Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Can Starbucks Learn Local Is Beautiful?

The New York Times has a story about a local Kansas City coffeehouse forcing a neighboring Starbucks to pack it in.

"Next door, the Broadway Cafe was bustling. 'You win because of the coffee,' said Jon Cates, one of the owners..."

While coffee quality may be in the Broadway Cafe's favor, it's hardly the only reason coffeehouse lovers prefer the Broadway. This phenomenon is going on around Seattle, too, as places like Herkimer and Zoka and Louisa's gather in the caffeinated set while Starbucks scratches its head about what to do.

As the espresso version of a gas station, Starbucks may have enjoyed popularity for fuel 'n run types during the fast-lane boom of the '90s and early turn of the century. Starbucks outlets may get you on your way with a minimum of waiting -- there's even an Apple project to iPhone your order in so you don't have to do all that dreary standing in line -- but as such they don't really want customers tarrying over their double latte talls.

As we enter a new Slow Era, however, with a slowing economy and less insane lifestyle, coffee is returning to its roots as a linger-and-talk beverage. The coffeehouses that have lots of places to sit, a down-home atmosphere and plenty of people around will win over a Starbucks any time.

The irony in Seattle, of course, is that Starbucks actually is a "local" company. We can only hope Howard Schultz and his merry band of coffee purveyors get clued about changing times and demographics. Bigger stores, more lounging, a softer pace...will it work? Or is the "chain" reputation of Starbucks too entrenched to bring people back?

It's possible there are just too many coffeehouses, too, as my husband's "End of the Universe" (Lewis Black routine) video below shows:

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