At Wordstock, where I was improbably on the same (short) bill as Alex Garland and Andy Serkis, I had an interesting conversation about Starbucks.
Why do we go to Starbucks? To get coffee, of course – and maybe to get something and sit down. That’s not an interesting question. What’s interesting is why people who are explicitly unhappy or at least ambivalent about Starbucks continue to go there. There are any number of reasons to dislike Starbucks, from (perhaps) their tax avoidance policies to their mediocre coffee and their cookie-cutter similarity. And yet millions of people still go.
So, why? There’s convenience; if it’s the closest cafe to where you are, that’s a strong incentive. There’s security; if you don’t know the area, you could either go to a non-chain cafe and risk a bad experience, or go to a known quantity. Relatedly, there’s consistency; you know what you get at Starbucks. Their marketing and decor reinforces those latter two qualities; you’re meant to feel at home.
All of these reasons added together seemingly outweigh any misgivings we might have about contributing towards unethical corporate behaviour or the increasing soullessness of our high streets. If we left it there, this would be a rather depressing statement of our values, but I don’t think that’s true. There’s really nothing wrong with people wanting convenience and security and consistency. And if Starbucks provided better service or quality or costs compared to their competition, it’s not at all surprising they succeeded. Yes, we all know their tactics in flooding towns and cities with chains to extinguish the competition and then pulling out; but even today, with the rapid growth over, I still seem to gravitate to chain cafes despite the existence of alternatives.
There’s an independent cafe near where I live called Bread and Bean. It makes very good coffee and it’s in a reasonably decent location. The atmosphere is not amazing and the decor a little spartan, but it’s a pleasant enough place to read a book. I used to go to it fairly frequently until I starting shopping in another nearby area which had at least three chain cafes: Costa Coffee, Starbucks, and Harris and Hoole. I ended up going to the latter, which is, if anything, an uber-Starbucks: even more comfortable and secure.
Harris and Hoole, of course, is 49% owned by Tesco. Most people don’t know this and assume, like I did, that it’s just a really nice independent cafe. It gets the best of both worlds – it’s not Starbucks, yet it exudes the comfort and security that we all apparently want.
In the face of these well-funded chain cafes, it may be wise to simply throw up your hands and declare defeat. I mean, it’s just coffee, after all – who really cares that much about a few million in tax? But it’s not just that. These places are the new public square. It would be better if our squares weren’t all owned by massive corporations, just as it would be better if Twitter and Facebook and Google didn’t control so much of online communication.
I wonder if the recent backlash against Twitter and Facebook in the form of more ad-hoc spaces such as tilde.club and private Discourse forums point the way forward. These spaces are no less secure and consistent than Twitter thanks to the diligent efforts of their founders; they are immune against private ownership since they are open source and capable of being spun up and run on any $10/month server; and they are certainly more comfortable, not because they have fancy features, but because they lack scale and so are more able to adapt to their patrons. Every branch of Starbucks must have the same coffee and decor – that’s a strength, but it’s also a weakness.
What we need is an open source cafe blueprint; something that amateurs and semi-pros can get up and running without a massive effort, yet still provides good service and good coffee. This may, in fact, be completely impossible due to the significant differences between running a website and running a physical cafe – but of course, “software is eating the world”. Maybe we can semi-automate all the legal and financial shenanigans involved in getting a space and running a cafe; maybe we can create a framework to source all the equipment and consumables required.
And if you can do that, you can probably adapt it (with great effort) for restaurants and shops and whatever. It would be a massive effort requiring close co-operation with national and local governments and banks; probably on the scale of writing something like Unix, really.
Update: Via his related blog post, John Willshire tells me that 95% of all cafes in Australia are independently owned using some of the tactics mentioned above. Turns out we don’t need to write Unix again – hurray!
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