Chain consistency at the local Starbucks

StarbucksThere is only one Starbucks that I visit with any frequency, and it's one near my old apartment and around the corner from my gym. Over the years, I've thought about why I don't mind this Starbucks and I chalked it up to a familiarity with the staff. Last week I stopped in after my first visit to the gym in two months (yay!) to discover that it had been closed for a remodeling. And what I found was a completely changed store. Apparently the renovations entailed an update to the latest Starbucks concept in interior design.

As I stood there in line, taking in the rug, gold gilt mirror, and plush armchairs in one corner, and the mid-range restaurant upholstered booth in the other, I realized what had made this Starbucks different: It had developed the worn familiarity of a local coffeehouse. The few armchairs were shabby, the tables were always haphazardly arranged. The counter was banged up and the doors were chipped wood in need of attention. It was great.

But now it's got that circular Starbucks lighted sign in its window. They've redone the whole counter, changed where you pick up your drink, and installed a microwave so they can sell those wretched breakfast sandwiches. It's now just another Manhattan Starbucks. Everything that gave it its own identity and authenticity is now gone, and I haven't been back.

Ever since I've been thinking about if it's even possible to have an authentic experience at a chain. In order for the chain to succeed, it needs consistency both in product and in branding. This one, until recently, offered the consistent chain product. But the branding, at least in terms of store interior, was missing. Now that it's been restored, the spirit of the place is gone. I know consistency trumps authenticity when it comes to chains. It was foolish of me to develop feelings for that Starbucks because it seemed different than the others. Different can't survive when global sameness is the goal.

19 thoughts on “Chain consistency at the local Starbucks

  1. In order for the chain to succeed, it needs consistency both in product and in branding.
    Y’know, that sums up the niggling problem I’ve been having with franchises and chains for some time. I think a lot of the problem, though, is that people like that consistency.
    I was in India last September, with a western tour group (Australians and a few English folk, as it happened). Some of the group had been there for about three weeks before us, and while they were in Delhi, they went to a McDonalds and a Pizza Hut. We were seeing a huge variety of Indian culture, and eating some excellent food (and some mediocre food as well, of course), but a good portion of what those people talked about for two or three days was how nice it was that McDonalds was the same everywhere.

  2. How can an experience not be authentic?
    It can not be satisfying, or not be fulfilling, but if you are having it, it’s authentic. The people are real, the food is real (maybe not made from scratch, or a shot pulled by a person instead of a coffee robot, but it’s all real).
    It’s all semantics, I know, but it’s also authentic. No matter what coffee shop you go to you in the US you aren’t getting an espresso in a small coffee bar in Italy. I’m no Starbucks fan, and I’m not even sure any more if they do what they do that well anymore. But doing things well isn’t always what is needed to make money anymore…

  3. Well, that is the reason why no matter where you are in the world, you head on to a McDonald’s -to put the most obvious example out there- and you get pretty much the same experience out of it, every time. It’s what franchised businesses and chains thrive on – homogeneity. They sell a consistent experience. True, sometimes they add or adapt some dishes to local tastes and culture, but that’s more of a marketing strategy than a search for individual identity. And yes, most people are OK with it since not everyone is as adventurous to try new food venues, and because familiarity breeds confidence.
    Me, I’d choose a well-recommended local diner or cafeteria over any McD joint any day.

  4. Ok, authentic isn’t the perfect word, but you know what I mean: real, unique, not cookie-cutter, artificial, replicated. The places I like to frequent feel unique to me, and though it was a Starbucks, I had that feeling there. I no longer do.

  5. I’d prefer a well-recommended local diner over McDonalds too, but sometimes you just want a taste of home. I was once in Europe for about two weeks, and had a wonderful time exploring Czech cuisine, and marvelling at the weird things they put on pizza, but toward the end of the trip I was alone in London and got a bad case of homesickness. A Quarter Pounder from the McD’s near Marble Arch put me right. I just needed something familiar that day, and I was good for another round of new stuff.

  6. Admittedly I left NYC three years ago so I don’t know the answer to this question… but what’s the state of independently owned coffee houses in NYC? I really have little to complain about Starbucks product but have reservations about the way they’ve been forcing the “mom n pop” places out of business.

