Your Local Coffee Shop,
Courtesy of Starbucks?

By Nicholas Cho
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Coffee used to be about consumption. It wasn't supposed to taste very good and was often freeze-dried. I remember my introduction to the beverage that would become my livelihood: My parents laughed as I gagged on the bitter swill. This was the first wave of coffee.

Recently, coffee became more about enjoyment. Make me a cappuccino! I want it blended up with some ice! I love it with an extra pump of vanilla! No longer do we put up with bad-tasting coffee. In fact, coffee doesn't even have to taste like coffee at all. This is America! I'm entitled to something yummy! That was the second wave.

Now we're seeing the development of a third wave -- a shift that my colleagues in the specialty-coffee industry have helped nurture. Much like wine appreciation or music appreciation, third-wave coffee isn't just about pleasure. Coffee enthusiasts are taking the time to understand what goes into a truly great cup, researching everything from where beans are grown to proper brewing. This is the wave that I rode at Murky Coffee, which I ran for seven years, and that I'll follow at the new place I'm helping open this week in Washington, Chinatown Coffee Company.

But now the waters are getting a little choppy.

The big green mermaid wants some of the third-wave action. On Friday, Starbucks opened a store in Seattle that's not what you're used to seeing on, say, every other block of most U.S. cities. It's called "15th Ave. Coffee & Tea, Inspired by Starbucks," and it's apparently part of the company's effort to refresh the brand. The plan is to offer the independent coffee-bar experience: better coffee, more knowledgeable baristas and a more refined cafe environment.

In other words, they're encroaching on my turf.

In what has become legend in Seattle, about 10 dark-suited executive types clutching logo-emblazoned notebooks went on a series of research trips to some successful independent coffee bars in the city, including Victrola Coffee Roasters. The barista trainer there, a friend of mine, told me that one of the baristas grilled the visitors until they confessed their mission: to take notes on the cafe's vibe. Another barista supposedly got sick of seeing his every move discussed and notated. He leapt toward the corporate spies, jumping up and down while exclaiming, "Dance, monkey! Dance!"

I wonder if they wrote that down.

I actually wish them the best. Maybe Starbucks will return to being about coffee instead of about milkshakes, breakfast sandwiches and Sheryl Crow CDs.

This might seem strange coming from me; I am an independent coffee retailer, after all. Last year I received a bit of attention when my Capitol Hill shop was closed because of tax problems, and later when a customer at my Arlington cafe flew off the handle because he didn't like our policy of not serving espresso over ice. Bloggers began debating whether the customer truly is always right, the sort of policy that's more common at corporate chains.

So some people might assume that I'd poo-poo Starbucks's efforts. Everyone expects the proverbial little guy to sling stones at the big guy, as if doing anything else would be un-American.

But if Starbucks brings one of these new concepts to Washington, I'll be among the first in line. To me, Starbucks is only a problem if the quality of their coffee gets worse, and this new spinoff might help it get better. (If they want to compete with the likes of Victrola and other great third-wave coffee bars, it's going to have to get a lot better.)

I hope the coffee wars help nudge the caliber of all coffee upward. Just because you're not a corporate behemoth doesn't mean you serve delicious brew. The dirty little secret of most independent coffee shops is that they don't know how or don't care to serve high-quality coffee. They believe that furnishing their shops with comfy chairs and knowing the names of their customers' dogs is all that matters. What's arguably worse is that some of the most highly respected chefs in the country are serving some truly awful coffee. Apparently great coffee doesn't help get you a show on the Food Network.

My customers tell me that, aside from the coffee, what makes a great coffee shop experience is the authenticity, which is one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it things. How can you manufacture authenticity? That's the problem that has plagued Starbucks for years, and I don't know if this latest project will help them figure it out.

Still, I really do wish them the best. After all their research, we'll see if what should actually be called "Inspired by Dancing Monkeys" is another success for the mermaid.


Nicholas Cho is the former owner of Murky Coffee and the chairman of the United States Barista Championship.

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