How Second Cup’s promotional Piaggios narrowly avoided the scrap heap

Piaggio panic: strong coffee versus red tape

OTTAWA — They are the marketing darlings of the Second Cup franchise, and bureaucracy nearly killed them.

The tale of the two Piaggio three-wheeled vehicles that were given life in Italy, overhauled in Ireland and then put to work in Canada appears to have come to an end after a last-second political plea spared the vehicles from the scrap yard.

The story starts in 2014 when the company was launching a new specialty drink and decided to bring in the two Italian vehicles to help with promotions and hopefully boost sales.

The company’s 2014 annual report said the little “Piaggio Apes,” originally from Italy, were customized in Ireland to convert into an espresso brewing station to promote a new drink at the coffee shop chain.

“Espresso lovers, your day has finally arrived … literally,” the report said.

But the days of the Piaggios were numbered because of how they came into the country, the details of which were laid out for Transport Minister Marc Garneau in a briefing note just over a year ago.

Second Cup originally got the two non-compliant vehicles into Canada through “temporary importation requests” — effectively a waiver from the rules — to use the vehicles for promotional purposes.

The waiver was only good for 12 months. After one year, the company had to legally destroy the vehicles under the terms of the import agreement.

In May 2015, with the destruction deadline looming, Second Cup asked Transport Canada to stay the execution for the two Piaggios and let the company keep them permanently.

Transport Canada said no. The briefing note to Garneau says “the company confirmed that they would abide.”

Transport Canada sent reminders in August and September 2015 of the pending deadline to destroy the two vehicles.

In early October 2015, days before the federal election, Second Cup asked for a meeting with then-minister Lisa Raitt; Garneau did not officially become minister until November, when the Liberal government was sworn in. The company wanted to keep the vehicles and hoped for some political help in doing so.

Transport Canada said the vehicles had to be destroyed as per the import agreement.

On Dec. 7, 2015, the CEO of Second Cup made a written plea to Garneau, saying the company had made an administrative error when it filled out the paperwork to import the vehicles. Again, the company hoped for political intervention.

President and CEO Alix Box wrote to Garneau that the vehicles are only used as props at stores or events. They were transported on trailers, Box wrote, and they have never and would never be driven, adding with emphasis: “They are not drivable!”

Box wrote that Second Cup had made “considerable effort” to plead its case with department officials and offered to remove parts from the Piaggios to ensure they couldn’t be driven in case anyone tried. All these efforts, she wrote, were met with the same response: “We have to destroy them.”

“Surely in these times of unrest our government has much more serious and pertinent issues to solve. Should common sense not prevail versus bureaucracy ruling the day?” Box wrote.

“As the head of a Canadian company, I think it would be absolutely shameful to see these Piaggios end up as landfill because of an importing administrative error on our part.”

Box’s letter also alludes to potential fines for the company, but those details were not included in the documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Transport Canada wouldn’t discuss the details of the case, nor say how many three-wheeled vehicles are in Canada under conditions similar to those that ushered the Second Cup Piaggios into the country.

A spokeswoman for the company said Transport Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency agreed, after the letter, to let Second Cup permanently maintain possession of the Piaggio vehicles for marketing and promotional purposes.

“There was an administrative error in how the forms were originally filed and did not adequately reflect the Piaggios’ intended use,” spokeswoman Vanessa Powell said in an email.

“Following the letter to Marc Garneau … Second Cup was granted permanent possession of the Piaggios under the conditions that they would be used for marketing and promotional purposes only.”

The deal was finalized on June 30, 2016.

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Jordan Press, The Canadian Press