Plans to locate a Starbucks to a much loved listed building in Cork has provoked outrage in some quarters. Ed Power looks at yet another US behemoth that is loved and loathed.
Few corporate symbols evoke fear and loathing as viscerally as Starbucks’ double-tailed mermaid.
From obscure origins in mid-70s Seattle, the company has become a global behemoth, with over 21,000 outlets across 64 countries and a roll-call of critics ranging from coffee elitists to anti-capitalists.
Starbucks is ubiquitous – there are some 38 branches across Greater Dublin alone – and clearly popular yet elicits scorn to an almost unparalleled degree. People truly seem to love to hate it.
Just how leery many are of Starbucks was underscored as details emerged of a new city centre opening in Cork.
When news spread of the first two Starbucks in the city centre – planned for 39 Prince’s Street and Emmet Place– there was an outbreak of teeth-gnashing, with local businesses protesting that the arrival of this latte-dispensing goliath would rob the city of much of its uniqueness.
The proposed site for a new Starbucks Café in the listed building on the corner of Emmet Place and Opera Lane.
“Cork, is by and large, a city untouched by globalisation,” says Richard Jacob, owner of Cafe Idaho in Cork and a prominent anti-Starbucks voice.
“Many of our side streets are filled with family-owned businesses. This is what provides Cork with its unique selling point as a tourist destination. If we start allowing plastic franchises to replace small shop units with bland international cafés, we will merely become an identikit city, like Basingstoke.”
Investment is always welcome......
My concern is to maintain Cork's name as a City of variety and history ...
Talk soon— Richard Jacob (@idahocafe) January 9, 2015
One charge against Starbucks is that it fights dirty and targets independent coffee stores. In her widely-cited study of the dark side of globalisation, No Logo ,writer and activist Naomi Klein accused the company of a panoply of below- the-belt tactics.
“Until the practice began creating controversy a few years back,” she wrote. “Starbucks’ real-estate strategy was to stake out a popular independent café in a well-trafficked, funky location and simply poach the lease from under it.”
She also excoriated Starbucks’ strategy of flooding neighbourhoods with coffee shops often operating at a loss. The tactic, according to Klein, was to overwhelm independent coffee houses, clearing the way for Starbucks’ dominance.
“The idea,” she wrote. “Is to saturate an area with stores until the coffee competition is so fierce that sales drop even in individual Starbucks outlets.”
Our thoughts on Weatherspoons, Starbucks etc - if you feel the need to go to somewhere like that - we, the independents, have let you down— Sober Lane (@soberlane) January 10, 2015
Not everyone, it should be noted, regards Starbucks as Satan’s vanilla-flavoured spawn. Defenders of the chain point out Starbucks largely created the vogue for neighbourhood coffee shops in the first place.
Granted, their syrupy concoctions are not for everyone; nonetheless, as food writer David Leibowitz has argued, “Starbucks introduced a vast majority of America to coffee and espresso”.
One pro-Starbucks argument is that the chain offers a level of convenience, independent coffee shops are rarely in a position, or willing, to provide.
In Dublin, for instance, the only 24-hour coffee house is a Starbucks at St Stephen’s Green. Several other Starbucks remain open past 9pm.
In a city where the alternative is the pub or a brightly- lit fast-food restaurant (swarming with drunks at the weekend), surely Starbucks should be congratulated for widening options rather than dismissed as corporate evil-doer?
“Starbucks is consistent and safe,” says David Marshall of the Cafe.ie Blog.
“That’s what people pay for. And the Irish in general don’t have much of an affinity for coffee, espresso in particular. It’s not in our culture so our appreciation of it as a product for consumption is poor. Why else would we drown one with milk and sprinkle chocolate on the top?
“We’re also obsessed with the idea that milk should be boiled – which de-natures the protein– and that all drinks should be either scalding hot or freezing cold.
"Good coffee is neither. Starbucks seems to manage to cope with that cultural milieu. In general I think people are seeking the atmosphere and facilities there, not the coffee,” says Marshall.
“Dublin has a thriving coffee culture, including a large ‘hipster’ coffee scene,” says Richard Jacob. “ This scene is huge in Dublin primarily because Dublin has 1,800,000 people.
"Cork has 140,000 people which by necessity means, that we do not and cannot have the same level of intensity of interest and business.
"If a Starbucks opened on a level playing field, by replacing an existing café, as our planners encourage, there would be no issue.
"By replacing... quirky and irreplaceable retail sites, with cafés that will seat in excess of 150 people, it has only a negative impact.”
“The misconception among independent coffee stores is that Starbucks is going to come in and take their customers,” says Alan Andrews of Coffee Culture, specialists in cafe design and barista training.
“The reality is that the customer that go to an independent cafe is a different customer – typically more discerning and older. The Starbucks customer is generally in their early-to-mid 20s; they don’t drink coffee, they prefer more milk-based options. it’s a different offering.
"Independents think ‘oh my God, Starbucks are going to kill our business’. In fact, Starbucks creates a habit among younger people to go to a cafe and use them as a social hub.
As a cafe who have thrived since Starbucks opened nearby, our advice to Cork cafes is don't complain, compete. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/0hzOSTBEX6— Bean&Leaf - Cork (@beanandleafcork) January 19, 2015
To an extent, of course, debating the positives and negatives of Starbucks is a redundant exercise. When the company sets its sights on a market, it inevitably conquers it. Resistance, to quote Star Trek, is futile.
It is estimated 50% of Americans live within five miles of a Starbucks. In Dublin, it can feel as if there is one on every corner: soon Cork may have a similar abundance.
“The big criticism is that Starbucks don’t take coffee seriously,” says Andrews. “The best way to put it is that they ‘Starbuck’ different products.
"Your traditional Macchiato is 50 millilitres of coffee - a double shot of whiskey in terms of volume, with a little bit of milk on top. What Starbucks create as Macchiato is a 15oz drink with caramel chips and cream. Stuff like annoys people. Purists get offended.”
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