How Do You Disguise a Starbucks Store? Like This...

Last Friday a cute new coffee shop opened in Seattle, dubbed "15th Avenue E Coffee and Tea"—it's one of those unique places that are being beaten out of business by big nasty Starbucks. Wait a second, it is a Starbucks.

15th Avenue E Coffee and TeaAnd it's right there on the front window—the olde worlde-looking painted store sign says "15th Ave E Coffee and Tea...Inspired by STARBUCKS." It is, in fact, a low-profile, camouflaged stealth Starbucks store. And it's part of a new Starbucks business model that will see stores without the trademark global styling, and interiors that are more of a return to the traditional coffeehouse. Some of them may even, astonishingly, sell wine or beer and host live music and poetry readings.

Indeed, 15 Ave E does live up to that idea—its decor looks much more old-fashioned, the espressos dribble out of a hand-operated machine.

On one hand, this is a great move by the global coffee machine that is Starbucks to buck the globalization trend, and give the consumer a more unique experience. But can it be authentic? Great independent coffee shops have surfaced across the world for centuries. They tend to serve different coffee blends, because they're truly local they feel more personal, and they sometimes act as a social hub for a neighborhood. What these new Starbucks stores are doing is ditching the corporate brand so they can pretend to be one of those genuine mom-and-pop stores, while still earning money to feed the global enterprise. It's a bit like finding out that your favorite small-label French champagne is actually made by Coca Cola, and bottled in St. Louis. If these stealth stores manage to deliver a genuinely local experience, and integrate themselves a bit more into local communities then perhaps we'll let Starbucks off the hook. But it's a big "if".

15th Avenue E Coffee and Tea

[via PSFK]

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  • Soren Nielsen

    What originally made Starbucks a succes in my opinion came down to taste and consistency. What they did so well was to deliver a great coffee experience at a relatively high barista level (certainly by US standards). and certainly better than most local coffee houses. (Based on my own experience during my LA recidency 1991-2002). I live in Denmark today and wonder if the local coffee houses in the US have significantly improved their product offering? If not, then this concept provides the consumer a good 'local' coffee experience endorsed by all the Starbucks benefit (of which great taste isn't the least). I realise that Starbucks are pushing out local businesses but I think it is a stretch to believe that this engenders significant badwill for Starbucks.
    A local-like business also have greater leeway and provides a safe testing ground for new concepts, products, tastes etc, -it helps expand the brand in new directions while staying close to its roots. I think it will be a good investment. It works a little like the Considered line does for Nike, a two way benefit.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Matt. Indeed--it's a fascinating little piece of business twistyness "we're still the corporate giant, but we're pretending to be your nice local store." In Portugal, where the country has just opened its first couple of Starbucks, national companies rule the business, but there are a million little mom and pop stores--a "stealth" starbucks would be treated with contempt, I suspect.
    @Freddy. Yup. Again, that's a U.S. thing... you can buy beer in McDonalds in lots of Europe, but it's so integrated into society it's not a stand-out money earner.

  • Freddy Nager

    The magic word here is this: alcohol. For Starbucks, alcohol would even be more profitable than coffee.

    For consumers seeking a "third place" in the evening for a client meeting or just to read or write while drinking a glass of wine, the local bar is often out of the question. It's often too noisy, and a bartender might frown on someone camped out with a computer. The article doesn't mention if kids will be excluded from the establishments, but an adults-only environment would be an additional benefit.

  • Matt Whiting

    Kit- This has to be one of the most interesting corporate experiments as of late. On paper, this is certainly a smart move and as many who have commented on this news cycle have noted, innovation like this might just help the Green Mermaid stay relevant and avoid the fate of the Detroit crowd.

    In addition to not earning the highest marks in the authenticity/transparency department, it appears that Sbux Corp has been completely surprised by the public backlash. I invite you and readers to visit blog posts on the subject titled "The Stealth Starbucks Meets the Angry Mob: Lessons Learned in the Twitter Age of Communications" and also "What’s in a Name? What’s in Your Cup? How Starbucks’ Signage Sneakery is a Sign of the Times." Both can be found on the "Thinkers and Doers" blog.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Simon. It is pretty fascinating.
    @Mike. Agreed---but it's still in danger of putting that "genuine" local coffee shop out of business, due to the massive economies of scale Starbucks can leverage. I know that's purely business in action...but it doesn't mean we have to like it. Is it a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing thing?

  • Mike Billeter

    As far as this question goes - "But can it be authentic?" - I think it all depends on the experience a person has there. If you walk in and it feels just like the neighborhood coffee shop a few blocks away, then it's probably as authentic as it needs to feel. It's not like they'll be using fake, "comfortable" furniture or fake, home-made design elements. Of course, if employees are trained with the traditional Starbucks training manual/video and then told to pretend to be a local coffee shop, there could certainly be a disconnect that causes problems. But, as long as they provide a coffee shop that, from all discerning perspectives, is "real," then it seems to me that it's a pretty smart move by Starbucks.

  • Simon Crabb

    This is fascinating. I can see other large brands doing this too. You can just see McD or BK running a 'home made' type setup - but using their back-end buying power.