on the closure of many starbucks

Not wanting to jump into the fray too soon – rest assured, gentle reader, I was watching the news on Tuesday afternoon, waiting for an announcement to see what would happen – I’ve had a chance to think about the Australian Starbucks closures a little more, and thought it was about time to comment.

Whether you’re a fan of the chain or not, it’s always sad to see a business closing, and people losing their jobs. Is it because they’re just not making good enough coffee that they’ve needed to close? Or is it more about dropping the ball on simple things like friendly customer service?

One barista I was talking to about this suggested that the problem with Starbucks is that they have taken the human element out of the equation: the coffee is made by someone pressing a button on a machine, which is going to give a consistently good, but not great, coffee. He freely conceded, though, that Starbucks is great at branding, and at providing a consistent look and atmosphere in their stores.

For me, the chief shortcoming with Starbucks was the quality of their product. Sure, at an airport farewell at 6am, when it was the only place open, I tried it, and was pleasantly surprised by a passable decaf latte, but in general, their espresso just lacks the guidance of a top-shelf barista, and I’d rather put my coffee dollars to encourage people to be better at their craft.

Further, the homogeneity of their stores was not something I particularly enjoyed. Part of the joy of a good cafe is that it has some visual element that distinguishes it from all the other cafes. Once something becomes big enough to start franchising, the priorities change: it’s less like visiting someone in their home, and more like eating together in a fast-food place.

Lastly, the closure of stores from such a big chain does not bode well for the cafe industry in general. With money ending up devoted to rising fuel and grocery prices, it seems there just isn’t as much money left to spend at cafes as there was. Sad times indeed.

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  1. It’s interesting, this Starbucks closure (my apologies for using the word “interesting” if you were one of the people who are now out of work). I think it’s a really interesting example of a start-up idea that worked successfully when nobody else was doing it, and then got killed by competition.

    I first encountered Starbucks on a trip to the States in 1997/98, and I remember thinking how much fun it was that you had this place where coffee was available like fast food, and with all kinds of novel twists. At a regular cafe, the biggest coffee you got was in a mug. At Starbucks, you could get MASSIVE coffees (with whatever the fancy name was).

    At a normal cafe, coffees were just lattes, long blacks, etc. But at Starbucks, you could get funky sounding stuff like Mochacinos, hazelnut lattes, etc. And all of it presented in a very slick, modern-looking store.

    I should also say that I’m not a coffee afficionado, so for me, the taste of the coffee was the least of my worries.

    But I remember thinking back then that this would be really great in Australia. So when they opened up in 2000, I remember being really excited. And some of their stores had those comfy chairs, which was also quite nice.

    But then, of course, as you get older, you realise that, really, it’s a fast-food coffee shop. If you want a *good* coffee, you go to a coffee shop. (Or was that just that I was talking to you too much, Dave?)

    And then along came Gloria Jeans. I’m not a huge GJs fan, but try asking my wife about GJs. She *loves* the place. (Especially the one at Kogarah.) She’ll concede that it’s not necessarily the greatest coffee in the world.

    But the dark warm colours of the shop, the comfortable chairs – just everything *looks* like a comforting little nook. If she ever wants to go read a book for an hour without having to look after our daughter, GJs at Kogarah is where she’ll disappear.

    Now, have a look at the next Starbucks store that you pass. Tell me one Starbucks store that you would want to sit and read a book in. It looks more and more like KFC. You go in, get what you want, and then get out. It’s not a place to hang out.

    So, yeah, when the idea of a coffee chain with a) novelty coffees and b) a fast food element of reliability (ie you know what you’re getting) first started up in Australia, it would have worked.

    But now there’s several such chains. You know exactly what you’re going to get in GJs as well (and apparently someone reckons McCafe is competition, but I would disagree). And Starbucks didn’t really have a way of clawing back the ground. After all, if you’re serving average (or worse) coffee and there’s places with a better atmosphere round the corner – what chance have you got?

    Interestingly enough, I once read a book by the guy who helped build the Starbucks brand (after helping build the Nike “Just Do It” brand before that) and they actually build Starbucks around the idea of being able to finally get a *good* cup of coffee. People went to Starbucks because they knew their coffees would be better than the average ones they could get on the street. So one can only wonder what you were getting served at American cafes before then . . .

  2. I can’t help thinking that there are going to be a lot of cafes out there now with no business running them and that – given the nature of the shops, their locations, the shop fittings, electrics and plumbing – there will be a lot of opportunities out there for enterprising prospective cafe owners to get a piece of a new pie.

    Sure they couldn’t *all* be running themselves into the ground. I had the impression that it was the upper-management level that was failing. Are these all franchise stores or a combination of fanchises and head-office-run cafes? (I think Hungry Jacks do a combination like that.)

    That being said, where will I now go for a hot apple cider?

  3. I read an article in the Herald this week in which it was posited that the reason Starbucks did so well in the US and the UK was that before they came along, coffee in those countries was maybe half a step above freeze-dried rat droppings.

    Whereas in Australia, the reason Starbucks has shut 75% of their stores is because we’ve been able to get good coffee here since the 1950s. What’s sold in Starbucks is n Americanised version of good coffee.

    As for the franchising thing, all stores in Australia fall under the reign of Starbucks USA. Many were performing well. I even asked the guy who managed the store in Martin Place why they were on the chopping block when every time I’ve walked in (or past) it’s been completely chockers and he gave an answer that made sense; the rent was insane.

    I used to go to the one in Martin Place often, mainly because it was convenient but also because the people who worked there were cool, made consistently good coffees, and I enjoyed going there to read, write, or just hang out.

    What bums me out the most about them shutting up shop is that it has now become a hell of a lot harder to find a cafe that’s open outside of 9 to 5 Monday to Friday in the weekend desert that is the Sydney CBD.

    Oh well… there’s always Glebe…

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