Going independent: the café revolution
comment 6 Written by on September 28, 2009 – 5:29 am


[Photo by Stuart Noble on Flickr]


So London now has a version of Friends coffee shop, Central Perk. It opened last week. Yes, last week, in 2009, around a decade after the peak period when everyone wanted to be part of the Friends gang.

I was pleased to see that the Guardian responded with a piece in praise of independent coffee houses (a list of the ten best, plus a call for readers to recommend their own favourites). The UK is ready for a coffee house revolution. Actually, scrap that and let’s call it the café revolution. It was our striving to recreate the All-American ‘coffee house’ that lead to the problem. Now we’re tired of the Costas, the Neros, the Starbucks. This month Starbucks unveiled a new plan to try and inject some personality into its stores. They want to become less corporate and will now rebrand by debranding. Urgh. The fact that people are using that language shows the battle is already lost.

I used to go to the chain coffee shops from time to time in the London, but here in Buenos Aires, I refuse. I’ve said this before, but Buenos Aires has a refreshing absence of carbon-copy coffee shops. There are only a handful of Starbucks here.  I can’t help feeling that to stop the spread all we have to do is resist an overpriced milky drink with a dash of coffee and take the rash step of drinking a reasonably priced, strong cortado. As challenges go, it shouldn’t be too hard.

Where do I go for a good cortado? My local is the wonderful Bar Gallego in Palermo Viejo, which is a workman-style cafe run by an elderly Gallician owner who fled Spain after during the civil war. In the 1990s he was offered a million dollars to sell his prime-location premises, but heroically refused and the place has barely changed since. It is known for serving huge chunks of meat, jamon crudo sandwiches, shiny chips and strong coffee. I love the fact that one of the more eccentric waiters always leaps out of the shop to greet me when I walk past and always tries to speak a token bit of English, even though that usually just extends to "thank you very muchy". You wouldn’t get this sort of service in Starbucks. As the Observer’s Word of Mouth blog says of the Starbucks fall from grace: 

As the shops proliferated, their bright, studiedly informal interiors began to look like cynical clones, the staff quietly morphed from stunning resting-between-jobs actresses into stunned looking minimum-wage droids with thousand yard stares, and everything began to smell of sour milk. What had once looked like the brightest of futures began to look like McDonald’s.


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6 Responses to “Going independent: the café revolution”

  1. I read the other blog that was linked to the “rebrand by debranding.” It seems unwise that Starbucks will spend all of this money to debrand themselves. I mean, how much money have they spent into forming themselves as a brand? Isn’t that the point of successful marketing?

  2. It does seem drastic, but I think it’s make or break time for them. They have to move with the times to survive. They announced huge losses in the UK this week: £47m. I’m not sure how far they’ll go with this ‘new image’ move and what exactly they have planned. Will have to see.

    Apparently the Bank of England has 115 branches within a three-mile radius. No wonder people in the UK are resenting it.

    By Vicky Baker on Sep 30, 2009 | Reply
  3. “… stunned looking minimum-wage droids with thousand yard stares.”

    Some people say the Observer has a snobbish tone. I can’t think why.

    I agree with you about Bar Gallego, Vicky. But you have to admit it’s not representative. There are scores of independent cafés within a mile radius of my apartment, and none of them is on a par with Gallego.

    At least you have things in perspective. I’ve heard friends — otherwise intelligent people — say that Buenos Aires is ‘over’ for them now that Starbucks has arrived. In other words their hand-made, artisanal, freewheeling, second-world paradise has been tainted by corporate culture. My (locally born) wife, a Starbucks fan, has a crude but effective answer to this: “If you don’t like it, [expletive deleted] GO HOME!”

    By Matt Chesterton on Oct 1, 2009 | Reply
  4. Yeah, the thing is it’s not one or two Starbucks that’s the problem. In isolation, they all add to an interesting mix of styles and cultures that you’d want and expect to find in any modern capital. It’s just the aggressive, stomping-over-the-competition expansion that I wouldn’t want to see that repeated here. It seems from Starbucks financial reports that even they now realise they went too far in the UK.

    Funnily enough, I was actually quite excited when Leicester got its first Starbucks in the early 2000s (I’d just come back from a stint in the US so I knew about adding syrups to Americanos and I was sure this made me the coolest person in Leicester) and couple of years ago I used to go to the one in Canary Wharf where I worked (after all, the area has no traceable personality so there was nothing to jeopardise). And who knows I might go into the one in here in Palermo once in a while, if I didn’t think that success might lead to more ruthless expansion. Basically, I just don’t want to see them everywhere I turn. Starbucks has given me the fear. And it’s easy to see why. You hear these nasty rumours of them opening stores on every corner to deliberately try and run out the competition. I’m not keen on that.

    Gallego is indeed an extreme – that’s why it’s my favourite, because it stands above the rest. There are a lot of independently owned places in Palermo that are pretty formulaic. After all, being independent doesn’t mean a place exempt from feeling samey or soulless. Chainstores aren’t always bad either; I like that familiarity from time to time. I just want to see variety.

    Starbucks does get demonised (it’s cool to be anti Starbucks now, just like it used to be cool to know how to order a Vanilla Americano), but having seen how they – and other stores like them – operate, I can’t help seeing them as a threat to variety on our streets and a threat to small-scale operations.

    I like the variety I see here in BA; I don’t like the clone towns I see in the UK. Simple as that. All though I recognise it’s only as simple as that in my simple world where I write about nice travel things.

    Oh dear, look what you’ve done, Matt. I’ve gone off on one again! Seriously though, thanks for the thoughts!

    By Vicky Baker on Oct 1, 2009 | Reply
  5. Well, let’s meet for a coffee at Gallego next week and continue this in person;-)

    I agree with most of what you say, and you’re very far from the kind of person I was referring to. What makes me distraught is that we get Starbucks and not Wagamama, Krispy Kremes or Paperchase. I want the *right* evil corporations.

    By Matt Chesterton on Oct 1, 2009 | Reply
  6. Deal!

    By Vicky Baker on Oct 2, 2009 | Reply

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