefront window facing Begbie St. It screamed out to me CHILL OUT HERE, and of course I obeyed the impulse.
The next thing I noticed upon entering from Columbia Street is the absolutely stunning high ceilings – complete with white mouldings and modern chandeliers that lent a bit of a heritage flair to Waves’ standard brown/taupe/blue decor. The space itself is a long, narrow and airy room with ceilings that appear to be a full 20ft high. There is a combination of seating styles, including the high bench seats along the front store windows, a very few small tables and chairs, and in the back, a larger living-room-style area with pleather club chairs gathered around a gas fireplace.
What sets Waves apart from the rest is that it is one of the few coffee chains which provides completely free and unlimited wireless internet access, and this New West location is no exception. The day I was there, the internet connection was fast, easy to connect to (no proxy or sign-in page, and an easily-recognizable SSID, Waves), and the power outlets were plentiful! I spotted at least four obvious to the naked eye, installed in strategic locations in each of the different seating types.
In other locations, free wireless internet has been the cause of some problems, such as being overrun by students who stick around working on their laptops all day, buying little and monopolizing the best seating from paying customers. This location may also suffer a similar fate, but is bigger in seating and square footage than most I’ve seen and appears to be aimed more toward the local business clientele. So – easy, free, and fast internet and plenty of power outlets, that’s two checks off my list of non-negotiables for a proper wireless coffee shop.
In addition to its above-average decor and architecture, it appears that this location has even more to offer the local population than standard: along with the Waves head office in the back, there is also a 12-14 person conference room off of the back “living room” area which can be booked by local customers and businesses. Waves’ also offers catering for local meetings, which may be a welcome addition to the street where many of New West’s businesses and offices are located.
Another refreshing change for me was the lower counters. I’ve seen this trend in other coffee chains as well, moving toward a more open and accessible counter and bar where customers can watch their beverages being made, and customers with disabilities (or short) can actually reach the till and their own drink at the bar. A small detail, but much appreciated. This location also had far more staff than I would have expected, but they were all well-trained, cheerful, and accommodating.
The food is what you’ll find at any Waves location, but it is exceptional when compared to other chain coffee shops. Waves Coffee Houses seem to focus more on providing fresh snacks and light lunches to go along with their large drink menu, and though I’m not sure how much of it is prepared on-site, they do have a large kitchen, and none of the sandwiches, paninis, or wraps were served in packaging. Waves’ paninis are popular, and like their other wraps and sandwiches, are served warm from the grill on a real china plate. Their long glass deli cabinet also holds several rows of some very yummy looking desserts, and what with this location’s long trading hours (6am-12am each day), it makes it very competitive with smaller restaurants on Columbia for the evening crowd – perfect for a snack and a chat after a walk around the Quay, or to stop for a drink with the pooch mid-walk. Certainly the business folks in that part of town will enjoy finally having some good, quick and apparently fresh lunch options for a change.
My concerns with this location were few: the ubiquitous blended-ice Frappe drinks caused quite a loud blender noise, and the high ceilings tended to echo the sound throughout. On a hot day a conversation might be obliterated by the demand for Frappes. I also have a concern that this visually stunning location could soon go the way of the Mt. Pleasant and Commercial Drive locations, suffering from serious wear and tear. Some locations struggle with visits from the local street population who can sometimes leave the bathrooms vandalized or unusable. These bathrooms are kept locked with a punch code available from the counter, likely for just this reason. Given Columbia Street’s own struggles with itinerant folks, and the long hours that this location is open, it remains to be seen whether a location this fancy can be maintained over time.
This is the sort of place you’d take your friends after you bought an expensive condo in the old post office building, to convince them of what a hip and up-and-coming place New West really is. “See? Even our coffee shops are a little bit different,” you might say. It also struck me that this would be a perfect apres-cinema spot, given its late-night hours and nice conversational seating – now all we have to do is get a cinema back into downtown. Even more likely, I see Waves supplanting Starbucks on 6th and Columbia as the spot to collapse with your future mother-in-law and your maid-of-honor after a long walk up and down Columbia Street, as you post-mortem your bridal gown options.
In all it was a pleasant experience, and the sound of the train whistle from the Begbie crossing nearby made me smile. The diversity of customers was really something, with seemingly every age demographic represented. Interestingly, though, the only real demographic that I didn’t see were business people.