The permanent closure of Starbucks on Queen Street Sunday was a sad occasion for a group of locals who have been meeting often, some of them daily, at their favourite coffee shop.
It ended with some tears, dejected goodbyes to staff who have become friends, and discussions about where they would meet next. There is no question the afternoon kaffeeklatsches will continue, but no answer yet as to where.
Neil Rumble, as the original member and the de facto leader of the group, explains how it began. “I’ve come here every single day, right from the beginning. People would stop to chat, and end up having a coffee with me. It just grew from there.”
Some knew Rumble before that, and others knew none of the 16 people who have become friends, all because of Rumble’s daily craving for a venti Caffe Americano. Not all came every day, and some have been holding off during the pandemic. In the colder months, there were tables inside pushed together across the front of the coffee shop, and as soon as the weather warmed up, they moved out on the patio. Rumble and Maureen Kaufman, another of the long-standing “Starbuckies,” as they call themselves, would arrive a little early so they could get their tables and chairs arranged, and when they were done, move everything back into place so as not to make extra work for Starbucks.
“They do such a wonderful job,” says Rumble of the staff. “They’ve been so good to us, inside and out.”
At one point, Kaufman had a plaque made proclaiming “Neil’s office,” which hung in the corner of Starbucks where they met for some time before the manager decided it needed to come down.
They then tried hanging it on the brick wall beside their outdoor table, but it didn’t last long there before another regular patron, who had morning coffee in that corner of the patio, removed it, they say, the mark it left on the brick remaining as a reminder of their meeting place.
Much of what they say is in jest — even when they get into the scary politics south of the border, there is joking and much laughter, because in addition to being a story-teller, Rumble loves to joke.
At 85, he says, “the older I get, the happier I am, and I love to make people laugh.”
He does wonder where the years have gone, he adds, and thanks his mother for his “good genes. It’s not the way I lived my life, that’s for sure.”
With about a decade in the ’90s as general manager of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, Rumble has some great stories to tell about the town and its residents. He likes to talk about the way the town handled its 3.5 million visitors when the population was only 11,500. He recalls the early days before the candlelight stroll became what it is today, when six or seven women would stand in Simcoe Park with candles and sing Christmas songs; the many times he dressed as John Graves Simcoe to celebrate historic occasions; and when he was the model for the sculptor who created the statue of Simcoe that stands in the park today.
“We love hearing all the old stories,” says Patricia Rogers, “and about the people. We don’t know them, but we love hearing about them.”
She also loves her Starbucks venti coffee frappe one-third sweet latte decaf with low-fat milk, extra frappe roast and no whipped cream.
It’s been six years since Patricia and her husband, Eugene, who were newcomers to the town, became friends with the Starbucks group, but he jokes he still has her coffee choice written down, for fear of not getting it right when he orders it.
In the heat of the summer, when the street was busy, they all moved with their choice of drinks to a shady table in Simcoe Park, where it was less crowded and they could spread out.
They say they will continue to meet through the winter, but have to find an indoor location, although they will likely move back to the park next summer.
“We’ve checked out the Starbucks in Virgil,” says Kaufman, although there is some concern about whether it can accommodate a large group.
They have heard the coffee and treats at Sweets & Swirls is good, and several of them have come to love Erinn Lockard and her family, who run the community centre cafe, so that is high on their list.
They will also continue to meet — safely, of course — for dinners, to celebrate birthdays and other occasions, apart from the coffee gatherings.
Some of them knew each other through the organizing of the every-other-year polo event on the Commons, which was, in its early days in the ’90s, a fundraiser for the chamber, and is now a NOTL Museum event.
“Murray (Friesen), George (Dell) and I were the three amigos,” says Rumble. “We met through polo, and we would sit here and talk about polo.”
“Eugene and I didn’t know anybody until we sat down and started talking,” says Patricia.
“And they haven’t stopped talking,” jokes Rumble.
The discussion topics have varied over the years. “We talk about anything and everything,” Rumble says, “politics, what’s going on in town, COVID.”
“We’re all in agreement on Trump. “We’re more likely to talk more about our own local politics,” says Patricia.
