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Surreptitious in Seattle: There’s a New Starbucks in Town, But You Wouldn’t Know It

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Thursday September 3rd, 2009 | 27 Comments

starbucks_escher-757783One day, many years ago, Starbucks was a little coffee shop tucked away in a corner of Seattle’s Pike Place Market. If I was a freelance journalist living in Seattle in 1971, when the first one opened, I bet I would have patronized that coffee house. When I did live in Seattle as a freelance journalist back in the late ’90s, Starbucks was growing hugely–adding hundreds and then up to one thousand stores each year leading up to the turn of the century. I sought out less corporate coffee shops that better suited my tastes… And now, with more than 15,000 coffee shops around the world, the king of coffee is looking to recapture that 1971 feeling. But under a different name.

In late July, Starbucks opened 15th Ave Coffee & Tea in Seattle’s trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood. While you won’t see a Starbucks sign out front or Starbucks cups inside, 15th Ave Coffee & Tea is Starbucks’ baby. So why, asks Adaptive Path’s Peter Merholz in his blog, would Starbucks do such a thing?

It appears that Starbucks is looking to attain a level of authenticity, as a coffee house and as a neighborhood joint, that it lost somewhere along the way to its 15,000 retail locations. But Merholz argues that this tactic is going to fail because “there’s no way a corporate coffee chain can create an authentic neighborhood coffeehouse experience.”

But what really chaps Merholz’s hide is the tremendous effort that Starbucks seems to be taking in not branding 15th Ave Coffee & Tea. “Everyone knows it’s run by Starbucks,” he writes, “but the website and the store do all they can to suggest it’s a true independent (though the high level of interior design suggests a bankroll out of the reach of most entrepreneurs).”

And it looks like some patrons agree. Check out the comments to the first blog post on the coffee shop’s web site. Many of the commenters were pleased as punch with the new shop and is Clover-brewed coffee, but others used the opportunity to air their displeasure with the new concept store. Here’s a sample: “You’re a Starbucks, so why all the cloak and dagger with trying to be an indy. I’d have more respect if you just came out and branded it with the old logo. Focus on the core, the coffee. Seriously as a shareholder this store and move is a disappointment.”

Merholz’s initial July 26 blog elicited lots of responses, with some readers saying that what Starbucks has done with 15th Ave is no different than The Gap operating the higher-end Banana Republic or Toyota offering Lexus cars for the well-heeled. But Merholz holds that Starbucks doesn’t appear to have plans to make 15 Ave another brand. It’s a one-off. So that beckons the question: why?

If 15th Ave is so great, with so much attention to detail and quality products and community-building, then why isn’t Starbucks owning the brand?

Meanwhile, Starbucks also recently offered a new “green“  Starbucks coffee shop at 1st and Pike, down by the original Pike Place location. So if that’s the “green” shop, then what is 15th Ave? The hipster shop that is too cool to be seen with its corporate parent? To many, the 15th Ave Coffee & Tea location amounts to brandwashing.

And it’s too bad, because as Gennefer Snowfield recently observed after a Q&A with Starbucks’ Jim Hanna, the coffee giant is making some real, positive strides for positive change, such as its efforts to offer recyclable and reusable cups inside its stores.


▼▼▼      27 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Nick Aster

    I keep thinking of “Applebees” who goes to great lengths to hang all kinds of local sports team memorabilia and other local kitsch all over the place at their locations. It actually makes the fake-ness of the place even worse.

  • Pete Brumis

    Good blog post Clara. For the record, I think it’s deceitful of LameBucks to try to take $$ from those who are TRYING to support INDEPENDENT, LOCAL shops. It’s the same as lying, as those profits flow right out of the community.

    I put Starbucks one level above RJR (tabacco) as they add caffeine so you can ONLY GET YOUR FIX AT STARBUCKS. Sound familiar, informed butt smokers??

  • ScottyDawg

    I recently visited the “prototype” location on 15th Ave. I was delighted to sit at the community table! Reminded me of 18th century French cares where people gathered and planned to better their lives through story and heated debate. Awesome! I didn’t plot the French revolution with the gentleman across the table but he was interested in coffee and that is a good start! I also loved seeing the LaMarzocco bar – hand pulled espresso- entertain me man! Loved it!
    But after working for that organization of people for 15 years I was SO disappointed to not have my beautiful twin tailed girlfriend looking back at me – comfort and reassurance: isn’t that what a brand signals? Hmmm…I have faith those fine people will figure it out! Use what you’ve learned from the prototypes and be courageous and improve other stores!

  • Nick Aster

    Another interesting idea – think about the model that Ace and True Value have for hardware stores – All the mom and pop stores in the country are affiliated with one or the other and include their branding, but they’re still mom and pop independents with a lot of freedom. I presume that Ace and True Value have certain requirements but basically those hardware stores function on their own.

