When you're in a rush to get your morning brew, a drive-thru can be the difference between calm and caffeinated or stressed and sleep-deprived. Two new coffee shop drive-thrus have recently opened in Columbia: Scooter's Coffee launched its first Columbia location in January, and Lakota Coffee Co. opened a southern spot — with the all-important drive-thru — this February.
Andrew DuCharme, Lakota's general manager, says that the drive-thru has helped business grow because it's much more accessible than the downtown Ninth Street location.
“It is an easy in and out for people who are on the go and are running around and need a quick pick-me-up,” DuCharme says.
Now, whether you're devoted to #shoplocal or dedicated to Dunkin’ Donuts, there’s no shortage of coffee drive-thru options around Columbia, including Scooter's, Lakota, The Grind, Dunn Brothers Coffee, Panera Bread, Starbucks and Dunkin'. But the question remains: What's better, the new spots or the age-old chains? To put a few of these drive-thrus to the test, Vox writer Ashli Ellerman hit up four different favorites — Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, the new Scooter's and the new Lakota — to see which one delivered the best service, taste and price.
To keep things fair, Ashli visited each location between the same hours on the same weekday — between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday — and she ordered the same menu item at each stop: a medium iced vanilla latte. Here are her notes from each visit:
Lakota Coffee Co.
Time: 6 minutes
Cars in line ahead of me: No cars
Taste: Out of these four places, I'll admit I'm partial to Lakota. I stop by the downtown location on my way to class on a regular basis. The espresso taste in the latte isn't drowned out by the added vanilla flavor, and the drink is also a bit cheaper than Starbucks. Lakota roasts their own beans here in town, so you can always expect fresh flavor.
Menu: Lakota has one of the largest menus of the Columbia coffee shops. There’s a wide array of sandwiches and desserts, along with pastries and breakfast sandwiches, and they offer drinks you can't get elsewhere in town, such as the coffee shake.
Rating: 9/10 — The combined taste and price give Lakota the best rating of the four places I tried. The time spent in the drive-thru was a bit long — though certainly not egregious — but the location just opened, so the employees deserve a bit of time to get their workflow figured out before they're penalized for speed.
Wait time: 5 minutes and 30 seconds
Cars in line ahead of me: 4
Taste: Starbucks is popular for a reason. It's consistent, it's quality, and it's accessible. The iced vanilla latte is no different; the flavor is not too sweet but sweet enough, and the consistency is smooth and drinkable.
Menu: The chain offers a wide variety of food and drinks, including coffee, pastries, breakfast sandwiches, Frappuccinos, bakery treats, teas and smoothies.
Rating: 8/10 — As one of the biggest names in the coffee business, Starbucks understandably earns the superlative of busiest drive-thru. Even though there were several cars in front of me, I made it through the line surprisingly quickly (those baristas know what they're doing!). The taste isn’t as great as what you'll find at some other Columbia spots, but the price isn't bad.
Wait time: 4 minutes
Cars in line ahead of me: 1
Taste: I thought this iced vanilla latte was a solid choice. Although it didn't have as much of a "coffee" flavor as other options, it was perfectly sweet.
Menu: Scooter's offers a lot of flavors that you don’t see at just any coffee shop. From their candy bar latte to their toffee nut caramel lattes, there are plenty of unusual options. Scooter's also offers similar food items to Starbucks, such as breakfast foods and pastries.
Rating: 7/10 — I spent the least amount of time in this drive-thru, so that gives Scooter's a definite bonus. The taste was better than I expected, but I’m not sure if it was enticing enough to keep me coming back.
Time: 7 minutes and 30 seconds
Cars in line ahead of me: 3
Taste: I know there are some die-hard Dunkin’ fans out there, but I’m not one of them. The coffee is just drowning in sugar. I have no idea how anyone drinks it without getting a stomachache. I know it’s the cheapest of the four, but the poor taste is not worth the great price.
Menu: Obviously Dunkin’ isn’t known for just its coffee. With myriad donuts and breakfast sandwiches, you don’t need to be a coffee drinker in order to find something to love. As a bonus, because Baskin-Robbins is owned by the same company, you'll occasionally find interesting coffee specials that coincide with ice-cream flavors.
Rating: 6/10 — Overall, it took way too long to get through the Dunkin' drive-thru, and the taste isn't a good enough reason to wait. Next time, I'll head to Lakota.