A Starbucks By Any Name Tastes Just As…

15th Avenue Coffee & Tea Remodeling, originally uploaded by andai.

Today at 6:00 AM marks a new era in the ‘reign’ of Starbucks Coffee.

At that time, Starbucks will open its first ‘I am not a Starbucks’ coffee shop up on 15th Avenue in Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood right next to Smith.

Now if you are familiar with this location, you will recognize that this is the exact same location where only a few months ago, there was a Starbucks branded coffee shop. To reinforce the idea that this is not a Starbucks (branded) store, you will not see any Starbucks branding anywhere. Instead, this shop will simply be called, appropriately enough, “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea”. This article by the Seattle Times business writer and coffee blogger, Melissa Allison, gives a detailed look at what the new store will look like. It is pretty clear that Starbucks is shedding its familiar corporate style coffeehouse decor and instead going the ‘indie’ look and feel… complete with furniture and fixtures made of ‘recycled’ materials.

So Starbucks, that company that is one of the kings of branding, now going in the total opposite direction and hiding the fact that this is indeed a Starbucks owned store? Why are they doing this? What gives? I think the answer is simple. Declining revenues, poorly performing stores and reduced foot traffic is the answer. And despite the fact that they have their stores all over the place, there is a huge segment of the coffee drinkers who simply shun the corporate coffee companies and instead stick to and support the smaller independent coffee shops. I think Starbucks is now trying to attract this group and this store is the first of three in this new experiment. And in addition to coffee, they will be selling beer and wine.

So is Starbucks likely to succeed in this new experiment? To be honest, from what I have seen, I don’t have much hope that they will. I think it is ironic that this move by Starbucks has gotten a lot of press, including some from the major news networks and foreign press. So on the one hand, we all know that this is indeed a Starbucks shop so the crowd that they are attempting to attract will not be fooled by this. But on the other hand, the publicity they have gotten will certainly garner a lot of interest and attention for Starbucks and will probably boost traffic this particular store… at least in the short run.

But if I may expound in a little more detail why I don’t think they will be very successful include the following reasons.

a. Starbucks is way, way too corporate. They do not have an iota of ‘indie’ in them. It is interesting to note that during the initial stages of the planning and remodeling, Starbuck actually had a team of observers, all carrying their little folders, who would go to the various independent coffee shops around Seattle and ‘observe’. I thought this was really incredible because it immediately says to me that these folks have never really hang out at any independent coffee shops and thus are really not familiar with the way these places look and feel. I think they have been stuck too long in the corporate coffee culture for way too long that they really don’t understand what the other half are doing.

b. The name of this location (as will be the same when they open their other experimental stores) is supposed to reflect the neighborhood of the place where the store is located. Now think about this, if the best that they can come up with is “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea”, then I don’t really know what to say.

c. I think the big test though will be how they prepare their coffee. If all they have are their usual automated machines and baristas who really don’t know much about the coffee and where they source from, if they have baristas who really can’t carry a conversation about dry vs. wet cappuccino and all they can do is smile and wish you a nice day, then I don’t really see too much hope. The real test will come if they can indeed make excellent coffee….

But I have to be honest. I associate Starbucks with soccer moms and their little kids who want the hot chocolate and I really can not see how they expect to get the ‘real’ coffee appassionatos to start hanging out in their stores. The espresso appassionatos know their coffee, their coffee shops, their roasters and their baristas really well and they avoid Starbucks for many a reason. I know for one, I will go and try their coffee, but after that, I am really not interested in going to hang out there. I’d rather go to Victrola or Insomniax or Tougo or Fuel or Vivace or Stumptown or Kaladi Brothers, all of which relatively close are all small independent business and make great coffee.

But time will tell whether Starbucks will indeed be able to pull this off.

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