Starbucks Goes Undercover with Local Cafe

SEATTLE ~ From Hong Kong to Paris to Miami to Seattle, if you have visited one Starbucks, you have visited them all.

Similar menus of coffee-based beverages served in paper cups. Identical furnishings that ensure a standardized coffee experience the world over.

Now, the Seattle-based coffee giant is trying to break the mold by establishing a “stealth” cafe in the city’s trendy Capitol Hill, an apparent experiment in going back to basics to attract new customers.

In a neighbourhood dotted with one-off coffee houses with unique charm and established baristas familiar to loyal customers, Starbucks last week opened “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea,” a corporate version of its independent neighbours.

The building – the former site of a traditional Starbucks – is now a plain-looking structure with minimal signage.

The only time the company is mentioned is on a small sign etched on the entrance that says “inspired by Starbucks.”

Inside, there are no baristas in green aprons, no Formica counter tops, not even the standard menu board. Instead the walls are of weathered wood, the tables and chairs unmatched. Coffee is served in ceramic cups and many utensils look like they were purchased in a second-hand store.

The chalkboard menu of familiar drinks and food are without prices.

Imported and handcrafted beer and wine are available. There is piped in music and Wi-Fi; there are promises of live music and poetry readings in the future.

The branch, apparently designed to lure a more discerning coffee-drinking customer, comes as Starbucks is shutting the doors on hundreds of stores worldwide and shedding thousands of jobs.

Yet whether the “stealth Starbucks” experiment works remains to be seen. Despite crowds filling the tables, local aficionados seemed unimpressed.

“I have been through this with them before,” said Kismet Kaine, who was walking along the street drinking coffee from nearby Café Ladro.

“I used to get coffee at Terrafazione before Starbucks bought them up,” she said. “The coffee was never as good after that. I can’t see why I would go to this place. I found just what I like at Café Ladro.”

Less than a block from the 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea location, sits “Victrola Coffee Roasters,” a funky neighbourhood haunt filled with art deco furnishings, art, Wi-Fi, and music as well as coffee, pastries and sandwiches.

Manager Tonya Wagner says she finds it interesting that her corporate competitor would attempt this concept in a neighbourhood that has a full complement of unique coffee houses.

“There are a lot of places in the Seattle area that would readily accept a place like the 15th Avenue Coffee House,” she said. “They have attempted to reinvent themselves like this before and it didn’t work.”

Starbucks, which has declined interviews about the concept, has said it is planning to open two more coffee shops without its name in the Seattle area.

Wagner, who has been at Victrola since 2000, thinks Starbucks may be trying to find its place in a market that is squeezing it from above and below.

“They went for the middle ground,” she said. “They wanted to serve a lot of people a good cup of coffee quickly. That worked for a long time.

“Then the economy went sour and along came McDonalds serving coffee drinks cheaply and quickly. A lot of customers have gone there.”

According to Wagner, higher-end customers have gravitated to small coffee houses specializing in gourmet coffees and unique ambiance.

“Even in this economy, our sales are running 15 percent ahead of a year ago,” she said. She also thinks Starbucks doesn’t understand the concept of a neighbourhood coffee house.

“This is a culture that comes from the bottom up,” she said. “We know the customers. We use local talent and art that fit the community. I don’t think you can do that from a corporate headquarters.”

Down the street a few hundred meters, Courtney Howard, the manager of Café Ladro, is not worried about the new competition.

“In today’s economy, everybody’s trying to stay afloat,” said Howard. “If they’re trying to go back to the neighbourhood feel, I say more power to them.”

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