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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It's pretty pathetic that you have to advertise for your own indiecoffee shop in an article damning Starbucks. One would think that if you represnt the alternative to this corporate model, you'd steer away from such shameless promotion.

chris woodfield

Once our caf is up and running, were hoping to see similar ventures spring up in cities around the world. 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

rubbish. starbucks is one of the most succesful businesses of all time, their business model is flawless, they aren't crumbling at all they are going from strength to strength and will continue to grow. an attack on starbucks is an attack on business as a whole. have you ever thought that independants might not even exist if starbucks havent made coffee a worldwide passion? dirty tricks? wake up. thats the world of business efficiency, beating the competition. study economics and force business to pay externality costs. politics is the only way to control business. advocating independants? useless, an independant if succesful would grow and would merely be another multinational chain.


I would have to agree with Brian's previous comment. Flooding the market with an anti-Starbucks is not what the article's true intentions give to me, but you should help other independent, nonchain stores.


I would say it's just an example, Bryan. That's what works for people when they have certain examples to be come familiar with.
It's absolutely no promotion for me, living miles and miles away in Central Europe in Slovakia, where we neither have Starbucks, McDonalds, nor Coffee Chaos.


the truth is that it uses a series of dirty tricks in order to try and run small, independent coffee shops out of business.a good example: Bryan


Bryan, it's pretty pathetic that you feel the need to find faults that don't exist. This article is not promotional, and neither is Adbusters anti-corporate.

The writer is simply indicating that Adbusters intends to open a competing indie store. How can you promote something that doesn't exist?

Mike Smith

Starbucks isn't the only coffee shop chain helping in the War Against Terror. The Canadian donut & coffee chain Tim Horton's has been in Afghanistan giving Canadian troops coffee and donuts for troops tired after fighting the Taliban.


Chris, Coffee was a world wide passion in the 1800s. Starbucks is newer than the oldest coffe shops, it's just bigger. I think the purpose for the article is that, rather than fight the abyss, adbusters wants its readers to each make one independent coffehouse, rather than make blackspot a franchise.


Here in Japan, Starbucks opened its franchaise with a NO SMOKING policy, and the chain has thrived in part because of that. Other coffee places, chains and indies, are under pressure to go smokeless. Some have at least separated the areassmokers on another floor, or in separate areas. Not a perfect solution, but getting there. For that reason alone, I go to Starbucks. As I find other coffee houses with no smoking I shall patronize them, too. I give $$$ its due.


Don't give Brian's everywhere a bad name. Playing the arrogant activist who notices a mention about anticorporate hypothetical coffee stands in an article in Adbusters won't get you noticed or props. Don't be a rhetorical activist, choose your battles brother.


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