adventures in craft beer and real food

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dies irae, dies illa

If I was dumbfounded when I was invited to join the Facebook group "Petition to Keep Starbucks in Marshfield, WI," I shouldn't have been. There is a whole movement at work called Save Our Starbucks that seeks to prevent impending store closings. I've never been one to cheer as people lose their jobs and as businesses close their doors for the last time, but I've had mixed feelings about the Starbucks in my hometown since it opened several years ago.

For those who haven't heard, Starbucks announced on July 1 that they would close 600 of their "underperforming" stores. Six locations in Wisconsin are on the list, including the one in Marshfield (PDF, 84 kb).

At the time of this posting, the Facebook group has 373 members who presumably support the group's mission. It was founded by Stephanie Weyerts. In particular, they encourage people to call a Starbucks customer service number to ask the company to reconsider closing store 9808. There is also, apparently, a petition that is available to be signed at the store itself.

One could point out fairly mundane flaws with this group's raison d'etre. For example, in the "Description" field for the group, they say:
So my Mom called the main office at 1-800-235-2883... (the store # is 9808)

And what they told her is amazingly great news if you are addicted to Starbucks like me lol. If enough people call and complain about it closing they will consider keeping it OPEN!!!
Starbucks, as a company that's interested in making more money than less money, undoubtedly based its store closures on financial data and is therefore highly unlikely to change its mind because of customer complaints. Since the corporate decision was based on data rather than spite, the proper response should be to frequent it more often and/or spend more money per visit. Mere complaints do not change the basic calculus at play.

Moreover, the description seems to contradict itself when it says:
BESIDES I DON'T WANT THE ONE IN TARGET! I LOVE THE DRVE-THRU! Just the whole experiance of hanging out at the store and being able to read or play on your laptop is something you couldn't really do at the target one.
If Ms. Weyerts just goes through the drive-through, does the store's ambience actually matter?

Rather, I'm more interested in the Starbucks-centricity of the group's mission, the impact on the Marshfield community, and what a coffee shop should be.

The author of the description says:
You know how long I had to wait for a Starbucks to open when we moved here from Washington state??? And now they are trying to take it away?
Marshfield has other coffee shops, such as the Daily Grind and the Coffee Cabin. The perception of coffee quality is subjective in practice, but I've long considered the coffee at the Daily Grind to be of very high quality. I may find fault with the fact that the Daily Grind serves flavored coffees in addition to regular and decaffeinated selections, but this objection is more philosophical than practical (I believe food should taste like what it is, and coffee never has a strong fake raspberry flavor naturally). To the best of my ability to discern differences in quality, I disagree with claims that Starbucks coffee is superior to the quality at other coffee shops in Marshfield.

In addition to considerations of quality alone, the Daily Grind and the Coffee Cabin are local coffee shops. When you spend money there, more of your money stays in the community; it doesn't get sent to some corporate headquarters. This means that the owner and staff of these local coffee shops can invest this money back into the community, both directly (by sourcing items locally) and indirectly (by spending paychecks at local businesses).

The Daily Grind opened shop in Marshfield years ahead of the Starbucks at a time when most of us thought of coffee as a hot, bitter beverage made by mixing hot water and Folgers Instant Coffee Crystals. The opening of the Grind opened our eyes to the world of coffee by brewing the coffees of the world. In the early 90s, there was a certain audacity in having a chalk board that said what coffee was being brewed that day. More often than not, they were labeled by place. It never occured to me back then that there was such a thing as kinds of coffee, but I began to notice that the coffee from New Guinea was very different from the coffee from Columbia. As such, the Daily Grind stands at the forefront of a local coffee revolution to many people in Marshfield. Without this pioneering work, it would be inconceivable that Starbucks would even consider opening shop in town.

Given the fondness I have for the Grind, I worry about the consequences of Starbucks closing on other coffee shops. On face value, the loss of a major competitor would seem to be a benefit to the remaining businesses. However, a much-discussed article in Slate last year argued that Starbucks in general has a positive impact on local coffee shops. The idea is that Starbucks, with its elite image and megalithic advertising capabilities, spreads and serves as a magnet for coffee culture wherever it expands. When people approach a Starbucks and see a local alternative next-door, they are likely to choose the alternative.

