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Starbucks wiggles into the not-so-mainstream

BY THE WASHINGTON POST | JULY 30, 2009 7:11 AM

Coffee used to be about consumption. It wasn’t supposed to taste very good and was often freeze-dried. I remember my introduction to the beverage that would become my livelihood: My parents laughed as I gagged on the bitter swill. This was the first wave of coffee.

Recently, coffee became more about enjoyment. Make me a cappuccino! Blend it with ice! Give it an extra pump of vanilla! No longer do we put up with bad-tasting coffee. In fact, coffee doesn’t even have to taste like coffee at all. This is America! I’m entitled to something yummy! That was the second wave.

Now, we’re seeing the development of a third wave, a shift that my colleagues in the specialty-coffee industry have helped nurture. Much like wine appreciation or music appreciation, third-wave coffee isn’t just about pleasure. Coffee enthusiasts are taking the time to understand what goes into a truly great cup, researching everything from where beans are grown to proper brewing. This is the wave that I rode at Murky Coffee, which I ran for seven years in Washington, and that I’ll follow at the new place I’m helping open, Chinatown Coffee Company.

But now the waters are getting a little choppy.

The big green mermaid wants some of the third-wave action. On July 24, Starbucks opened a store in Seattle that’s not what you’re used to seeing on, say, every other block of most U.S. cities. Called “15th Ave. Coffee & Tea, Inspired by Starbucks,” it’s apparently part of the company’s effort to refresh the brand by offering the independent coffee-bar experience: better coffee, more knowledgeable baristas, a refined café environment.

In other words, they’re encroaching on my turf.

In what has become legend in Seattle, around 10 dark-suited executive types clutching logo-emblazoned notebooks visited successful independent coffee bars in the city. A friend of mine at Victrola Coffee Roasters told me that one of the baristas there grilled the visitors until they confessed their mission: to take notes on the café’s vibe. Another barista supposedly got sick of seeing his every move discussed and notated. He leaped toward the corporate spies, jumping up and down while exclaiming, “Dance, monkey! Dance!”

I actually wish them the best. Maybe Starbucks will return to being about coffee instead of milkshakes, breakfast sandwiches, and Sheryl Crow CDs.

This might seem strange coming from me; I am an independent coffee retailer, after all. Last year, I received attention when one of my shops closed because of tax problems, and a customer at another café flew off the handle because he didn’t like our policy of not serving espresso over ice. Bloggers began debating whether the customer truly is always right, the sort of policy that’s more common at corporate chains.

So some people might assume that I’d pooh-pooh Starbucks’s efforts. Everyone expects the proverbial little guy to sling stones at the big guy, as if doing anything else would be un-American. But to me, Starbucks is a problem only if the quality of its coffee gets worse, and this new spinoff might help it improve.

I hope the coffee wars nudge the caliber of all coffee upward. Just because you’re not a corporate behemoth doesn’t mean you serve delicious brew. The dirty little secret of most independent coffee shops is that they don’t know how or don’t care to serve high-quality coffee, believing that furnishing comfy chairs and knowing the names of their customers’ dogs are all that matters. And some of the nation’s most highly respected chefs are serving some truly awful coffee.

Nicholas Cho is chairman of the U.S. Barista Championship. This commentary appeared in Wednesday’s Washington Post.


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