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Coffee talk in Madison Park: Tully’s vs. Starbucks

Tully's vs. Starbucks.

When I rented an apartment in Madison Park a couple of years ago, a friend asked me if I’d made my choice. “So, what are you?” he asked. I had no idea what he was talking about. “Are you a Tully’s person, or a Starbucks person? In Madison Park, you’re either one or the other.”

It had never occurred to me that where I bought my coffee would be a declaration of tribal affiliation. But I soon learned what he was talking about. This quiet, affluent neighborhood has a legendary market (Bert’s Red Apple) with its popular flower tent, a great hardware store, a holistic pharmacy, a couple of nice old taverns, some good eateries, and a variety of shops that offer eye-candy for the elderly who walk the couple of blocks-long commercial strip with their canes and companions on their daily constitutionals.

But Madison park also features two coffee houses, each with their own feel and clientele.

One is a good-sized Starbucks that has all the amenities, including parking, a lodge-like interior, and a kind of quiet-room that looks like a home-office-away-from home for people who might find the main lodge too noisy while they run their empires from their laptops.

The Starbucks has another standout feature: a reputation as one of the best-run in the chain. A Starbucks barista once told me the staff there are always top-notch. Why? Because this is Howard Schultz’s neighborhood Starbucks, and the company chairman and his family could drop in at any time. Woe unto those “partners” who aren’t up to snuff. I was there once when Schultz’s daughter came in, and I am quite sure no one was going to serve a luke-warm latte to that young lady.

A few doors down in a stand-alone building is a Tully’s. It shares a parking lot with the popular market next door. It’s much smaller, cozy, like a bungalow, with a blazing fireplace in the front room. The staff and customers seem to know each other. Regular groups of older friends seem to meet there.

I’d say it’s homier, but it depends what kind of home you live in, and in this part of town they come big and really expensive, or small and very expensive. Madison Park used to be a resort town, and then was a blue collar burg for a long time. You can still see the remnants of the working class past in the housing. North of Madison Street are acres of tiny bungalows crammed together. Now many are being torn down for mini-villas or remodeled and upgraded. But the modesty of many with their tiny yards speak to a time when they were occupied by working stiffs, not sultans of the Silicon Forest.

Elsewhere, especially in nearby Washington Park or adjacent Broadmoor, you see some of the city’s grandest homes. South of Madison toward the lakefront Seattle Tennis Club, you’ll find mansions, big old houses, and spacious homes designed by modern architects for folks with too much money to throw around. These aren’t mini-villas; they’re the real deal.

While Madison Park isn’t a neighborhood of rich and poor — except for a few old pockets of non-affluent renters like me — it still carries some shades of class difference, between the upper middle class and the rich; between old-timers and newcomers, between people who seem to prefer an older, unpretentious Seattle and a slicker, more professional one.

Starbucks and Tully’s are locally founded chains — one big, one small — and their commercial purpose is the same: to serve coffee-flavored milk made to order; if they can sell you mugs or coffee beans, so much the better. One is much like the other. (And both, by the way, are challenged these days: Tully’s is unprofitable and probably for sale, Starbucks is trying to get back its mojo, with Schultz returned to the helm.) But the difference in feel between these two cafes is marked.

Tully’s embodies some kind of older, village version of Madison Park. Starbucks seems to bustle like a cross between a busy ski lodge and a place where people in office-casual dress take meetings. The Starbucks and its customers seem a little more groomed, more LA, more SUV. Tully’s is a bit more neighborly, relaxed. It’s old tennis shoes versus the tennis club.

Howard Schultz has written a new memo to employees reiterating the importance of the chain’s role as a Third Place for customers. Some people feel that the wiring of so many Starbucks has diluted the social impact of them: people are so glued to their screens and headsets, they might as well be home alone.

It strikes me that the self-sorting in Madison Park suggests there is something sociologically important going on in these places. It’s where people can quietly announce their class identification and aspirations.

As a recession looms, as coffee companies struggle, where will it lead? To coffee gangs? You can imagine “Stars” and “Tulls” battling it out for street corner supremacy in some future, dystopian Mad Park.

In the meantime, I’ve made my choice: I usually hang on Tully’s turf. But the place next door is now serving a $1 cup of joe. That’s a powerful temptation to reconsider my loyalties.

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