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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Here in my hometown in germany there are a couple of corporate coffee shops like those named in this article... but there are just not competitive to our coffeehouses with there destinctive variety of european cakes and culture flavored goods.
So I think people should go where the taste , in every realm, is best...


Phoenix, I agree but it makes life more bearable when I am not constantly surrounded by corporate propaganda and advertising from these corporations. However, what is worse is that I see them slowly becoming successful... while you have come to the point when you actually have to fight it. Almost nobody understands the mechanism of propaganda and corporations in Slovakia.
So I just wanted to oppose Bryan's opinion by saying that Adbuster's article inform about the current situation and the main point wasn't advertising.


Starbucks sucks and they have lousy coffee. People who drink Starbucks are ignorant to what a good coffee tastes like.


I still don't get the idea, how a product/coffee shop that sports a black spot instead of another logo is more authentic, independent or good than a corporate one. I don't like star$ but advertising your opening of a coffee shop as some sort of countercapitalist action is ridiculous, sorry guys. Same applies to the blackspot sneaker.
You only created a brand for the independently minded middle class kids with the need to differentiate themselves. You're using the same mechanics as the corporate world what is your storetostore combatthing other than normal market competition?


Julie, please don't lump Dunkin' Donuts in with Starbucks. There's a difference. Starbucks professes to sell high-quality, artisan coffees at an exorbitant price, whereas Dunks gives you exactly what you go there for: cheap, decent, fast coffee, to go. It's not great java, by any stretch of the imagination, but it accomplishes what it's there to do, without any frills. If you come to Boston, you'll see there's a ton of great, local coffee spots for the discerning coffee drinker, but there's also a Dunks on every corner which we don't mind, since it's a local company, for when you just don't have the time to sit and enjoy your coffee.

Luis Liste: Sta...

There is only one good thing about Starbucks, the health insurance. Everything else can go to the wayside. But let us not forget the one thing that made Sbux huge, the customers. Too often we blame governments, corporations, etc. when the people are to blame. We make or brake the system and to often we are the culprit for the things that go wrongs. So don't point your finger at Starbucks that people wanted to pour their money at them. Blame the people.


Interesting article. With the current economic situation in the USA's recession, probably headed towards a depression, people won't have an extra $5 a day for their coffee.
Luxury goods are the first thing people are gonna cut when the money gets tight. I think Starbucks is going to get hit hard by the collapsing economy.


I live in Calgary, AB and unfortunately there are not a lot of indepedent coffee houses throughout the city. i find myself forced to go to starbucks or second cup when i'm in a rush... unless i want to go half an hour out of my way in traffic... yesterday I was picking up a drink at a starbucks and requested a frappaccino with soy instead of regular milk and was told by a supervisor that they were not allowed to make them with soy milk. I asked why and he said that they couldn't put soy milk in the blenders, to which i again asked, why? he stared straight at me and said, this is what corporate starbucks has told us. we don't ask questions, we just do what we're told. I felt sad for him.


hmm, I guess I'm in trouble because I'm 32 and almost bought a pair of blackspots because I thought they looked nice and were vegan...guess I better not, I don't want people to think I'm an independently minded middle class man with a need to differentiate myself!


Wouldn't it be hilarious if within few decades the globe was under the iron heel of Blackspot Megacorporation? Seriously though, have you no sense of irony nor self-reflection? Do you honestly believe that Blackspot is an anti-logo? Do some googling - yours is not the only black spot logo. And what culture do you think the upscale supermarket chains and Starbucks emerged from? It was organic, local shops, the alternative to the faceless, profitcentric business model megacorp. The upscale glossy Adbusters is already part of a gentrified pseudobohemian lifestyle that includes world cinema, indie rock, and turning activism into entrepreneurship. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Blackspot Frankenstein.


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