The Reconquest of Cool

New Wave Coffee

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.

Blackspot Cafe

Starbucks diminishes the world’s diversity every time it opens a new outlet; perhaps an emboldened bunch of new wave entrepreneurs will start to reverse that trend. In a move calculated to inspire indy coffee entrepreneurs everywhere, Adbusters is planning to open a Blackspot Café right next to one of the nearly 200 Starbucks in Vancouver, Canada. The goal is to prove that fleet-footed independents plugged into authentic, local culture can outmaneuver bureaucratic monsters like Starbucks in shop-to-shop combat. Once our café is up and running, we’re hoping to see similar ventures spring up in cities around the world.

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.

120 comments on the article “New Wave Coffee”

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The Starbucks chain should be under pressure. It costs $18 a pound for slavery free fair trade coffee at Starbucks. At a fair trade shop in Winnipeg called 10,000 Villages fair trade coffee sells for $12 a pound. Finally, fair trade organic coffee is sold at The Canadian Superstore for $5.99. Starbucks is creating an opening for its own demise. If they would lower prices and accept lower profits it would help them with market share. As long as people want cookie cutter coffee then they will stay in business.


Although smashing all competition into dust would send beams of joy through the Starbucks empire, and despite their attempts at putting mom & pop out of business, Taylor Clark's book Starbucked reveals that almost without exception, indy coffee shops increase business when a Starbucks moves in around the corner. He attributes this to a widening of the coffee consuming audience in any particular neighborhood. He claims that noncoffee drinkers are more inclined to start drinking SB, and will eventually end up at the indy shop. Sounds crazy I know, but the numbers he cites paint SB a rather ineffective fly swatter.

PS I AM against the homogenization of local culture, and I DO think SB's brew sucks.


Interesting the amount of chat generated by coffee, seldom see this much interest in a story about banking or cooporate greed.


I don't drink in Starbuucks. Mainly for the reason that when I walk down the highstreet in Canterbury and have to do my best to avoid the propaganda shouted from the bottom of the corporate lung, I'm too sick when I eventually walk straight past the front entrance to stomach a cup of coffee. There are now 2 branches of this particular chain in the same stretch of historic street, one of which is right on the cathedral entrance, both accompanied by the signholding sandwich boardwearing lost souls that you sadly now see along the entire length of that same street. Starbucks' business tactics will succeed or fail on the whim of the customer, but I wish I didn't have to hear about it from every street corner.


Many of you speak of antithis, antithat... whatever. Luis, the employee is right. We are an ignorant culture here in the US to think Sbux was the end all, beall of coffee. I, personally avoid Sbux, no matter which city I travel to. It is so over inflated it makes me sick! I have seen a shot of espresso cost as much as $2 extra in a Sbux, instead of $.25$.50. Or the fact that a Venti contains only 2 shots... you are paying $6 for 20oz of milk and sugary flavors with a hint of stale coffee. I think it's about time Sbux suffers a bit. Hurray for the independents taking a stand to bring good coffee and pastries to the communities. I work at a very large corporation, the largest of it's kind in the world, so believe me I understand the corporate ways. But when a company like Sbux allows their product to suffer to much it's just sad, and inflating prices should be penalized! Lastly, the rest of the world caught onto the Sbux craze because the US did. The ongoing ego of the US trying to impose itself on the rest of the world is overly evident in this growth. Again, hurray to the other companies not letting Sbux buy out their properties! I have seen it happen! My favorite chains losing out to bids to Starbucks because Sbux has the money to offer more than the other. Anyway... go drink GOOD coffee, people! Not Starbucks.


Don't blame the corporation for the success of Starbucks, if people didnt MIND going to a coffee shop that is replicated all over the world, then Starbucks would be out of business. Or it might still be an indie shop in Seattle remember that it once was.


just a little note for andrea, the girl who didn't get soy milk at starbucks. safety is the reason. soy is one of the big alergens and must be avoided in products that aren't labeled such as a cup of coffee.

Mark Stock

Each day I indulge myself with a cup of coffee. In the morning, I turn on a little espresso machine. I grind fair trade organic beans. I tamp the fresh grounds. I put the coffee holder containing the grind into the machine, flip a switch and wait while espresso pours out and creates a crema on the top of the coffee. To the espresso I add a bit of dairy cream which makes it an Americano type coffee.

When I am travelling I miss my ritual at home. I would, however, recommend Cafe Fantastico in Victoria, BC, Canada.


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