Is there any stopping STARBUCKS Coffee: A backlash is brewing as smart-marketing mega-chain speeds toward world dominance.

December 28, 1996|By Tina Kelley | Tina Kelley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Roger Scheumann is on the phone from Quartermaine Coffee Roasters in Rockville. He sounds alarmed.

"People feel invaded," he says. "They can't get away from it. I think people ultimately want choices in their life, about lots of things, and it's sort of like not being able to turn off the radio. You can't turn off the conduit, the pipeline."

It's not some drug threat from Central America that has $l Scheumann agitated. It's not a new virus or some sinister "X Files"-style life form. It's coffee -- specifically Starbucks coffee, that ubiquitous, take-no-prisoners brand, that bottomless cup into which our caffeine-loving country is falling.

Yes, there are some outposts that Starbucks, named for the coffee-loving shipmate in "Moby Dick," is just beginning to infiltrate. Baltimore, for example. But those ranks are thinning. The nation's leading specialty coffee company, 25 this year, is seeping like a dark stain across the map, across the senses, seemingly anywhere it can reach. It's a phenomenon many people feel is grounds for concern.

From a single store in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1971, Starbucks has become a $700 million-a-year corporate octopus, with more than 1,000 stores in the U.S., Canada and Tokyo. Its sea-siren logo is stamped on everything from gourmet ice cream jazz CDs, boutique beer to cyberspace.

"Clearly, there's overkill," says Scheumann, who knows a little about the company. He began working at Starbucks at age 14, and left it to help found Quartermaine's with Starbucks' three original owners in 1991. He's now sole owner.

"When I started with them (in 1983), there were six stores, and Starbucks was about great coffee. Today, it's about marketing and real estate, about building a brand," he says. "Clearly, it's no longer about coffee."

These days, such feelings are percolating more frequently across the caffeine scene. Even in its native Northwest, the perception that so much Starbucks is too much is fueling a backlash. Some former patrons are abandoning it as uncool. Others are actively fighting its further expansion.

Witness the bumper sticker starting to show up on cars all over the West, produced by a small-time Oregon coffee retailer: "Friends Don't Let Friends Go to Starbucks."

Perhaps you are wondering: What's not to like about Starbucks? It serves up a good product, it's by all accounts a model employer and corporate citizen, even competitors have to credit it for spreading the gospel of fresh-ground gourmet coffee.

The heart of the problem, it appears, is simply its sheer size, its unceasing march toward world domination of coffee -- and more.

Take Dan Volz, a Baltimore school teacher. Starbucks, he readily admits, puts out "a consistently good cup of coffee." Nevertheless, you'll most often find him enjoying his daily cup at the independent Daily Grind coffeehouse in Fells Point.

"When I go out for a cup of coffee, I like to sit and relax, read the newspaper, have a cigarette," he says. "And when I enter a Starbucks -- maybe it's the decor, I don't know what else it could be -- I don't feel comfortable."

Says the Daily Grind's owner, David Key, "When you try to appeal to a mass audience, you can lose a little in the translation. But they are educating people about coffee, many of whom then become my customers."

Starbucks spokeswoman Susan Goodell takes such criticism in stride. "Several coffee retailers can exist in a community," she says. "Starbucks has made the analogy of having several different neighborhood pubs, and each resident will kind of find that one spot that provides the atmosphere they find most comfortable."

But in Seattle, where its listings take up two full columns in the Yellow Pages, "It's almost embarrassing for someone who used to go to Starbucks religiously to be seen there anymore," says Chauncey Burke, assistant professor of marketing at Seattle University. "Those people don't like to be associated with the broader, mass-merchandised products."

Volz agrees. "Some people feel like Starbucks is turning into a McDonald's," he says. "My impression is it's a very slick operation."

# You could say that.

2,000 by 2000

In case you haven't noticed, Starbucks is in your face. It's in your ice cream, for example (five flavors manufactured by Dreyer's). It's even, lord help us, in your beer, if your brew of choice is Redhook Ale's Double Black Stout.

Each week about 3 million people buy coffee at a Starbucks. A new Starbucks opens somewhere about once a day, and the chain's aim is to operate 2,000 stores by the year 2000.

In Maryland, in the past 18 months, Starbucks stores have opened in Towson, Timonium, Owings Mills, Pikesville, Bel Air, Annapolis and Mount Washington. Over the next 12 to 18 months, stores are scheduled to open near Johns Hopkins, near the city's waterfront, at White Marsh Mall, in Glen Burnie, Columbia and Laurel.

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