Just off Millionaires’ Row in Oakville lies the world’s first Marilyn Monroe Café. But does it live up to the screen star’s legacy?
“I’ve died and gone to Hollywood heaven,” a blogger exclaims out loud, so fervid he could faint, as we sit in a circle inside the world’s first Marilyn Monroe Café. We’re awaiting a round of red-velvet lattes to pair with our lemon-custard danishes. At this new retail strip, located near Oakville’s Millionaires’ Row, the landscape doesn’t feel towering or overcrowded. I can still feel the sun. Holistic spa Pure + Simple is set up on one side, luxury homes are being built on an adjacent corner, with a dated apartment building and unfamiliar, quaint shops on the other. Marilyn sits front and centre, flaws and all.
From branding to design, one can tell straight away that Marilyn Monroe Café (MMC) is a carefully studied and conceived production, developed over a year by a consortium of creative minds. The team was led by chief development officer Dave Craig, who had an idea to upgrade the standard coffee-house concept by trading indie for celebrity. “The journey began with a conceptual vision to develop a glamourous, iconic, boutique lifestyle café,” he tells me. “The goal, in my mind, was to redefine the space as it currently exists and create a paradigm shift in how people experience a café.” He compares his concept to the idea of having coffee in a chic boutique hotel. “What if we pair that with the glamour of Marilyn and bring that out to the people? The café space needed a reinvention, in the way that Apple reinvented mobile communications.”
Designed by award-winning Mason Studios, the interior is just as sleek and quiet as its exterior. Furnishers include Philippe Starck with Dedon, Eero Saarinen with Knoll, and Tom Dixon, who specializes in salvage creations. The official statement is that the furniture interprets the “clean aesthetic and sensual lines of the mid-century modern era.” There are contrasts of gold and white, with muted greys added throughout. (Personally, I’m sad it’s not red, white, and blue.) The barista staff t-shirts feature images of Norma Jean herself; they look like concert tees. Upstairs, there’s a lounge seating area that’s relaxed and comfortable. The cups are decorated with stars and Marilyn quotes. The menu has coffee for days, frozen yogurt, fruit smoothies, and light snacks. You can go sugar-free, too.
But why Marilyn? “She’s iconic, [she] transcends time and culture,” Craig says. I ask if Monroe was just, well, slotted into the concept as an afterthought. Could one not have easily used, say, a Rita Hayworth Café? Katharine Hepburn? Um, Madonna? Long pause. “Rita Hayworth doesn’t have the je-ne-sais-quoi that Marilyn has. I believe it had to be Marilyn.” The sales pitch is that the space is made to invoke her spirit, which is funny, I say, because when I think of Marilyn, I see her as someone having drinks in the corner of the hotel bar, not sipping a cup of organic, fair-trade joe in a café.
When we discuss the idea of adding cocktails to the menu, Craig points to a staff t-shirt as an example of how being a fabulous champagne drunk was merely “one element” of her persona: “It’s Marilyn enjoying a cup of coffee.” Right. At a professional photoshoot.
Daniel Charron, a partner at Indent Communications, the firm responsible for the branding and vision behind the café, jumps in to fill me in on the fine print of its feel. “I came up with the line, ‘Marilyn was hot, Monroe was cool,’” he explains. “So, it’s hot and sexy and so forth, but, at the same time, it’s a cool environment where you can sit down and enjoy a great drink.” Charron believes this idea can rise above the cookie-cutter café model because there’s “something more human behind it.” The idea is that the stardust will fall, and you won’t catch onto Marilyn, The Brand.
I comment on the photographs on the wall, curated through a partnership with Milton Greene’s estate and his Marilyn archives. A lot of them are candids, and they’re stunning. We talk about Monroe’s “image,” and how it’s changed over four decades. I argue that many of Marilyn’s fans see her through a warped lens—that strong-and-free American nostalgia that’s been exponentially ramped up with the growing uncertainty around its empire. Steadily, her reputation has been watered down, sexed up, her story moulded into a shape-shifting narrative that can sell her as a style star or as an underrated, almost cult-like idol. This is not what MMC wants to portray: they want customers to think about, or worship, the woman before the torture of fame—a distinction, if life really does imitate art, that I’m not convinced even existed.
“We gravitated toward images of Marilyn that were a bit more comfortable and casual, with images of her that [people] may not have seen before,” chimes in Ashley Rumsey, a partner at Mason Studio. “It’s her more intimate moments that show her personality over her stage presence. It’s what we were trying to capture in the interior.” She calls it “understated elegance.” I much prefer the Monroe seen in this video, laughing with friends while (allegedly) smoking…not cigarettes.
As a business, MMC is a partnership with Authentic Brands Group, a New York-based agency that acquired the Monroe estate in January 2011. In fact, their first café was to be opened in Manhattan before Oakville was decided upon as the test market. I had the most questions about this arrangement, given that everything, down to the signage out front, had a poor little “TM” symbol tacked on beside Marilyn’s name. Is the Monroe name merely rented? I’m told it’s a licensing agreement, and that the company behind MMC is MM Café Franchise Inc. New locations are being scouted, including the likely 2013 arrival of a Marilyn shop in Toronto, perhaps in a midtown neighbourhood like Rosedale, a community that mirrors this Oakville one.
Last August marked the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death, and people have never seemed to want her more, both as a person and a product. Between the half-decent menu, the carefully-considered custom blends, and the coffee cups with clever no-spill lids, a lot of thought has gone into the operation. But with laptop sleeves, iPhone cases and other Marilyn memorabilia on sale, it’s easy to see how you could get the wrong idea. It’s part Starbucks, part Disney World, with a side of Planet Hollywood, dipped in fresh paint. It’s a memorial without candles and flowers. It’s a shrine without intimacy.
That said, what stops us from creating a Princess Diana hotel? Or an Anna Nicole Smith bowling alley? To the apprehensive, brand master Charron says: “[Too many products are] all icing, but no cake. Well, there’s as much icing as there is cake here.” But zealous creators seem to often forget that there is such a thing as icing with too much sugar, and that a cake is only as good as the taste it leaves in your mouth.
Marilyn Monroe Café, 350 Lake Shore Road East. Oakville, Ontario. 905-844-5800. Open daily.