Counter cultures: when the barista at one Starbucks…can peer through the window from another.

The ubiquity of Starbucks locations in America’s dense urban centers is a running joke, and it’s not even a new one. The insufferable yuppie couple of the 2000 movie Best in Show famously joked about it: “We met at a Starbucks…not the same Starbucks. But we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street.” And while, at that point, they most likely are referencing a major city—I think Meg and Hamilton Swan hail from a fictitious suburb of Chicago—at this point it could easily be a much smaller one.

If I stand in the dead center of my hometown of Indianapolis—right at the iconic Monument Circle—I can indeed easily see two Starbucks, when pivoting slightly. One of them—just to the east of the Circle—is a longstanding corporate location, and one so successful that to this day it remains jam-packed up until it closes at midnight. The other, to the north of the Circle, is affiliated with a Sheraton Hotel and thus is almost definitely not part of Starbucks corporate. So I guess that’s not quite the same as “different Starbucks across the street.” But it’s close.

The SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood of San Francisco, denser than downtown Indianapolis by multiples, offers a coy juxtaposition that Hamilton and Meg could easily have embraced, toting along their Macs and their J. Crew catalogues. Or L.L. Bean.Starbucks corporate location near Moscone Center This location, in a multi-story parking garage, sits at the southwest corner of 4th and Mission streets. And sixty feet away, at the southeast corner of this same intersection, we espy another.IMG-0438The brand isn’t so conspicuous on this location, but the telltale green lettering projects itself from the awning above the central door. Due to the shadows, it’s very hard to see in this photo (unfortunately), but it’s a Starbucks. It would genuinely be feasible to sit in one Starbucks and wave hello to a friend in the Starbucks across the street.

Why on earth would a company allow for such self-defeating positioning of its own brand? To be fair, the reasoning for these two proximal Starbucks in San Francisco is hardly different from Indianapolis. The first appears to be another Starbucks corporate location, while the second is affiliated with another popular yuppie retailer.IMG-0440The longstanding partnership between Target and Starbucks has essentially mandated that every location of the discount department store feature a location of the coffee shop near its entrance. This particular Target, like most urban locations, requires customers to ascend an escalator to reach the merchandise. But the Starbucks itself is at street level, with an entrance directly from the street and another from the interior near those escalators.

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Few other brands could pull this off, and even Starbucks might not do this without good reason. These SoMa locations, though, are less than a block from the Moscone Center, San Francisco’s expansive, multi-block convention center. And convention goers aren’t known for their adventurous proclivities; they like familiar names. I’d imagine conventioneers themselves could easily sustain both locations, and if they couldn’t, the one on the southwest corner (unaffiliated with Target) would probably fold. And, at the Indianapolis pairing, the same condition probably applies: both locations are just a few blocks from the city’s convention center, and I’d presume Sheraton has a similar partnership as Starbucks with the omnipresent coffee chain.

Regardless of the economic performance of these spitting-distance Starbucks, their co-existence bespeaks the lumbering inefficiency of corporations as they grow. If Starbucks franchised its locations, no rational franchisee would pick a spot where another location would siphon revenue. But Starbucks corporate owns, operates or forges partnerships to create all American locations, the arrangement with Target almost certainly functions under an entirely different arm of the business than the strategic location of freestanding locations. And we witness “mirroring” as a result. Even for a company as successful as Starbucks, it’s a manifest inefficiency—one that a smaller, regional chain (say, Dunn Brothers or Biggby or La Colombe or CC’s) could hardly afford. But the Seattle chain is approaching “too big to fail status”—visible enough to elevate its founder and CEO, Howard Schulz, toward a presidential bid. And if some catastrophic misstep ever dethroned the coffee giant, San Francisco could still manage with a mega-chain all its own: at this point, Berkeley-based Peet’s Coffee is forging a name as Starbucks’s biggest competitor. The Wendy’s to Schulz’s McDonald’s. And probably the only other coffee brand besides Starbucks corporate that could credibly host locations across the street from one another. Maybe the next generation of Meg and Hamilton Swan will meet (cute) at Peet’s. At least if they pull out their Mac tablets at a Peet’s, they’d be honoring not one but two San Francisco-based brands.

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7 thoughts on “Counter cultures: when the barista at one Starbucks…can peer through the window from another.

  1. AvatarChris B

    It’s been more than a decade since I walked from the Sears (now Whatever) Tower across the Loop to Millennium Park. I can’t remember if it was on Jackson or Adams, but I seem to recall at least one corner along the way with two Starbucks, probably under the El. I think one corner might even have had two Walgreen’s or CVS stores,

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Sounds about right. With the density of the Loop and Magnificent Mile, I think it would be easy to find these examples. It still seems like a ridiculous decision and more a byproduct of bloated, corporate oversight—of being careless about details that ultimately become hidden in plain view. I see no rational explanation why two locations less than 150 feet from one another would do anything other than siphon the anticipated customer base.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      After digging further into what you said, it sounds like it (JAB) is an investment group that has also bought out considerable interest in Caribou (a former viable competitor to Starbucks that seems to have fizzled) as well as hipsterrific Portland-based Stumptown, which still retains quite a bit of an indie vibe. Is this investor keeping a low profile and allowing considerable autonomy, much the same way the German company (ALDI Nord) that owns Trader Joe’s has allowed it to retain its homespun, American feel? IMO, Peet’s feels just as much like corporate Americana as Starbucks does–and much more so than Trader Joe’s, which hasn’t been an American owned company for the better part of forty years. I’d hardly guess that Peet’s has any European flair, which is probably largely the point. Nor does Trader Joe’s, though at least TJ’s seems to customize itself to its adopted city each time it opens a new location.

      Reply
      1. AvatarBrian M

        Interesting comments. For a moment I actually misremembered that ALDI WAS the corporate parent, but discovered otherwise. I forgot that Stumptown had been sold. In worse news in coffee/indie snobbery, NESTLE bought Oakland’s ultra serious BLUE BOTTLE last year as well.

        Just like with beer, the rollup of the economy by a few Vampire Squids seems to continue.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          No worries about the political references…as long as my commenters don’t harass other commenters or create spam, they can say whatever they like!

          If Blue Bottle is now part of an international conglomerate, where does that leave us? Some of the other regional chains–Dunn Brothers, Dutch Brothers, Biggby, Bluestone Lane? Or, in order to “buy American” do we have to settle for Starbucks?

          Reply

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