Just when you thought the world was divided between the opposing forces of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, new ventures have perked things up again in the coffee category. With the purpose of depositioning the blue mermaid.
This year, for example, a man named Pete Licata was named best barista in the country at this year’s United States Barista Championship in Houston. Licata is not a Starbucks barista, but hails from the Honolulu Coffee Co. group in Hawaii. Licata then went on to international competition in Bogota, Colombia where he placed second (numero uno barista on the planet is an El Salvadorian named Alejandro Mendez).
Today Starbucks finds itself being challenged and repositioned on every front. And the notion that’s brewing is that there’s more to coffee today than just the mermaid.
America’s (and the world’s) coffee palate has changed, evolved, and the new coffee culture finds itself sitting in cafes discussing the arcane attributes of Kenyan Peaberry, Brazilian Serra Negra, and Grand Cru. Restaurant menus respond to the new coffee connoisseurship by describing coffees the way others describe wines. Example: “…medium-bodied, smooth, with hints of cacao”. Some menus even mention coffee growers like Chuck Boerner in Kona. Artisan coffeeshops like Blue Bottle, Brooklyn Roasting Company, Dunn Brothers in Minneapolis, and Ninth Street Espresso in Chelsea Market present thicker, chewier lattes and more robust morning roast, focused on what they claim Starbucks started but did not finish.
Ed Schultz, founder of Honolulu Coffee Co. (where barista Pete Licata brews his best), puts it this way. “A company with 13,000 stores [like Starbucks] cannot see themselves as a boutique brand. There are people who want a pure coffee experience, rather than being in [Starbucks’] ‘third place’.” Rather than spewing out cups of grande egg nog lattes from super automatic espresso machines, Schultz and others pay attention to the coffee, from seed to cup.
“There’s a quite large percentage of people who are quite happy with going to Starbucks and don’t want what we do at all,” says Blue Bottle Coffee’s James Freeman. “Shops like ours are a little less customer focused. We only have six drinks, we don’t have sizes or flavors. We have less people, less stuff, smaller drinks.”
While Starbucks has captured the comfy social experience of the European café, others are championing the taste experience. While this may have been what Starbucks had going in its early days, it is where people like Honolulu’s Ed Schultz suggest they are failing today. “You cannot be that big and pretend to put out artisan coffee,” says Schultz. “Inside European cafes, you find one person creating the coffee, using a very manual method.”
“We have more manual preparation,” agrees Blue Bottle’s Freeman. “Fewer push button operations. Fewer words. We spend more time making each drink.”
It seems that as Starbucks educated us on what coffee could taste like, they also created coffee aspirations. Just as we traded up from bottles of Mateus and Liebfraumilch to Napa Valley wines years ago, so, too, we aspire to better things in coffee today.
And while this depositioning might relegate Starbucks solely to the experience level, the company is having pressures on that front, too.
In addition to the thousands of local coffee shops that now flaunt leather chairs and faux library settings, there is Nespresso. Owned by Nestle, Nespresso’s ornately designed boutiques and $400 Nespresso machines make it the Louis Vuitton of coffee experiences. Not to mush metaphors, but the stores look like they might have been created by Porsche Design.
Positioning themselves as the worldwide pioneer and market leader in highest-quality premium portioned coffee, Nespresso’s ultimate coffee experiences are not only savoured at home, but also at upscale restaurants, hotels, luxury outlets and at offices. Nespresso has artfully provided a stylish alternative to the omnipresent Uggness of Starbucks. And sales prove it. The brand touts “an organic growth rate of over twenty percent during the first nine months of 2010” in a recent news release.
Twenty or so years ago, New Yorkers found themselves walking down the avenues wondering what was up with all the near-empty Chock Full O’Nuts shops located on Manhattan streets. Popular in the 1940s, by the 1980s the retail fronts were no longer relevant. Starbucks arrived to rekindle our coffee palate. But if the mermaid wants to survive, it needs to ignore Dunkin’ Donuts as their major competitor, and focus on the quality coffee and store experiences that made them special.
One coffee consumer in a recent research study outlined the cadence of public popularity, “You start out being new and different and special,” she declared. “Then you become popular and mainstream. Next, you become ordinary and boring.” Bam.
If you think the rebirthing of artisan coffee is small beans, you just don’t now what’s brewing. Honolulu Coffee Co. is opening a new shop in Taipei. Blue Bottle Coffee is launching new shops in Rockefeller Center and Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Tokyo may even be a possibility. “I love Japan!” says Freeman. “The coffee culture there is very inspiring to me.” And Nestle now has TV ads touting its sleek round new Dolce Gusto machines in China, to the tune of James Brown’s tune “Sex Machine”.
Sex. Coffee. Two things we can’t seem to live without.