Why coffee is beginning to outsell booze at campus bars

At two large Ontario universities, alcohol sales have declined while coffee sales have spiked at campus pubs.

Pubs at Western and McMaster both report decreasing sales in alcohol while coffee drinks are on the rise

Janani Thillainathan grabs a coffee on campus almost every day, but rarely buys alcohol at campus bars. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

On a Wednesday afternoon at Western University's Spoke and Rim Tavern, it's easier to find a student clutching a coffee than chugging a beer. 

21-year-old Janani Thillainathan, for instance, is drinking an iced coffee — something she buys on an almost daily basis.

"I really just need my pick-me-up for the day," she said. 

Thillainathan's friend Hunster Yang, also 21, has a similar habit: he buys coffee or tea three to four times a week to help him focus on schoolwork.

So how often do they drink alcohol at a campus bar?

"A couple times a month," said Thillainathan. "Not often on campus."

"Maybe several times a year," said Yang. 

Mark Leonard is the senior manager of hospitality services for Western University's student council. He says students are going home earlier and spending less money on alcohol than they did in the past. (Submitted)

The two friends aren't alone in their drinking habits, according to Mark Leonard, the university student council's (USC) manager of hospitality services.

Over the course of the 2017-2018 school year, sales at the cafe side of the Spoke and Rim grew by 14 per cent and outpaced the bar by a factor of about two to one, he said.

The decline in alcohol sales could be partly because of service disruption from renovations at the pub last summer, but the demand for booze at Western's campus bars has been trending downwards for years, he said.

"Having multiple drink purchases at the bar just isn't something that happens as much as it used to," said Leonard, who's worked for the USC for 18 years — first as a chef and later as a food and beverage manager.

McMaster University added a cafe to their campus pub this year. "It’s been incredibly successful," said Daniel D'Souza, VP finance of the McMaster student union. (Submitted)

It's not just happening at Western University. 

McMaster University is also seeing a drop in alcohol sales combined with a greater demand for coffee — one that's significant enough that the student union converted part of its on-campus bar TwelvEighty to a cafe this year.

The move has been so successful that there's even talk of converting part of the dance floor to create more seating space at the cafe, according to Daniel D'Souza, VP finance of the McMaster student union. 

"Pubs are meant to be a gathering space for people, but students want a different environment to gather in," he said.

So what gives?

It all began with the end of Grade 13, said Leonard.

First-year students in the 1980s might have sauntered down to the bar from their on-campus residence, most students who arrive at Western these days just aren't old enough to drink. 

And contrary to certain millennial stereotypes, Leonard said the students he works with are also more focused on their studies than they used to be.

"They would much rather study for an exam than be out drinking at a bar the night before," he said. "Whereas 20 years ago, students would've been all for making sure they didn't miss a good party and the education may have come as a secondary." 

Alcohol sales have been on the decline at campus bars for years now, according to Jeff Dover, a consultant in the food service industry. ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Employees at on-campus bars and pubs are also keeping a closer eye on customers than they used to, according to Jeff Dover, a consultant in the food service industry.

"When I went to school in the mid 1980s I could order a tray of drinks for myself, no problem," said Dover. "Now they're really careful with how much they serve, so that does make an impact."

Trend across Canada

It's not just students that are teetotalling, said Dover.

Numbers from Restaurants Canada show that Canadians across the board are spending less money on alcohol, for a variety of reasons. 

Partly, it's about price. Buying dinner out becomes a much more costly venture when you throw a few bottles of wine in the mix.

Public opposition to drinking and driving also plays a part, as does awareness of the health impacts of alcohol, Dover said.

"It's kind of just a change in the way things are done," said Dover. "It's been an ongoing trend that's been decades now, people are drinking less and less alcohol when they're out dining."

But although beer is trending downwards, students — and Canadians as a whole — are still spending big bucks on another brew: coffee.

After all, it pairs well with studying, it doesn't impair your driving and you don't need ID to buy it.

Although students are spending less money on alcohol than they used to, they're still dropping money on coffee and other cafe-style drinks. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"Coffee sales on campuses are high and make a huge percentage of campus food service. It's something I expect to see going forward, " said Dover. "Anyone on campus can purchase coffee."

And as students graduate and leave campus, the trend in coffee sales is likely to continue, Dover said. 

About three years ago, millennials overtook baby boomers as the largest spenders of food and beverages out of the home and what those young people want are small, customizable snacks, he said.

"When I look at the food service business in Canada, the fastest growing dayparts are the morning snack, the afternoon snack and the evening snack," said Dover.

"The places that are benefiting from that — it's the Tim Hortons, it's the cafe part of McDonalds, it's Starbucks — it's just growing and I don't expect it to decrease any time soon."