Top | Unexplained Bacon

Is it good to be the king?

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Recently my family had a flat tire near Tacoma, Washington. We made it to a service station and got the spare on with the help of a friendly tow-truck driver whose white-power prison tattoos I tried to ignore. 

Then, while I went to the tire shop, my wife, Laurie, and our three-year-old, Iris, stayed behind at a place where I knew they would be warm, safe, and happy: Starbucks. 

This caused me a bit of cognitive dissonance, because my Capitol Hill neighborhood in nearby Seattle is a hotbed of quality independent espresso bars and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Starbucks” bumper stickers. 

I vowed to track down the answer to the following question: Is Starbucks a force for good or evil?

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You can probably run down the Starbucks rap sheet with me: Mediocre, overroasted coffee. Overpriced drinks. Same boring decor wherever you go. Unfair prices to growers. And, perhaps worst of all, driving good neighborhood cafes out of business. 

The last charge is the most serious, isn’t it? None of us want to see our favorite coffeehouses wiped from the landscape with a flick of a mermaid tail. It would break my heart to see Seattle’s Joe Bar, Vivace Roasteria, Caffe Vita, or Victrola go under. 

When I moved to Seattle in 1996, there were two Starbucks locations within walking distance of my apartment. Now there are five. In the same period, Starbucks bought competing chains Seattle’s Best Coffee and Torrefazione Italia; their only corporate competitor left in town is the perennially embattled Tully’s. 

So it’s tempting to see Joe Bar and company as holdouts against an encroaching green miasma. 

But what if specialty coffee is an ecosystem and Starbucks is merely the top predator? As in a real ecosystem, Starbucks (it may help here to envision a mermaid with slavering fangs) will pick off as much prey as it possibly can. But there are still niches the company can’t or won’t go into. In these niches, independent coffee thrives: 

Better coffee. With their chain-wide move to automated dispensers, the quality of the pull at Starbucks is now very consistent — consistently mediocre. If you want great coffee, you have to go to an indie. And the customers who demand great coffee didn’t just get off the boat from Milan; they were, like me, raised on Starbucks and were one day lured into a place like Espresso Vivace. 

Beer and wine service. I can’t think of anything more relaxing than sitting at Joe Bar with a bottle of beer, enjoying the chill coffeehouse atmosphere with a chilled brew. (In fact, I wrote a whole article on this topic.) When I asked a Starbucks rep if they had any plans to serve beer or wine at Starbucks locations, she laughed. Many of my other locals also serve beer and wine. 

Attitude. Starbucks just isn't cool — at least, not to anybody over the age of 13. If a key part of your coffeehouse experience involves feeling like you’re sticking it to The Man, you will avoid the round green sign. In Seattle, at least, it does not pay to underestimate this factor. 

Free wireless. If you’re, say, a freelance writer, this is probably more important to you than shampoo. Independent shops usually have it. Starbucks doesn’t. (Here in Seattle, our smaller chain, Tully’s, recently stopped charging for wireless in an effort to lure in, well, anybody. They still don’t serve beer.) 

Nudity. In January, under the headline “Some coffee stands get steamier," the Seattle Times investigated the phenomenon of “sexpresso”: coffee stands staffed by scantily clad young women. The shops have names such as Natté Latté, Moka Girls, Cowgirls, and Bikini Espresso. 

I’m not saying I support this trend. Still, as the article noted, “Drive-throughs are a growing part of Starbucks’ business, too, with more than 1,500 drive-through locations throughout the United States. But a representative of the company said it has no plans to sex up the dress code, as it wouldn’t fit the company’s brand.” 

The ecosystem analogy breaks down, however, when you look at the history of specialty coffee in America. The hyena didn’t create the wildebeest, but Starbucks created the latte junkie. John Hornall, founder of the late Seattle coffeehouse Hines Public Market Coffee, once told the Seattle Times, “If there hadn’t been Starbucks, I’d never have been doing this.” 

So maybe Starbucks is good for independents. It sounds good in theory. What do the actual numbers say? I dug into old phone books, and here’s what I learned. 

Starbucks was founded in 1971. In 1972, the “Coffee — Retail” category first appeared in the Seattle yellow pages. It contained one listing, for the original Starbucks location at Pike Place Market. (There was at least one other coffeehouse in Seattle at this time, Cafe Allegro, but it wasn’t listed in this category.) 

In 1978, the yellow pages listed three Starbucks locations and three other coffeehouses (including the Wet Whisker, which later became Seattle’s Best Coffee). 

The graph shows what's happened since then. I’ve left SBC and Tully’s off the chart; their numbers have always been tiny compared to the Big Green.  

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You can spin these figures to tell whatever story you like, of course. There’s no denying that Starbucks absolutely dominates the Seattle specialty-coffee market, with more than twice as many as locations as everybody else combined. (Nationwide, they account for just over a quarter of all coffee sales.) Furthermore, independents have flattened out while Starbucks continues to grow. 

But many of the new Starbucks locations are in neighborhoods that (I know this is hard to believe) previously had no espresso at all. In 1997, for example, Starbucks opened a store at 23rd and Jackson in Seattle’s Central District, a low-income area. Ten years later, predictably enough, that Starbucks is thriving; Laurie is the librarian at the adjacent middle school, and she reports that her students prefer the vanilla latte. Also predictably, at least two independent coffeehouses have sprouted up in the immediate vicinity — plus an additional Starbucks.

The fact that Starbucks isn’t putting your local coffeehouse out of business is not exactly a groundbreaking finding. In Portland, Oregon, the alternative newspaper Willamette Week came to the same conclusion in 2004, and went on to acquit Starbucks of bilking growers and mistreating its employees. They did, however, find Starbucks guilty of “homogenizing America.” 

If homogenizing America means that we can settle into the warm embrace of Starbucks next time we have a flat, no matter where it happens, I’m in favor of it. 

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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