Anecdotally, something similar could be at play here. The Coffee Cabin moved closer to the Starbucks and has remained in business for several years despite being less than a quarter mile down the road from a Starbucks drive-through. I have no data to support such a claim, but it is reasonable to think that for people want a latte on the way to work they are simply choosing the less expensive option at the Coffee Cabin. It is also possible that the change of location was designed to place it on the right-side of the road on the way into Marshfield, making it a more convenient stop for people on their way to work.

The real price of coffee is probably closer to the prices at Starbucks than many of its competitors. Despite the high prices we pay for "black gold" (the coffee I buy from Alterra via Barriques Market sells for about $9/pound), little of that money goes to the people who produce the coffee (10-50/lb cents is typical, or a minimum of $1.26/lb for Fair Trade). In an ideal world, the high prices paid at a coffee shop would go to better trained baristas and more ethical sourcing of coffee. At Starbucks, however, neither of these factors seem to be applicable. Starbucks, in an effort to standardize quality, uses a machine to make its espresso drinks, meaning that the quality of their latte isn't related to the training of the barista. Also, as only 6% of their coffee is fair trade their sourcing is inferior to regional roasters such as Alterra, Just Coffee, and Intelligentsia despite having higher or similar prices.

To be honest, I don't know who roasts coffee for the Daily Grind or the Coffee Cabin. It may well turn out that none of it is sourced through Fair Trade standards. If that's the case, it would be better for growers to have the increased sales from Starbucks than the alternatives but the difference in 6% and 0% in a town of Marshfield's size may not be significant.

In a market where mere competition was the arbiter of success or failure of a coffee shop, the Slate model may be more applicable. But the main reason that Starbucks is downsizing is that with rising energy and food costs, people have less discretionary income. So instead of going out for coffee five times a week, people may be choosing to go once a week. Again, I have no data to back up any such claims but it is reasonable to think that something like this is going on. The same market forces which are having a deleterious effect on Starbucks is going to have an impact on local coffee shops as well. So while the remaining coffee shops in Marshfield may have bigger slices of the pie, the pie itself is becoming smaller.

Finally, I wonder if the closure of the Marshfield Starbucks says anything about what a coffee shop should be. Starbucks has been very open about its ambition to create a third place for people, as demonstrated in an interview with Howard Schultz of Starbucks on NPR last year. They hope to establish a space outside of home and work that people spend time. This is evidenced by the layout of a typical Starbucks: comfortable chairs (often described as "comfy"), seats positioned for individuals instead of groups, free electricity, and Wi-Fi access.

The difference between the Starbucks vision of the third space and the version offered by the Daily Grind could not be more stark. The Daily Grind has antique wooden chairs that are arranged for groups and intermittant Wi-Fi access (they have it, but has been unavailable every time I've tried to use it). Go into any Starbucks and it's as quiet as a library. If you wanted to talk to somone, you're likely to be shushed at by someone who has made a table their personal office. A Starbucks is a place where many people connect to the internet by themselves. In contrast, the Grind is as noisy as a bar as it's full of people talking to each other. Some people read, study, and use laptops at the Daily Grind, sure, but it's a minority and no one seems to make it their office. The Grind's approach is far more observant of the political nature of coffee than Starbucks. That Starbucks is closing while the Daily Grind is remaining in business seems to reflect an interesting rejection of the Starbucks idea of the third space.

This opinion is also philosophical rather than practical. I like the idea of a coffee shop as a place that people can go to talk and discuss great and minor things alike, but ideally there would be the option of both styles of coffee shop in Marshfield.

I am not mourning the loss of the Starbucks in Marshfield as I didn't consider it to sell a superior product, was underwhelmed by its sourcing practices, and disliked the atmosphere. At the same time, I worry that this could create a ripple effect on other, local coffee purveyors in Marshfield and may represent a trend toward coffee pricing that is out-of-sync with the real value of the product.