How New York’s Love Affair With Starbucks Turned Sour

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July 17 2012 7:00 AM

How New York’s Love Affair With Starbucks Turned Sour

It started when they took away the comfortable chairs.

People sit inside a Starbucks Coffee shop in lower Manhattan August 21, 2009 in New York City.
Starbucks’ relationship with New Yorkers has now settled into middle age

PhotoGRAPH by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

Starbucks’ successful seduction of the notoriously finicky New York City consumer began with a dramatic grand geste. The 1994 opening of the first Manhattan Starbucks at Broadway and 87th Street on the Upper West Side—the opening salvo in CEO Howard Schultz’s fierce courtship of the Big Apple—earned manic coverage from the press. (Sample headlines from the era: “Starbucks Coffee Chain Hopes to Turn Big Apple Into Bean Town”; “Coffee Retailer Ready To Roast N.Y.”; “Starbucks Brews Up Storm in Big Apple.”) At the time, the store was the largest Starbucks in the world. “We had to have crowd control at the door,” Schultz exulted, but he knew he’d need more than one outlet—even one very large outlet—to convince skeptical New Yorkers that his intentions were honorable. To demonstrate its long-term commitment to the relationship, Starbucks announced that it would open another 100 stores within four years. Today, with Starbucks running almost 20,000 locations in 58 countries, this may not sound like much. But at the time, the 23-year-old company had just over 300 stores in the world. Starbucks seemed to really care about New York.

In the years that followed, Starbucks eventually won over many of even the most cynical New Yorkers, including me. Schultz, a native New Yorker, took his time planning to enter the market—the company had gone public two years earlier—and cleverly used his personal familiarity with our weaknesses to break down our resistance. Starbucks’ many gestures of affection included comfortable chairs intended to erase the pressures of urban life from the mind and body; clean, well-stocked bathrooms in a city otherwise designed to test the limits of the human bladder; cheap refills for discount-mad old-timers. And Starbucks initially provided something no other fast-food franchise had ever managed to deliver: friendly, knowledgeable, and patient staff who often knew your name and preferences. It was enough to make the most jaded New Yorkers suspend disbelief and forget they were patronizing a global corporate fast-food monolith.

I was a long-time holdout. In addition to my natural aversion to calling a small coffee a “tall,” I felt a deep loyalty to the local Cuban diner where I had written most of my first book. By the time Starbucks started offering free Wi-Fi in 2008, however, my laptop and I were already ensconced in an oversized comfortable chair at the branch around the corner. What had broken down my resistance? It wasn’t just the previously enumerated enticements; it was the fact that Starbucks had maintained and enhanced them over more than a decade. This no longer felt like a slick come on. These guys were for real—they understood New Yorkers’ idiosyncratic needs and seemed committed to satisfying them long term. Until recently.

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Starbucks’ relationship with New Yorkers has now settled into middle age. And as anyone who’s ever forged bonds in the throes of passion knows, time tends to dull a suitor’s ardor. The idiosyncratic qualities that once made New Yorkers the object of such intense interest and attention in the first place—our standoffishness, our demanding nature, our very unattainability—have come to be viewed as annoyances, or worse. The signs of strain in Starbucks’ relationship with New Yorkers have been visible for some time.

The cushy chairs were the first to go. The original flagship New York City store was shuttered. Then some city Starbucks stores began discouraging laptop users from lingering during peak hours.* Reuters broke the story last year that many New York City stores have begun to block electric outlets to discourage laptop users altogether. Last winter, under the headline, “Just a ‘wee’ change,” the New York Post reported that a few city Starbucks locations had closed their restrooms to the public. (The closures occurred without corporate permission and were quickly reversed.)* Those discounted refills (actually free if you have a Starbucks Rewards card) now are the subject of increasingly frequent grilling at the counter by those once highly solicitous baristas: Did you really consume that beverage in the store? And, as message boards with names like www.ihatestarbucks.com attest, the interrogation sometimes continues as to whether the consumption actually took place over the last hour.                                             

What happened? New Yorkers, forever besieged by alternative fads, require constant wooing. And the impact of the 2008 banking system collapse on the local economy made us require even more emotional reinforcement from incumbent purveyors than usual. Yet New Yorkers’ increased emotional demands came at a time when Starbucks was least prepared to respond aggressively, with its stock trading below $10 a share. Furthermore, though occupying Manhattan may once have had personal and corporate resonance to Howard Schultz’s Starbucks, today the island’s branches represents barely 1 percent of the chain’s stores globally.

It always comes as a surprise when apparently successful marriages turn sour, and most people in dysfunctional relationships wait far too long to leave. Insecurity and habit both encourage inertia. We make excuses for our partner. We blame ourselves. But deep down we know that it is better for everyone involved if we both just move on.

The biggest obstacle to making such a needed change is the fear that as bad as things get, it will not be possible to find a better alternative. My Cuban diner sold out to a new owner and started serving pizza a few years ago and no longer holds the charms it once did. The good news is that competitors seem to have sensed the loosening of Starbucks’ stranglehold on the market and begun to make their moves. Until recently, no other major coffee chain dared to confront the almost 200-strong phalanx of Starbucks in the city. Now, the L.A.-based Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf as well as the Canadian chain Tim Hortons can be found, even if they do require some searching. More importantly, a veritable army of excellent mini-chains, mostly New York-based, have extended their tentacles into former Starbucks territory: from Joe the Art of Coffee to Café Grumpy (recently featured in a storyline on HBO’s Girls), all reflect a more authentically Gothamite ethos.

Breaking up is never easy, and some unpleasant feelings are bound to ensue—but they are always, always followed by relief. Just this week, the small Starbucks on my corner reopened after renovations. There used to be a row of stools just inside the window. Now the stools were gone. I chatted with the barista, and she informed me that they no longer provide refills, since it was no longer reasonable to think that anyone would remain in the store in the absence of someplace to sit. It turns out that 1994 newspaper headline was right: Starbucks did roast New York. Just not in the way we originally thought.

Corrections, July 18, 2012: This article originally stated that some New York City Starbucks stores had started barring laptop use during peak hours. While some patrons with laptops have reported being asked to leave after finishing their beverages, Starbucks does not bar laptop use. (Return to the corrected sentence.) This article also originally stated that the city’s Starbucks had been steadily closing its restrooms. A few Starbucks branches closed their bathrooms to the public without corporate permission and then later reopened them. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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