    What if Starbucks changed their store model to function more like this? Maybe it would bring more authenticity to their existing network without seeming like they’re faking it.

    • Sirid Kellermann

      Nick, I was thinking along the same lines; the Ace Hardware model. I think it would work well for Starbucks (and helps them avoid charges of brandwashing, and the “Applebees syndrome”).

      This piece reminds me of a coffee shop that is (was?) in Palo Alto, CA, called Caffe del Doge. I frequented it for a while ’cause my then-boyfriend lived around the corner. When we found out (accidentally, from browsing Starbuck’s 10-K financial report for a different reason) that it’s a Starbuck’s brand, we stopped going – mainly because it smelled like a cover-up (and the coffee was damn expensive, to boot).

      • http://www.caffedeldoge.com Claudia

        I am the CEO of Caffe del Doge, Inc, in the US, and it is not owned by Starbucks. Caffe del Doge took over the physical space at 419 University Ave in Palo Alto where Torrefazione Italia was because Starbucks decided to shut all of the Torrefazione outlets.

        What you are stating in your comment is a rumor that some people apparently still believe.

        Our company is owed by independent shareholders and the Italian roasting company, Caffe del Doge Srl, headquartered in Venice, Italy. We are incorporated in Delaware to precise.

        If you have any questions about this, please feel free to contact me at claudia@caffedeldoge.com.

        • http://www.caffedeldoge.com Claudia

          For clarification: Starbucks bought out Torrefazione Italia (from Seattle) in the 2003 or so. This fact is clearly stated in their financial statements. This is who we are http://www.caffedeldoge.com.

  • Jeff

    Ok, I’m sure I’m going to get persecuted for this, but here it goes anyway…

    There’s a great little local coffee shop around the corner from me called “One World” They serve fair trade coffee and tons of great vegetarian and vegan food. It’s my coffee shop of choice, and I’ve been going there for more than a decade. But I go there because I like the shop, and I do like to “keep it local” when possible. That being said, as much as folks like to bash Starbucks, let us not forget that the company provides tens of thousands of jobs in local communities all over the world – from the people that run the stores in your neighborhood to the folks that supply the company with Fair Trade Certified Coffee. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but last year Starbucks was one of the largest purchasers of Fair Trade Certified coffee.

    My loyalty will always be to that local coffee shop on the corner, One World. The coffee, food and service is just much better than Starbucks. But I can’t bring myself to criticize Starbucks because they’re trying to come up with a new way to market their stores.

    • Darren

      On the contrary – I think you’re absolutely right. I never go to Starbucks because I hate chains in general, plus the independent stores are generally much more fun – and you CAN’T fake that.

      The thing is – The story about how Starbucks moves in and pushes everyone else out is BS. There are way more small coffeeshops than there ever where when I was growing up, say 20 years ago. Starbucks helped create coffee culture in the US.

    • kim

      and lest we forget that Howard Schulz comes from a very poor family and he took roughly 200 “no’s” from potential investors before someone took a chance on his Starbucks idea back in the day. He has achieved the American Dream – building an empire from nothing, and doing much good for farmers, community NPO’s and thousands of employees every day. What have YOU done lately?!?

  • ScottyDawg

    Like your train of thought Mr. Aster! Ironically my cousin and wife own a few Ace Hardware locations and pride themselves in persoanlized service and a quality brand to help them move forward. This quite frankly how they compete with the impersonal mega-hardware stores!
    Starbucks is loaded with smart, creative and inspiring people in retail locations and support roles! My experience there indicates there is room to allow for more local appeal and still allow LEAN process to prevail – the barrier is “fear” and that kills the best of ideas. We are impatient in this country and want it to be perfect and it should have happened yesterday dammit. But that’s not how large entities work folks!
    I applaud their discovery that something
    needs to be done and 15th is a good start. But, there’s always a but, if they address the current fear and make powerful incremental improvements from this learning…

  • Mary Solecki

    That’s a really interesting point Darren…you’re right, Starbucks has created the demand for all these other coffee shops around the world.

    Starbucks will not be able to do what it does best and turn the 15th Ave location into a chain, or it would eliminate the whole point of the store. Therefore, they will be forced to keep an independent and costly store. They can’t really jack up the prices much more (is that possible?), so all this attention to detail will only eat into their margins. What’s in it for them? Perhaps they will learn a thing or two about giving personal, detailed attention.

    It will be interesting to see how this store evolves, and whether or not Seattle supports it. While the Dupe Factor gives me a gag reflex, maybe Starbucks will learn some positive lessons about how to be a contributing member of a community.

  • greg
    • Jeff

      It’s still relevant.

  • http://www.mcoconnor.com Mary Catherine O'Connor

    Greg: Yep, the store opened two months ago. Didn’t get much pick-up outside local press, tho, and I considered it still newsworthy. And based on the number of comments, readers agree and want to use this as a launching point for the discussion around what is and isn’t authentic and what large brands ought and ought not to do.

