Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Stealth Starbucks

I am teaching my course on coffee houses and public life this term. Today we will be fanning out to several Starbucks stores in Lexington to observe how well they do, in fact, function, as "third places." A third place is a place after home and work where we can socialize with others. In the ideal third place, strangers can become acquaintances and build up a body of friendly, though not consuming, social connections. Starbucks promotes itself as a third place.

Bryant Simon looked at how well Starbucks actually functions as a third place in Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks. He concludes that few Starbucks stores actually have that third place function. Simon has a blog, named after the book, that reports on new Starbucks phenomena. He notes that recently Starbucks itself has been pulling away from its own brand. Instead, they have been opening "stealth Starbucks," Starbucks owned and operated stores that mimic local independents. They name themselves after their location, and don't show the Starbucks logo.

Simon sees this move a part of a larger trend of resistance to chain stores, mass brands, and the general corporate homogenization of America.

I was reminded of Standard Oil's practice, in John D. Rockefeller's day, of buying out local oil companies but continuing to sell under the old, local brand. Most people did not know they were buying from the behemoth Standard, but thought they were still supporting the relatively local company. Standard was so successful in consuming all the competition that they became a monopoly in some places.

Starbucks is not likely to become a monopoly of third places. Indeed, I think the concept is an oxymoron. Part of the appeal of a third place is that it is local, it is the place where I am a regular. In theory, I suppose, Starbucks could become a monopoly supplier of coffee to local third places and independent coffee houses. So far, though, the independents take pride in resisting what my local coffee man calls "the Jolly Green Giant."


Anonymous said...

i think coffeehouses-good ones-are wonderful. they do what bars do-provide a casual meeting space, a zone where strangers can meet and interact-without the serious distorting effects of alcohol...yet w/out being a specifically, intentionally DRY environment.

one problem tho' is that coffeehouses MAY in some areas tend to skew too young in their clientele, making older folks somewhat out of place...especisally if the place is too bohemian-shabby.

Gruntled said...

Agreed. I think if a community is large enough to have multiple coffee houses, it is good for all of them if they differ a bit in who they appeal to. In the midst of our Starbucks expedition I had lunch in a new coffee house that is not at all shabby, but very inviting. 7

In the golden ages of coffee houses in various nations, the leading houses have famously varied from one another.

Kerri said...

It's hard for me to conceive of any place with a drive-thru as a "third place."

Tyler Ward said...

I knew corporate Starbucks was in trouble when they located a store, with a drive-thru, a full 6-7 minutes away from 1200 college students. Surely someone in Danville should have told them better.