Starbucks in disguise

Eating out
Starbucks’ new stealth cafes


Most people have an opinion about Starbucks, and it’s generally one of two polar opposites. Not many people sit in the middle.

Starbucks have expanded rapidly over the last decade or so from a small, cultish Seattle coffee chain to a global coffee behemoth, with over 16,000 stores in forty-nine countries.

The credit crunch seems to be taking it’s toll, and the giants of the market aren’t immune, especially when they sell coffee for well over £2 a cup, firmly a ‘luxury item’ therefore less important than, say, paying the mortgage. How many ‘beat the financial crisis’ type articles are out there that list taking your own lunch to work and avoiding expensive take-out coffee as a way of staying afloat?

Starbucks have positioned themselves as the ‘third place’ in people’s lives, the first two being the home and the workplace. Their philosophy is that they want to create a safe and welcoming space where people can just relax and be comfortable (1). That might be fine for a little independent coffee shop, but does it really stretch across a chain of 16,000 plus outlets, all of which look the same, selling identical products?

I’d suggest it probably doesn’t, which makes Starbucks latest move fascinating. Brilliant, even.

Here’s their problem.

Starbucks have been very successful at running coffee shops based around a comfortable and accessible theme that has it’s roots in the original, quirky independent stores the chain was born from.  Their real success is in the way they’ve been able to package and commoditise their product, making the opening of a new store efficient and cost effective.  The price of this efficiency is that one Starbucks looks just the same as any other.  The individuality has been lost, and the presence of a ‘Community Noticeboard’ isn’t enough to convince people that they’re not in the coffee version of McDonalds.

How do Starbucks break this mould when their business model is based around standardisation and efficiency?  The answer is simple.  They try something ‘old school’ instead, something much more in keeping with their roots.

They open proper coffee shops again.

A new type of Starbucks opened in Seattle recently, without any of the Starbucks branding or styling.  Simply titled 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, the store is much more like an old fashioned coffee shop, and it aims to grow as a community hub, offering live music, poetry slams and – shock! – beer.

Starbucks stealth cafe


Perhaps most tellingly, the new store has manual espresso machines.

Making espresso is a real skill.  It isn’t easy.

The best baristas are highly trained and well practiced, and it’s clearly been impossible for Starbucks to get quality baristas into all 16,000 stores and the need to maintain reasonable standards off quality led to the inevitable conclusion of automatic machines.  In the new store, a barista has to make the coffee his or herself, not simply load up a hopper with grounds and push a button, all that’s required of the machines in every other store.

This is a real ‘back to the roots’ move, and a bold one.

Maybe it shows that Starbucks recognises some of it’s failings, it’s homogenity.  The new styling looks good.  It’s individual and characterful.  It has that genuine bohemian edge that the best coffee shops have.  It’s got more attitude than a regular Starbucks.

Maybe it’s just another marketing ploy, a way to grab back some market share as the corporation sees profit slipping through it’s fingers.  Maybe it’s just the company being nostalgic.

It’s interesting to note how Starbucks researched their new look.  The Seattle Times reports that Starbucks employees spent a fair amount of time camped out in rival independent coffee shops:

Sebastian Simsch, co-owner of Seattle Coffee Works near Pike Place Market, became frustrated last year after large groups of Starbucks employees kept crowding into his 300-square-foot store to look around.

“I thought it was funny,” he said. “We’re this little store, and I thought Starbucks didn’t need to learn from me.”

During the third group’s visit, Simsch let them know what he thought.

“I said, ‘If you want to buy something that’s great, but just to look, that’s not cool,’ ” he recounted. “I called the PR department and said, ‘Never again.’ “

They did not come back, even after he moved into a much larger store next door.
Victrola Coffee Roasters saw the Starbucks people a lot more often.

“They spent the last 12 months in our store up on 15th [Avenue] with these obnoxious folders that said, ‘Observation,’ ” said Victrola owner Dan Ollis. (2)

Maybe they haven’t changed that much, after all.

There are more sneaky photos of the new style store on

Postscript:  Here’s my position on Starbucks.  I’m one of those unusual people who sit in the middle.  I’ve been fond of Starbucks since discovering them in Vancouver, BC in 1996.  I came home thinking that it would be great to see one in Leeds, but I didn’t expect so many to eventually descend.  I respect them as a pioneer, but I prefer Cafe Nero.  The coffee is better, and that’s what it’s all about.

Postscript #2: For really great coffee in Leeds, Opposite in the Victoria Quarter and (surprisingly) opposite the Parkinson building at the University is the place to go.  Their coffee is a work of art, and by far the best I’ve ever had in Yorkshire.

(1) Taylor Clark’s Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture is a fascinating read and covers the ethics, philosophy, impact and direction of the chain in admirable detail.  Highly readable and recommended.