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

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.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.