Does anyone remember when Seattle was the espresso cart capital of the world? Back in the ‘90s, you couldn't walk a few blocks without encountering at least one of them, in good weather or bad. During those peak years, the city issued hundreds of permits to mobile coffee vendors.
It was a more innocent time. Each pushcart had its loyal following of devotees, who returned again and again for their fix of hand-crafted caffeine. Some of the carts were glorious, DIY productions, replete with cubbies for each tool, expandable counters, umbrellas, and a recess for the small boiler that was their centerpiece. I made friends with several of these coffee vendors; I saw them get sick, get married or have kids as the years went by. One cart-owner even tucked her cart into the entry of my building for shelter when it rained.
One of those first carts, Monorail Espresso, eventually found an indoor space around the corner from where it had held forth for many years at Pine and Westlake. The shop was directly across from where Richard, the stocking-capped, red-cheeked horn player used to stand, shaking a coffee can filled with tips. So successful were these quirky, small-scale entrepreneurs that Seattle became known internationally for fostering a unique brand of micro-capitalism. For a relatively small initial investment, one could house and feed a family on the income from a single cart. A colleague of mine in Australia was so taken with this phenomenon that she traveled to Seattle just to research how she might replicate the business model in her own country.
So where are they now, these little engines of economic energy? Largely gone. I doubt there are more than a dozen left in the city.
These brave business owners failed to realize that once they established a local market for espresso drinks, big companies would take notice. Within a few years, Starbucks, Seattle’s Best Coffee (now Starbucks) and Tully’s opened shops nearby and promptly put our beloved carts out of business. They were surrounded and, sadly, snuffed out.
As I travel around the country, I’ve noticed how name-brand coffee shops are often “indicator species” for economic health. Scores of business districts now define themselves by attracting a Starbucks. And Starbucks, though ubiquitous, isn’t the only one. Caribou Coffee, the regional brand of the Midwest, often anchors districts that are being revived. Smaller purveyors with colorful names like Black Dog or Beartooth often can’t survive the competition, even if they were there first.
But in other cities around the country, Starbucks is seen in the opposite light. Small, quirky business districts that have struggled to come back from the brink of destitution are often packed with unique cafes and shops. They don’t want to see their homegrown identity usurped by national brands. Sometimes they’re successful in fending them off. Winslow Way on Bainbridge Island, for example, has several coffee shops, but no Starbucks. This is remarkable because our permitting system is not legally allowed to discriminate by company name. It is simply pressure from the public that staved off the invaders.
This Toronto Starbucks was formerly Britnel Bookstore. Credit: Kwong Yee Cheng/Flickr
Not to be deterred, the ever-ingenious Starbucks has developed a new strategy to get around community resistance: The non-Starbucks Starbucks. Several years ago, Starbucks experimented with an incognito shop called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Locals quickly busted their cover, and the Starbucks logo went back up. But someone at HQ must have been emboldened by this foray, because the company is still experimenting with similar models.
A recent article in Wired Magazine shows Starbucks shops around the world designed by local design teams with a community’s unique character and preferences in mind. And it looks like the company is still trying to make those incognito coffee shops work — by buying out the locals, rather than disguising its own shops.
During a recent trip to San Francisco, I experienced this phenomenon first-hand. For the last decade, the Hayes District in San Francisco has been coming back from a long decline. Situated on the blunt-faced, back side of Davies Symphony Hall, this little pocket neighborhood had long been a forlorn and scary place. Now, a four-block long stretch of Hayes Street is bustling with new, idiosyncratic shops, cafes with courtyards, a new central park and several “parklets” — those nano-piazzas that supplant curbside parking stalls. Just the sort of neighborhood that might eschew Starbucks in favor of community coffee shops.
I walked into a particularly elegant café that looked like it had been flown in from the Left Bank. It had an authentic Parisian awning complete with subtle color scheme and Art Nouveau typography spelling out “La Boulange.” The espresso drink I ordered — served in real china — was terrific and the pastries were heavenly. Only later did I learn that Starbucks bought the San Francisco-based bakery in 2012. Was I bamboozled? Or seduced? I guess a bit of both.
Now I’m confused. Starbucks is disguising itself in designs that belie its Northwest roots. It’s buying talent from all over the world to come up with enhanced and localized versions of itself. The Kansas Citys of the world may get the tried-and-true designs, while the Tokyos get an enhanced version and the San Franciscos get one that’s altogether unrecognizable.
Already, Starbucks outlets here are offering baked goods from Boulange. Although I haven’t seen an actual store with that name yet, I suspect it’s not far off.