Not Starbucks: Inside 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea

At 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea, there are no Frappuccinos, nor any other blended coffee drinks festooned with made-up Italianate names. Given the ceramic drip cones at the ready to make your drip-to-order brew, the daily 10 a.m. "cuppings" (kind of like wine tastings, but with coffee and no spitting), the stunning copper-detailed La Marzocco espresso machines, and the community table hewed of wood reclaimed from an old barn, blended coffee drinks would be the last thing you'd expect.

But this is "inspired by Starbucks." More accurately, this is Starbucks, but in stealth mode. And a first look at the new store concept -- which will be expanded in Seattle and then, perhaps, launched in other cities, each with their own local brand -- shows that in its search for authenticity, Starbucks borrowed heavily from its neighbors. Wooden theater seats lining the walls are reminiscent of those at The Red Chair Salon a few doors down. The brown façade is nearly the same shade as neighborly restaurant Smith. The hand-lettered chalkboard signs evoke southern neighbor Stumptown Coffee. Because it's the green modus operandi of Northwest cafes and coffee shops, customers are instructed to ask for their beverage in a mug.

More "local" touches, including pastries from Seattle's Fremont neighborhood Essential Baking Co.; special limited small-batch coffee and tea blends; live poetry readings, music, and actor line readings; and cheeses from Beecher's Handmade Cheeses will also be part of 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea's repertoire. Most notable are the beer and wine selections, which disappointingly include only one sorta-local brew from Oregon. Remnants of the Starbucks brand do shine through, despite the chalk and reclaimed furniture, conspicuously Tazo tea in simple silver canisters, and an unfailing cheeriness not seen in any of the independent coffee shops I've ever visited.

Papering one of the walls are pages from Plato, meant to "inspire conversation" according to Starbucks director of global-concept design Liz Muller. Minimalist glasses for sale on the rough lumber shelves display Chinese characters for words like "gratitude," "perseverance" and "sincerity." Again, it's almost too easy to criticize this concept; if you hand write the price tags, is the money going no less to a huge corporation? If you have to explain why you'd paper a wall with an ancient philosopher's writing, of what tenor will the conversation, then, be?

Here in the Pacific Northwest, a sizable percentage of coffee drinkers vote with their caffeinated dollar to purchase anything but Starbucks. While the customers vary from coffee cognoscenti always searching out the most flavorful coffee experience -- the wine connoisseurs of the a.m. -- to the anti-corporate types who won't shop at Wal-Mart or wear Nikes, either, they all choose to frequent local, independent coffee shops because they are local and independent and because they have great coffee and a hip vibe. Could Starbucks, simply by copying all the best, hippest, indy-est, most authentically Seattle bits of all the local coffee shops, restaurants and hair salons (!!), convince customers who eschew Starbucks to hang out there?

As I see it, you may fool the tourists, but you won't fool the truly hip and indy Seattleites. Local foodie and author Matthew Amster-Burton wrote me to say that he wouldn't buy his coffee from 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea over his favorite, Victrola Coffee. " I like Starbucks, and I think they do a very good corporate coffee place. But they are not going to out-Victrola Victrola. You can ding a standard Starbucks location for being clinical or cookie-cutter or overpriced or whatever your gripe of the day, but you can't accuse it of being fake. This place feels fake, and fake is not a nice feeling."

As josh says on Seattle Metblogs, it's obvious no one will be hoodwinked but he doesn't "begrudge Starbucks for giving this a shot. In many other US cities, I admit that I'd probably be pretty happy to find one of these stores as an oasis in a desert of questionable quality coffee; in Seattle it's a bit of a different story."

It's pretty much the same analysis I came up with in my pre-launch post. In Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Sacramento, I'd be thrilled to find a 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea, or its local equivalent, hopefully staffed by baristas with the same ironic rock-and-roll t-shirts and I-haven't-shampooed-in-a-week hairstyles as found in my favorite originally authentic Northwest coffee shops. (I love that the preview day featured a barista seemingly teleported from my favorite local indy coffee shop.) I may not hope for sincere, authentic, philosophical conversation with the customers I'd find there. But I may enjoy the coffee; even if the atmosphere is all pretense.

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