Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Subliminal Apology of Starbucks.

I was surprised to find, a couple days ago, a story about a new experimental coffee outlet that opened in Seattle last week. As it turns out, Starbucks opened a coffee shop that didn't have the standard Starbucks iconography stamped all over walls, signage and aprons. This particular location isn't even called "Starbucks".

15th Ave. Coffee and Tea is the Starbucks translation of an independent coffee house, and the company hopes to create a community-focused feel for it's new one-off. Now serving beer and wine, this attempt at shedding the cookie cutter feel of the current Starbucks brand will incorporate later hours to attract the poetry crowd for an occasional slam or open mic. What it won't incorporate are the Starbucks name or logo, or even some products, such as the frappuccino.

The opening of this new store bears a subtle confession; Starbucks has realized that the connection with their clients, and the prestige of their product, have been damaged by multiple stages of replication. Situations where a Starbucks is located in close proximity to another Starbucks are commonplace, and for a while that was a profitable strategy. But the more common something becomes, the less it's a treat.

I think the big problem for Starbucks has been its focus on getting people in the door, as opposed to making Starbucks a place where you want to stay. The seating is very cramped, and adding cream and sugar to my coffee is almost always a juggling match with several other people. I understand the philosophy behind cramping the real estate, and hoping to inspire interaction between people, but reading, studying, and having a private conversation don't come as easy in a Starbucks anymore.

Reviews for the new store on are generally positive. 15th Ave. seems to have a rustic and individualized feel, with great products and service. But any success at the experimental shop stands as more evidence that Starbucks has lost its way. Hopefully, for the company, the two types of locations can work in tandem to serve two types of customers, the ones who come for the coffee, and the ones who come for the shop.


Alex said...

Hm, perhaps Starbucks is fighting a battle on multiple fronts... The Morning Joe sponsorship deal ( seems like a 'getting people in the door' strategy.

Damo said...

Great observation, Max. Starbucks became unacceptably impersonal years ago, IMHO. I am a lover of the coffee shop as a community space, not just an engine of commerce. Where else can all the freaks come get tweaked on their favorite(?) upper and share their weirdness with each other and the world?

I mean, other than college.

(R.I.P. College Perk Coffeehouse)

Ozkirbas said...
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Jason Heat said...

aaaaand by Max, you mean Steve.

Genuinely not trying to bust balls, just giving props to the author.

Damo said...

Oh damn, my bad Stephen! Max you suck and Stephen is the bearer of brilliant observations.

Disaster averted.

Matt Lindeboom said...

Well played sir.

Good post Steve. I'm interested in the idea of a coffee house that also serves beer and wine. I've never seen one.

Damo said...

Matt you really missed out, man. The College Perk was literally a second home to me. I currently live with some kids who used to live on the premises. In fact I worked there briefly myself just to make friends and become part of the community. I absolutely loved it. They not only sold coffee and coffee drinks, they had about 20 or 30 different loose teas, a full food menu, a fully stocked bar, open mic nights, bands, wine tastings, and a permanently chill atmosphere (except for the aforementioned open mic night, pretty sure the regulars hated it).

But alas, all great things come to an end and The Perk is no more. Or should I say, The Perk is "in exile."

Viva La Resistance!

Max Nova said...

Damo, don't worry, I'll have some thoughts in the near future.

One thing to note for now, the phrase "inspired by starbucks," which technically does not make any sense at all by the traditional use of the word inspired, is all over the restaurant. No slight on you Steve, just wanted to note it. See seattlist for pictures.

Stephen said...

Yea Max I did hear about that on NPR's Weekend Edition. I was inspired to write this by that report. Barbara Lippert of AdWeek was interviewed for the segment. I found Ms. Lippert's response to this issue unsatisfactory. To paraphrase, Scott Simon asked her why Starbucks was taking this route, and she replied in a string of babbling uninspired quips about how she had no idea what Starbucks was thinking, and that she just didn't get it. The interview was so painful I almost cringed with a combination of awkwardness and discontent. Luckily Mr. Simon realized his guest was in a Fortune 500 mentality, and then used a more specific leading strategy in his interview. Here's the link if you're a masochist:

Brett said...
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Max Nova said...

As promised, a few thoughts and teh Starbux:

Starbucks seems to have three main aspects - making of coffee, distributing coffee, and providing ambiance or "The Third Place."

As far as making coffee, general consensus seems to be that Dunkin Donuts makes better coffee, and Starbucks basically admitted that their coffee wasn't very good when they switched to Pike's Place roast a little while ago, and then had a very public training day for all their staff (, effectively admitting that no one really knows what they're doing. That said, their main stock in trade are adult slushies that have only a passing resemblance to actual coffee.

As a distributor they are absolutely unparalleled in their success. There are zillions of starbucks in every possible location. Whether you think of this as a good or a bad thing, they are everywhere. And much like the McDonalds lining America's highways, if I'm in an unfamiliar place and want some caffeine, I generally gravitate to Starbucks.

And that brings us to "The Third Place" the bullshit hippie-dippy lie told by the founder about how Starbucks is this mythical utopian middle ground between work and home that keeps society better. A normal starbucks is generally just a bunch of somewhat comfortable chairs filled with people looking at their laptops and ignoring all other people around them. Real coffee shops tend to have ambiance and genuine bonhomie because of the people and the communal aspects that Starbucks can never have. The Perk had this for stretches, although it was one of the worst run businesses in the history of capitalism, ever. With one fruit-logo'd computer as the big exception, it is really really really tough for a company to create community out of nothing.

So here's my thought, rather than the Starbucks employees going around other coffee shops with clipboards like douchebags, and trying to create zombie replicas, how about they give seed money to small independent coffeehouses and provide a bit of non-compete clause for immediate areas around these businesses. Then if Starbucks sees a good idea in these shops, they can try it out in another market. Alternately, they could just work on making more of the regular Starbuck locations seem actually inviting.