In September of 1993, Starbucks had two-hundred stores nationwide. Currently, Starbucks has over eleven thousand stores in the United States alone. Starbucks fundamentally changed how the United States treats coffee. Everyone became a gourmet coffee drinker, no longer content with brewing Folgers in the morning and throwing in some cream and sugar. Starbucks forced us to learn Italian terms (or at least, how to say them. Understanding the terms “espresso” and “machiatto” are not necessary to ordering them).
But now that Starbucks has thoroughly saturated the market, a “backlash” to Starbucks has begun. If Starbucks was the second wave (the first wave being coffee you could buy in a supermarket), the third wave are the indie cafes that treat coffee like wine. Menus are spare, compared to the many syrups and spinoffs that Starbucks boasts.
Starbucks began, like any other café, as a singular café that attempted to be a center of community. Even as it has expanded, it has attempted to retain its community flavor. But perhaps mainstream America has rejected Starbucks’ overtures at being a “third place”; Starbucks, in 2011, began to change its stores to have a more “independent” atmosphere by changing the look of the interior to be less like other Starbucks locations, and has begun to buy artisanal beans that are roasted (and charged) separately from its regular cups of Joe.
Cafes attempt to sell an experience, as well as coffee, and logic dictates that once a café goes “corporate”, something is essentially lost. Blue Bottle, a company from the Bay Area, attracted a great deal of investors in the Bay Area, even while trying to maintain its austere, simple menu that focused on the quality of their coffee. But now, as Blue Bottle tries to sell iced coffee around the country, the coffee community has moved on, just as it had with Starbucks.
Coffee straddles a strange line—Starbucks has made it relatively accessible, but the underground coffee community remains exclusive, and people frequent cafes often for their atmosphere. Coffee’s accessibility, however, ensures that independent cafes have a welcoming market, if they choose to expand. The question is whether to expand, and potentially lose whatever was the selling point of the café in its humble beginnings.