After years of destructive dominance, Starbucks is getting its butt kicked by indy coffee shops.
For centuries, coffeehouses have been the epicenters of counter-culture. Their caffeinated brews served as a refuge for radicals and fueled debates about politics, culture and arts. Capitalizing on this historical significance, Starbucks crashed the scene in the 1990s with an aggressive expansionist agenda. It rapidly flooded the market, replacing the social and intellectual dynamism of coffee shop culture with a top-down illusion of community.
But after a decade of dominance, the Starbucks global monolith is crumbling. Last year, the corporate coffee giant saw stocks plunge, competition increase and general confidence in the company dwindle. Sir Paul McCartney, one of the highest profile musicians signed to the Starbucks’ Hear Music label, even admitted that he prefers his cup of joe from independent coffee shops. “I go to the café next door to one of the Starbucks, to my everlasting shame,” he told the media.
It seems the more Starbucks expands, the more its mystique is falling apart. No longer caught up in the whirlwind of Starbucks hype, coffee drinkers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the homogenized, cookie- cutter culture that has taken over their neighborhoods.
Already faced with long lines and inflated prices, coffee consumers now complain that Starbucks cafés aren’t comfortable, the coffee aroma has vanished, the pastries are stale, the shelves are full of tacky gifts and the coffee is crap. Earlier this year, Consumer Reports famously ranked the McDonald’s house brew ahead of Starbucks in a taste test, criticizing the latter for being “burnt and bitter enough to make your eyes water instead of open.” It’s a fast-food model of rapid-fire consumerism that has obliterated the sort of community that used to characterize coffeehouse culture.
Meanwhile, the international politics behind your double tall, no-whip frappuccino continue to leave a foul aftertaste: along with its union-busting and resistance to fair-trade coffee, Starbucks has guiltlessly set up shop in Guantanamo Bay, where the US has been torturing suspected terrorists without charging them, and across US military bases in occupied countries. In countries like Saudi Arabia, where Starbucks has also expanded, it enthusiastically endorses gender segregation in its shops.
Starbucks’ ruthless expansion tactics have also hurt its image as the cozy neighborhood coffee shop. While it portrays its growth as an innocuous endeavor to meet the demands of its consumers, the truth is that it uses a series of dirty tricks in order to try and run small, independent coffee shops out of business – stuff of renown, like buying the leases of independent shops, flat-out intimidation or passing out free samples outside the front door of independent competitors.
But as Starbucks continues to orchestrate its own demise, independent coffee shops are successfully finding ways to reclaim the culture that was stolen from them. According to Greg Ubert, founder of Crimson Cup, a coffee product distributor, coffee shops have found that if they provide a unique cultural experience, they can still thrive, despite the Starbucks onslaught.
“Not only are consumers looking to buy local, they’re looking for a great experience,” says Ubert. “We didn’t think it was good enough to say ‘Buy local just because;’ we thought that it was very important to ‘Buy local because it’s the best coffee you’ll have.'”
The formula is working. In a recent Slate article, Taylor Clark writes that the triumph of corporate homogeny over independent business, the one that activists and anti-globalists feared when Starbucks began its aggressive expansion in the late 1990s, has all but entirely failed to take place. Clark points out that in the David-versus-Goliath struggle between independent coffee shops and Starbucks, the indies look like they’re poised to win.
In the US, “Mom and Pop” coffee shops still constitute 57 percent of the market, and have actually grown in absolute numbers by 40 percent from 2000 to 2005. Indy coffee shops, put simply, offer what Starbucks doesn’t: deflated prices, rewards for customer loyalty and unique, localized fare.
“The independent coffee shops have the edge of community,” says Kim Krantz, owner and operator of Coffee Chaos in Midland, Michigan. Part of that community, the personal aspect that Krantz so values in his work, is obviously clientele: the most flattering compliment is when a loyal customer tells other people to skip Starbucks and head over to Coffee Chaos instead.
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