  • colin

    it really chaps my ass that people hate on starbucks for being a big chain. since you guys are so concerned about organic this and that starbucks organically grew from one shop to 15000 or what ever it is. Thats what makes America so great that shit can happen to anybody if they have the drive. Sure the coffee is overpriced the people at the counter are stoned or rude or whatever but if you do not like it, simple enough don’t go. I don’t go out paying for coffee at shops any how i can make one hell of a cup of coffee at my house for much cheaper and with out having to sound like an asshole when i order it. or talk about how much more eclectic and local fair organic suzy and tom’s coffee shop is around the corner. It’s just coffee where you get it from does not make you any cooler or less cool and if you think it does then are very far from being this coveted cool you search for everyday

    • Nick Aster

      Colin – I don’t think anyone here has said anything like that – the point of the post is to talk about whether or not it makes sense for starbucks to hide behind make-believe mom and pop banners – is that disingenuous, etc…

  • http://www.facebook.com/HolyJaw Josh Whittington

    “But Merholz holds that Starbucks doesn’t appear to have plans to make 15 Ave another brand. It’s a one-off.”

    No, it’s not. There are plans for more. A full chain of locally named and resourced stores. Look it up.

    • http://www.mcoconnor.com Mary Catherine O'Connor

      Starbucks plans on opening more neighborhood stores, but they won’t be called 15th Ave Coffee & Tea, they will bear the names of the ‘hoods in which they do business, as you mention. If each of those coffee shops has a different name and feel, do they constitute a chain? I don’t know. Not in the traditional sense, in my opinion.

  • Randy

    There is no “Pike’s” in Pike Place, You’re confused w/ Pike’s Peak. Pike Place is the name of the street on which the main market in located and on which I live in Seattle. I’ve been here a year longer than that original Starbuck’s; from which I get my wi-fi.

    • http://www.mcoconnor.com Mary Catherine O'Connor

      Fixed, Randy. Thanks for the catch!

  • kim

    oh, and Colin, I’m right there with you, man!

  • meneltarma

    People really need to get off the “corporate” issue and just examine the product and service offered. There is a certain level of independence at every store BECAUSE of corporate training and involvement.

    The least trained people tend to be dependent on a corporate support. Most starbucks employees leave their own stamp on what they do in my experience at dozens of stores.

  • Mark

    I’ve had good indy coffee, I’ve had bad indy coffee (mostly the latter). Starbucks is popular for the same reason that McDonalds is popular — I can go to Starbucks anywhere from New York to Kokomo to Seattle and get basically the same product.

    Going to a super-hip, mega-cool indy coffee place (unless you are a regular customer) is a roll of the dice. I want a good cup of coffee, not mystery.

  • amy gennrich

    that was very interesting! …you know i just wonder if it will backfire on Starbucks and help people realize that they should support small businesses and coffee houses? because the first thing that pops into my head when I think of this “indy” starbucks shop is …”uugh, that is So lame!” and I’m not someone who is opposed to starbucks or big companies in general. So, I’m not sure they should invite this comparison to their own shops!

  • unfamiliarface

    Traveling, SBX is a lifesaver, esp in developing countries where customer service sucks. Of course, SBX CS sucks too, just less hard.

    Something is lost in translation with these multinationals. In Shanghai, SBX customer service is robotic and contemptuous with a smile. I mention it because SBX customer service training exceeds all others in Shanghai.
    And it still sucks hard.

    Like, you order a nonfat and they offer you whipped cream and wonder why you just stare at them, repeating themselves stupidly. Nonfat. Whipped Cream? Nonfat. Whipped cream? Ad nauseum. They don’t understand basic coffee culture. God help you if you as for a plain regular coffee! It’s not on the menu! Do you want a cappuccino?

  • change now

    starbucks will never be sustainable or fair trade…it is like walmarts destroying all mom and pops and THEN under pressure saying it is GREEN..it is all a farce…avoid at all costs….plus their coffee tastes like mud and their employees all have an attitude….as someone with no vested interest would….if you want to buy chain cra) go to dunkin donuts or mcds, apparently their cofee in blind tastes beast sbux anyway…..go figure…or drink tea or buy fair trade coffee and save what is left of your soul (AND our PLANET), EVERYONE who drinks sbux eat at mcds should pay extra carbon tax AT LEAST for highway being currently built right through middle of amazon…yes, you ARE RESPONSIBLE…U.S. consumer responsible for 3/4 of economy, if you didnt buy chinese made junk companies would HAVE TO RESPOND…quality over quantity left these shores LITERALLY a long time ago…most americans wouldn’t know the difference between coffee and dirt…and some wouldn’t care because they is patryts or some other Bul*(*&….people are idi*()& maybe with rising ocean I will have beachfront prop pretty soon..keep it positive!!! yee haw!!! GIT R DUN

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