  7. I don’t know if Starbucks literally “forces” independent coffee houses out of business; customers (or lack thereof) and rents take care of that. That said, there seem to be less than there used to be – in Manhattan anyway. Williamsburg, Brooklyn is teeming with independent coffee houses. My sense is they follow the gentrification. Independent coffee houses represent gentrification on the rise. Starbucks represents full gentrification.

  8. Good to see you back, Meg! I agree with an underlying point in your post: Starbucks is not by necessity some kind of evil monstrosity. Some Starbucks are quite nice, really, and friendly places to have a cup of coffee.
    More importantly, perhaps, before Starbucks began its bid for worldwide domination, many of us (including a sadly unenlightened, high-school version of me) didn’t know decent coffee from a hole in the ground. Now, I’d rather go to my local fair-trade brewing, fresh-baking, neighborhood-run coffee shop, but before Starbucks, I wouldn’t have known to seek it out.

  9. Who cares about the interior, how was the coffee? If the coffee quality has gone south, then I’d seek greener pastures.
    I was delighted when my previous job was one block away from a locally-owned coffee house that had comfy chairs, free wifi and various organic products for sale. I figured this was a good sign so I ordered ot a drip house blend and settled in to do a bit of work. I took one sip and had to suppress my spit reflex. The house blend was a thin, bitter, tinny brew. The coffee at work tasted better than this. I didn’t try an espresso drink (I had just eaten lunch and wanted to keep it that way) and never returned.
    Just because it’s local doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.

  10. Who cares about the interior, how was the coffee?
    The coffee was fine, totally enjoyable. If it hadn’t been, I’m sure I’d have stopped going long ago. But it was the whole feeling of the place that I liked. Just like a restaurant needs to have the proper ambiance to go with its food, so too does a coffee shop. At least for me!

  11. I love Starbucks, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Don’t get me wrong; given the choice between a Starbucks, and an independent roaster/brewer/coffehouse, I’ll choose the independent. But if I want or need a decent cup of coffee, and there is no other alternative, Starbucks will do, and it does quite well.
    If you’re travelling with small children or aging parents, places like McDonalds can be a blessing, as long as it’s the exception rather than the rule. Yes, the sameness of chain restaurants can seem soulless. But sometimes knowing exactly what you are going to get can calm frayed nerves and tired, cranky people who just need a cup of coffee or a bite to eat.

  12. I dunno, I’ve had the breakfast sandwiches, and they can hardly be classified as “wretched”. It’s a fast food breakfast sandwich, what do you expect for $3? At that price it’s marginally more expensive than a Egg McMuffin, and only marginally better.
    It’s cheaper than a breakfast ciabatta sandwich from Jack in the Box I was forced to purchase for a friend in the hospital last week, that was truly horrible, had mayo (!), and cost more, as well.
    I’ve never been deluded by any Starbucks “mystique”. It’s always to me been about a pre-fab marketing experience that is all about safety in numbers. I generally avoid it if possible – in fact, the only thing lately that actually gets me in there is that I can pick up a breakfast sandwich in the time it takes for them to pour me a drip coffee.

  13. I live within walking distance of 4 Starbucks outlets (somewhat insane, yes I know). I have ordered the same latte at all these outlets, and they all taste different. The lack of consistency is frustrating, esp when it’s 4 bucks a cup.

  14. I couldn’t agree with you more, Meg. The Starbucks I go to here in Vancouver (Canada) actually went through a facelift too…and the new and improved version didn’t impress me…it was the people who did!
    Service is really important, I think. That’s why I created my blog entirely based on customer service experiences across business and borders. In my mind, it’s really what makes a place special and keeps you coming back.
    If you are interested (as I know you like food), this is my food section:

