Coffee shops, and why it’s easy to get them wrong.

Sitting in a Starbucks, what rules is the prevalent neutrality of the standard. There is nothing distinctive about a Starbucks. While they are often different in slight ways, trying to fit into the neighborhood decor, the overwhelming sensation is one of repetition, identity. The space is amenable to life, it is an easy place to be, to feel comfortable, but it is not a space of quality. The tables and chairs are competent and functional, not ugly. The art is local (at least here, at the corner of College and Palmerston in Toronto). But nothing exudes quality, nothing radiates, nothing is beautiful. And yet, while many try, it is the minority of independent coffee shops that succeed in bettering Starbucks.

It isn’t by accident that I say “Starbucks” and not “Starbuckses”. ‘Starbucks’ does not refer to a chain of individual stores, each falling under the same ownership, branding, etc… Rather, Starbucks is a form, an idea, which is instantiated on street corners. While there are differences between individual Starbuckses, they are small enough that it is very possible to compare an individual coffee shop with “Starbucks” and not with individual Starbucks stores. In what ways, do they fail to better Starbucks? Initially and for the most part, they fail to better them because they fail to equal them in the crucial ways which these identical reproductions succeed. If a coffee shop does not have consistently good dark roasted coffee, if the tables are not stable, if the chairs are ugly or uncomfortable. Or, if the decor is uninviting, plastical, chintzy. If the floor is too shiny or too dirty. If the Art is worse. If there is not enough seating, or too much. If the atmosphere does not cosset lonely strangers, or open itself to groups. If there are too many windows or too few. If the colour is too bright, too dark, or out of touch. In other words, if the shop is set up with a lack of quality, service, or interior design, parity will not even be achieved.

But parity is nothing, just a copy! If a copy is what you’re searching for, then Starbucks is already a copy of itself! There are, however, many easy ways that any independent owner can make a shop much better than Starbucks. Just to name the most obvious things – use real furniture (used is fine), rather than the infinitely reproduced non-things one sits on at Starbucks – but make sure its competent – no one likes wobbly tables. Use real art, sell it, by local artists. Name and price the art, this brings it to life since the essence of art today is commodity, sellibility. Paint sensibly, make sure everything tie together. Choose flooring with care – the tile flooring in this Starbucks is awful (would be more at home in a pool changing room), but I’ve seen a hundred independent shops with much worse. Key to flooring – what is appropriate to a store is not appropriate to a coffee shop. Stores should have white shiny flooring because it is easy to clean an keeps things bright. White is fine because no one is looking at it. But, in a coffee shop, everyone looks at the floor constantly – it remains in your peripheral vision whenever looking at a computer screen, book, etc… The colour, and texture is essential! It should be, on balance, quite easy to make any independent shop better than the chain equivalent – but this is only possible if the independent owner recognizes what is and isn’t successful about the chain. In other words, the independent store must use the chain stores not as ideals but as resources to better figure out how to make their own spaces warm, welcoming, and ultimately successful business propositions.

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One thought on “Coffee shops, and why it’s easy to get them wrong.

  1. I think a more interesting question is what makes people opt for standardization in the first place?

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