[I’ve updated this post with 2013 December information at the bottom]
Starbucks has arrived in my town and even though it is inconveniently located, it will thrive and in the end drive the old downtown coffee house out of business. Starbucks, while not necessarily making decent coffee, does do several other things right.
When I lived in Chicago and worked out of home office, I used to like getting out and doing some work at a local coffee house. I remember going up towards Lincoln Square and stopped in at their coffee house. (Not the french bistro: different beast in my eyes.) I went in and got a cup of their finest.
The shop was one of those that appeal to the artist posers. The peope working the counter were complaining about their dank possibilities in getting roles this week. The shop was painted in dark colors. A lot of black. The help were surly, much more interested in their discussions than getting me coffee. All in all, it was a very depressing atmosphere. And I actually like the artists I know. I have friends who have sung leads on Broadway; written plays and screenplays, novels and short stories; hung at hip galleries and toured nationally. I’m not artist averse but this place just gave me the willies.
A few months later, a Starbucks opened down the street. Like all Starbucks, you might call its decor “artistic chic”: cool without being too young. Something anyone who wasn’t really an artist would be comfortable in. It was warmly toned, a fireplace in the center, well-made couches and chairs. It looks like what yuppies think “artistic” looks like. In that, it doesn’t confront anyone. It’s there not to make a statement but to sell coffee.
Here in the small city in northwestern Indiana where I now live, we used to have a woman running our downtown coffee house who knew almost all her patrons. She greeted everybody as they came in, in good Indiana town style. They all loved her but she died too young. Now the same place is staffed by college students who are not actually surly, but not happy to be there, either.
Starbucks, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. L and I went in awhile back — like I said, it’s inconveniently located and I don’t like their coffee — and were greeted by someone who almost seemed Stepford. She smiled broadly, was interested in getting my order correct and wanted to make sure I knew about the specials. Even in Valpo, I was a bit overwhelmed. A bit too aggressive.
But that’s why they are going to succeed. It’s not about the coffee. It’s about creating an atmosphere that invites people to think of themselves as “trendy” or “stylish”. Hip in a very square way. It’s all very safe and that’s why it succeeds. Even the overroasted coffee is something a simplistic parody of European coffees. Seems like its good without demanding anything like discerning tastes from you. You can go there without an ounce of creativity and feel like you’re an “artiste”.
Service goes a long way when your goal is to make money. Starbucks provides excellent service perhaps because they have baristas who own some of the company. Of course, they’ll end up falling on their faces when their growth stops but since they’ve had a successful start in Italy, there’s no telling when that will be.
UPDATE, December 2013: There have been several coffeehouses that have closed. And the appearance of Starbucks, Panera and the cafe in Barnes & Noble have definitely been a part of that. What’s interesting is that some have succeeded. Most notably, the South Bend Chocolate Cafe on the courthouse square. It is notable because it is not cool. It’s pretty much boring inside. It’s bright. They have people who have worked there for years. (The manager started working there 12 years ago.)
New places have opened. The place with the woman everyone knew is now under new management. Looks the same inside but is more hipster oriented. It seems to do well. There are two coffeehouses that are run by people who are members of large evangelical churches. They all seem to do very well, and seem to balance the hipster cool with Mom & Dad staid. That may be a good definition for “cutting edge” evangelical culture as a whole.