  15. I loathe Starbucks. They came to Ireland a couple of years ago. First to Microsoft’s in house coffee shop, then to a university campus, then to an outlet in town, then to two outlets in the city centre, then to the shrine to shopping, dundrum town centre.
    Thankfully, so far they are only in Dublin. To the best of my knowledge.
    I observed an interesting phenomenon when Starbucks opened. There used to be a small coffee shop open near by (there are alot of offices in the area) that had a queue out the door every morning. The week Starbucks opened everyone left, the small outlet was devoid of its queue and Starbucks was full. Every day I watched the Starbucks monster’s pockets be lined by the foolish Irish. I wondered was I really witnessing a population that prides itself on travel, (to amongst other places America, home of Starbucks, where surely people had come across a Starbucks). The small Irish chain outlet must have been getting nervous.
    It lasted five days. Then normal service resumed. Cafe Sol’s queue started to appear out its door again and Starbucks looked surprisingly empty every time I passed on my way to and from work.
    The only reason I could venture was Starbuck’s coffee is truely AWFUL. There is much much tastier coffee to be had in Dublin.
    🙂 Course, the best is from Butlers. I just hate Starbucks sooooooo much. I hate McDonalds in equal measure. I have not been to a Starbucks for years.

  16. “much tastier” coffee than at starbucks? is there a more subjective comment out there? your neighborhood starbucks, particularly in new york city, can feature a shitty staff, grimy tabletops, etc., but pound for pound, their bold roasts of the day are better than whatever ma and pa they compete/competed against. some people just don’t like a goliath, but at least be honest with yourself about that rather than making a hackneyed, flat-wrong complaint like, ‘their coffee tastes burnt.’ light n’ sweet, anyone?

  17. Is your world really so narrow that you can only worship at the altar of starbucks and attack anyone who says that they can get better coffee elsewhere? It’s the truth. I can get better coffee elsewhere. Personal experiences of coffee are subjective. Two people drinking from the same cup of coffee can hold completely different opinions about that coffee. I never said anything about the coffee tasting burnt. Tastier does not equal not burnt. I probably should have said better flavour. Isn’t sweet and light made with aspartemine? That would ruin any cup of coffee, be it one from a “ma and pa” operation or one I made myself! 🙂 I just don’t think they add anything to the coffee world. I had great coffee experiences long before they came to sell their notion to me. The best coffee I ever get to drink generally comes from “ma and pa” operations in Italy. Starbucks doesn’t operate in Italy. Does that not tell you something? Why would I drink coffee from Starbucks when I can order my beans from my favourite “ma and pa” coffee bar in the world and experience their wonderful flavour right in my own kitchen. 🙂 But we should all relax. It’s just coffee. Each to their own. Some people like vanilla, some like chocolate. 🙂

  18. I know exactly what you mean about not having the same feeling.
    There is a restaurant here that I loved to go to. It was in a small, converted house with squeaky floors and separate dining rooms in each room of the house. It was located on a tiny side street and it felt kind of secret and hidden. The food was good too but the location is really what drew me to it.
    The owners decided they needed to be in a more high traffic area and moved downtown to the warehouse district in a space that didn’t seem to keep its occupants for very long. I’ve been to eat dinner there once and brunch a couple of times. The name may be the same but it has lost all the charm of the small house and what, I think, made it unique. The dining room is a big, airy, bright open space. You feel exposed and highlighted, not secret and cozy like in the previous space. The waitstaff seems more upscale now, all proper uniforms and long aprons. Maybe this is what the owners wanted and why they moved but I no longer have this restaurant on my list of places to go eat.

  19. windy reminds me of the local coffee shop that moved to expanded premises and became a coffee-bistro-club-dessert topping. The introduction of table service means that your coffee’s usually cold (if it arrives) and the slightly foxed ambience of the old place has gone. Ugh. It’s presumably making money out of its new beautiful-people clientele, and the desserts are still fantastic, but I’ll only go there when I get a seat at the bar.
    As for St. Arbucks, there’s surely enough of them in NYC (and other cities) to allow for a degree of brand-widening. Instead of refurbing the older ones, call them ‘Starbucks Local’, give the manager a bit of freedom over certain elements of decor, and see if they cultivate identity for regulars; any walk-ins who are put off by the fact of its not looking like the other 164 Starbucks in Manhattan can walk a block to one with that airportesque familiarity.

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