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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I live in the Netherlands, and there are no Startbucks here. It's horrible! There are no coffee houses, or coffee takeaway's whatsoever! And you can't get an ice expresso anywhere. I'm glad Starbucks is planning to enter the Dutch market in Q4 2008, I can't wait!


What makes you think the writer of the article owns an independent coffee shop? And another claims that Starbucks turned coffee into a worldwide passion! As if coffee wasn't already the hot beverage of choice for most people before Starbucks. And it does seem to me that if Starbucks is closing 100 shops which they are, in fact, doing then their business model isn't as flawless as that writer claims.


I think, we've already done this in Portland. I don't know the numbers of people who patronize Starbucks vs. our indie coffee shops but among many people its actually embarrassing to patronize a Starbucks over our very own Stumptown or similar local coffee shops.


i stand outside starbucks when a friend may choose to go in and buy something... the running joke is that i will go in use the bathroom and piss on the floor...


Local Coffee shops add originality and diversity. I live in a cookiecutter suburb where everything looks the same and as a result when something new and unique people openly embrace it but the trouble is business sense. My father is an account who does work mainly for small, local businesses and most of them fail despite popularity because of a lack of sense. This is where starbucks has an advantage. Unlike small shops they know when to expand, where to put up shop, and have large hours. Local coffee shops need to learn how to run a business before jumping in so they can bring life back to the suburbs!

Smack McDogul

Dummies abound readers and writers of adbusters included. The behind the scenes Power Wealthy condition you through public education and sitcoms, divide and conquer you with the sweet rhetoric of progressivism and socialism. While they do so, they practice oligopoly corporatism soft fascism. With their wars to secure Iraq and Iran for Arabian and Kuwaiti and Sheiks and for Channel Islands and Dubai private equity, these same Power Wealthy practice no so soft fascism. Yet you dummies will keep them in power by championing dipshit ideas like filthy Marxist income taxation and redistribution to your favored pet class of idiot citizens. The enemy lives within. Our own kind are the ones who keep the Starbucks, the GEs, the Haliburtons, the Boeings going. worse than Starbucks, you dummies keep the Everyday man enthralled to the Power Wealthy.


at my hometown of Holland, MI, there are three Starbucks within a three-block radius one stand alone, another in Barnes & Noble, and another in Meijer, a chain supermarket. It defies the very tenants that capitalism presupposes, namely the opportunity for a level playing field something that are are heads are incessantly hammered with in the education system and through media propaganda experts in the economy. Not surprisingly, a local entrepreneur who wanted to start his own coffee shop just simply couldn't compete. It is a shame because he had a great vision and wanted to support local artists. I've been compelled to go into Barnes & Noble, not buy their overprized, crappy, unfairtrade coffee, and read Adbusters in their comfy couches, all for free. I am still very, very bitter and sad.

jeffrey dj

One point about Starbucks that the article does not address, nor does the flurry of commenters, is their corporate structure. A few years ago, I read that Starbucks does not franchise its outlets, but owns them all directly. If true, this means that far less of a percentage of a Starbuck's daily gross stays in the community wherein it was earned. The McDonald's around the corner sends only a slender hair of its gross to the mother corporation, but Starbucks, once it's paid its miserable nonunion workforce their sliver of wages, gets to strap the balance to a plane and fly it straight to Seattle. Correct me if I am wrong, but has anyone here ever heard of a Starbuck's franchisee?

Paris Lord

Here in Beijing, where babies are born with cigarettes in their hands, I go to SBs because, like KFC and Pacific Coffee, they are among the few 100 percent smokefree cafes/restaurants in China. Yes, the coffee/pies are woeful. The hot chocolates are acceptable. However, just like everywhere where SBs has opened, people choose to patronise them, not because they're forced to. And for those who say they MUST visit Starbucks, why not buy real ground coffee beans I recommend a brand from Yunnan province in SW China, and brew a cup at home?


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