“And sometimes we just all talk at the same time. Otherwise we wouldn’t get a word in edge-wise,” says Rumble, adding the women occasionally have their own side conversations, which gives the men a chance to talk to each other.
“We talk about family, and children,” adds Kaufman.
Rumble’s family is far away, in Nova Scotia, he says. “This is my family. We’re all family.”
Eugene says the conversations often begin with someone asking a question and everyone piping in with answers, until they end up going to Google for the correct information.
“Every day we pull up Google for something, because some people just make up stories,” Ruth says, looking at Rumble.
Kaufman likes to shop, and says the women will sometimes talk about the stores in town. She shops on Queen Street, and supports local businesses. “I love the stores. We also eat in local restaurants and shop at both valu-marts.”
Corinne and Dieter Unruh are regulars who have been staying close to home due to COVID, and Corinne’s brother, long-time firefighter Mike Vriens, who died in July, 2019, was part of the group as well.
Ruth Dowsett and her daughter Alexis are also regulars who joined the group about six and a half years ago, and it’s quickly obvious that if Rumble’s acerbic banter is more often than not directed at Ruth, she is quick to give it back.
“There was this strange man always sitting here by himself,” she jokes. “I took pity on him and started to talk to him.”
“Things went downhill after that,” adds Rumble, who admits to being “the crazy uncle” of the group.
“It’s a diverse group of people who might not have been friends, but have become friends who sit here and have coffee.”
For all the kidding, the affection within the group is evident when they talk of the Christmas parties Ruth hosts for them, a 50th anniversary for the Rogers celebrated with them, and the value of having people to talk to during the pandemic.
“This is keeping us happy during a difficult time, being together, and having fun,” says Kaufman.
Bill and Donna Young, with McKinley, their Bernese mountain dog, knew none of the group. They live in St. Davids, but they drive to the Old Town, go for a walk and end up at Starbucks. They had an older dog, Murphy, since passed away, when they started their routine. Murphy was a good dog, but would occasionally bark at people, and Rumble enjoyed watching, encouraging Murphy, says Donna. About two years ago, they became the newcomers to the group.
Donna says the meetings over coffee “are informative and entertaining. I love to sit and get to know everybody, and hear the stories about Niagara, especially the gossip.”
And McKinley loves her puppacinno, says Donna, as the well-behaved and much-loved canine licks her Starbucks cup clean of the whipped cream.
They all have their favourites — Debbie Kassebaum likes her dairy-free oat apple coffee, only available in Canada — made with steamed oat milk and roasted apple syrup, with a clove sugar topping. However it was a hot chocolate she was after five years ago, the day she stopped at Starbucks to warm up after a Remembrance Day service, when she got talking to the group and became a regular with her puppy, Simone. “It’s led to great friendships, discussions of important issues, world issues and local gossip.”
Although the staff say they are sad the store is closing and they will miss their regulars, they have all been offered jobs in other Starbucks locations.
Trevor Voogt, district manager of several Niagara locations, was at the Queen Street location for its final day.
Unable to comment on the reason for the doors being shuttered, he says Starbucks are often closed when their lease runs out. The expectation is that regular customers will visit nearby locations, such as the one in Virgil. There is also one in the outlet mall in Glendale.
The staff have “new homes” within the region, he says, and since many live in St. Catharines and other areas of Niagara, in some cases, they will be closer to home.
“It is so sad to see this close,” he says of the Queen Street site. “This is not something we take lightly. For some people, it’s a second home. They come here every day.”
A Starbucks location in the Leaside neighbourhood of Toronto also closed Sunday, with a poster encouraging patrons to instead visit other nearby locations nearby.
Starbucks announced in June it was restructuring its company-operated business in Canada over the next two years, with the potential of up to 200 stores being closed, “with some of those stores being repositioned,” suggesting new locations might open nearby.
Starbucks is largely a company-owned chain, although Voogt described some of its coffee shops as “licensed,” similar to franchises, in areas such as the main strip in Niagara Falls, locations in universities or along major highway routes, which offer different items.