That chain with the green logo

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We get asked about Starbucks all the time. Questions range from “Where is the ‘Original Starbucks?’” to “Can I please have a ‘Caramel Macchiato’?” We can only answer the questions as they are posed and to the best of our knowledge.

The other day when I was chatting with Melissa Allison of the Seattle Times, she told me that I talked about Starbucks a lot more often than most other folks in Seattle’s independent-coffee scene.

Our old store at 111 Pike Street

The truth is, here at Seattle Coffee Works we do talk about Starbucks a lot. Not only do our customers ask us how we’re doing amid the 99+ Starbucks within three blocks of our store but we also actively study our big corporate neighbor. We often buy coffee from our neighboring stores and check out their operations. We figure there’s a lot we can learn from Starbucks (as well as other cafes and roasters).

In today’s Seattle Times article, I mentioned Starbucks’ somewhat unnerving visits to our tiny hole-in-the-wall café. Here’s the story: last winter, three separate delegations of Starbucks folks came by. Each time they filled our little store so that no one else could fit in. Usually they didn’t introduce themselves, and one delegation even lied, saying they were just a group of Japanese tourists. They didn’t buy a single drink. When we offered to make them an espresso for free, they didn’t care for it. That was really strange, for a company that says they like coffee. Plenty of other roasters, café owners and baristas stop by our store all the time for coffee. We love exchanging ideas, opinions, samples, techniques.

That’s what makes us Seattle Coffee WORKS, emphasis on the WORKS. Coffee is a work in progress, and we’re an experience coffee project, a place to explore, communicate, share our passion and fascination for coffee. Even a lot of Starbucks baristas come by. After all, many of them are curious about coffee too. Coffee is a deep subject, with so much to learn. (Did you know it’s the world’s second most traded commodity, after oil?) Starbucks corporate reps checking out the café décor but not the coffee? Go figure.

That misdirected interest among Starbucks higher-ups is one of the reasons why Starbucks will have a hard time creating a “neighborhood” store as reported in The Times.

Here are some other principal differences between a Starbucks store and an independent coffee roaster like us:

  • We’re not profitable and we never expect to be profitable. If our little coffee business can pay a living wage to everyone working here, including the folks who own and operate it, we’ll call it a success. Starbucks has to pay the baristas, the store managers, a regional manager, all the way up to the COO & CEO and a bunch of creative types doing all kinds of corporate rethinking. I do believe small businesses have the opportunity to provide better value for this reason alone. (Weighing the economies of scale versus passionate investing and re-investing into a product and an experience you love would warrant another blog post.)
  • We have a much easier time connecting personally and directly with our customers. No one’s speech is scripted or otherwise limited by corporate speak.
  • Our interior design is conceived by real people for real people; we’re not pursuing a hidden agenda of pushing more product or cutting down on our customers’ “dwell time.”
  • We love coffee, and (did I say that already?) we always want to learn more about coffee, even when that means buying a cup of it from one of our competitors.

We study and admire Starbucks for some things we have a harder time getting right:

  • Speed of service; few companies have spent as many resources on figuring out the best and most speed-inducing bar setup
  • Merchandising and labeling; Starbucks design is often really well done and it’s made to sell
  • Location location location; man, all of us indies would die to know the SBUX formula for choosing a successful location.

At the end, all of us Seattle coffee creators know that things would have been very different without Starbucks here. It created a market of people who appreciate making coffee a part of their daily routine and cafes a desirable destination. Face it, Starbucks stores are almost a neighborhood fixture, like public libraries, schools or community centers. Without Starbucks, there would be far fewer coffee places here, and we would probably sell a lot more drip coffee rather than the lucrative tall latte. Without Starbucks, Melissa Allison would probably have to write about airplanes or Microsoft Windows, and I’d be working deep in the belly of a well-known Internet retailer. So thank you Starbucks. You’ve liberated me.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisdag/, the original resides here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisdag/3398960788/

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