Bread with your latte?

Starbucks' growth seen as boon to city

November 23, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

In Baltimore, where the scarcity of Starbucks was elevated to the level of civic crisis just a few years ago, residents are now drowning in a frothy flood of gingerbread lattes and gasping for air under a mountain of cinnamon scones.

The Seattle coffee giant has opened three stores in Baltimore in the past three months, the result of years of lobbying by the city and a recognition by Starbucks that Baltimoreans are as willing to pay $4 for a macchiato as anyone else. This, civic leaders say, is a good thing.

"If you look at the thriving cities in the country, they all seem to have a predominance of Starbucks," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. "It's a measure of the health of the city."

Starbucks says its delayed arrival in Baltimore -- three years ago there was just one stand-alone store in the city, in Mount Washington; now there are 11 -- is simply a product of the company taking time to find the right locations. But now Starbucks says it's excited about the city.

"Baltimore is a great, growing area," said Carter Bentzel, Starbucks' regional marketing manager, who speaks of the city with the zeal of the newly converted. "We have an enthusiastic love for Baltimore."

With Starbucks now open in the 300, 1200 and 3100 blocks of N. Charles St., you can practically walk from downtown to Charles Village without ever wanting for a fresh Frappuccino. New stores also have opened in Roland Park, Inner Harbor East and Belvedere Square.

Three years ago, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley cornered a Starbucks rep at a retail conference in Las Vegas. At the time, Starbucks said it wanted to expand slowly in the city, to make sure its stores were successful and that it understood the local landscape, said Andrew Frank, Baltimore's deputy mayor. The expansion has come faster than some anticipated.

"Rightly or wrongly, Starbucks is seen as a bellwether for neighborhoods and urban areas that are doing well," said Frank, who used to work at the Baltimore Development Corp., which woos companies to the city. At least twice, Frank said, companies considering moving to Baltimore asked how many Starbucks the city had.

At the newest Starbucks, in Mount Vernon, nearby office workers are making the store part of their daily routine. As soft jazz played over the sound system on a recent Friday, Laurie Terbeek said she'd been in the store three times in one week.

"There are other options for coffee, but none are as good," said Terbeek, 27, who works at the University of Baltimore. "When you see a lot of Starbucks, it has the feel of being a trendier city."

The Starbucks in Baltimore are like the Starbucks everywhere -- leather sofas, upholstered chairs, earthy tones and music carefully selected so as not to offend. The menu is the same as what you'd find in any of Starbucks' 10,295 stores nationwide -- espressos, lattes, Frappuccinos.

"It used to be really hard to get coffee that wasn't from a deli," said Kevin Lee, 31, a lawyer drinking an Americano at the Starbucks at 300 N. Charles St.

But there are some who regard Starbucks' growth in Baltimore as one would the advance of an invading army. At Red Emma's in Mount Vernon, a worker-owned and collectively managed coffee shop, customer Sarah Sevier said she wouldn't dare set foot in the new Starbucks a few blocks away.

"If I walked around with a Starbucks cup, I think people might look at me differently," said Sevier, 24, a freelance artist. "When they moved in, I think everybody got a little angry."

The employee-owners of Red Emma's, which opened three years ago, said they attract a different clientele than Starbucks and weren't worried about losing customers to the coffee giant.

"Our customers could go to Starbucks, but who likes double-roasted coffee?" said An Byrne, referring to Starbucks' dark roast, which some think has a burnt taste. Byrne, an employee-owner of Red Emma's and, according to his red T-shirt, a "Radical Fitness Dude," said, "Do you really want to be seen with a Starbucks cup?"

At Carma's Cafe in Charles Village, co-owner Carma Halterman said she hasn't seen any decline in business since a Starbucks opened across the street. She said Starbucks and other chain stores in the area, such as Chipotle, get people into the neighborhood who then discover her shop.

"The buzz among independent coffeehouse owners is that if you've got a distinctive quality product, the best that can happen to you is for Starbucks to move next door," she said. "People are drawn, but then when they're presented with something more interesting, that's what they choose."

She said that on the day Chipotle opened and offered free burritos, her business was up 15 percent. She thinks Starbucks is having a similar effect.

Bentzel, Starbucks' regional marketing manager, said the company has no intention of crushing independent coffee shops. "We actually feel like we've brought the whole coffee category to a different level," she said. "We hope that has given a lot of other opportunities for independent coffee companies to make their name known."

It might not be lost on Starbucks that Baltimore was recently named the least-caffeinated city in America (Chicago was the most wired), according to a survey by HealthSaver, a Web site that offers discounts on prescription drugs and other medical care.

Indeed, Bentzel said Starbucks plans to continue its expansion in Baltimore, drizzling stores across the city like nutmeg atop a gingerbread latte.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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