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Coffee Wars

Is the increase in local Starbucks Coffee joints an alien invasion?

By David Templeton

At 5:58 A.M. on Thursday, April 11, a spanking new Starbucks Coffee bar opened its doors in historic downtown Petaluma. Seconds later, local chiropractor Steve Jette walked boldly up to the gleaming front doors and stepped inside, becoming the new location's first official customer, or its first corporate casualty, depending on your point of view.

"It's old Petaluma vs. new Petaluma," Jette cheerfully observed later. After describing the autographed Starbucks commuter mug he received for being their first paying coffee consumer, he summed up the general mood of downtown coffeehouses. "It's a war. A friendly war."

Perhaps not so friendly.

As Jette explored the interior of the immaculate, beautifully redesigned store, the newest of 828 Starbucks locations in North America, one apron-clad "barista" (an espresso bar-tender) described having had "nasty things" shouted at her from a passing car just that morning. Someone had egged the front window as well.

For months before the store opened, there were a growing number of bumper stickers seen around the county, saying "Friends Don't Let Friends Go to Starbucks." At various coffeehouses around the town, it has become something of a sport to invent new ways to make fun of the Seattle-based operation.

"Oooh, Starbucks," laughed one downtown waitress. "The S-word!" Her boss jokingly called them, "The Kmart of coffees," while across town another bartender took it even further. "Kmart, nothing. More like the Wal-Mart of coffees."

So why is everyone so wired up about Starbucks, already established in Sonoma County with branches in Santa Rosa and Windsor? Is Starbucks truly a predatory monster, invading the county with a plan to drive all the locally based competitors out of business, or is it merely a popular, growing food-service chain answering the public's call for easier access to its products? And are the anti-Starbucks forces a bunch of paranoid, corporate-hating fearmongers, or are they simply businesspeople pragmatically guarding their share of the hot-steaming-beverage market?

Ron Salisbury, the owner of Petaluma's immensely popular Deaf Dog Coffee, is the man behind those aforementioned bumper stickers. He stands with the pragmatists.

"I have a background in business, and all those classes are now coming to fruition," Salisbury grins. "This is commercial war, and if you don't believe it, you shouldn't be in this business. I can't sit back and whine about the big, bad corporate giants. I have to go after them, to protect my share of the market.

"My drinks are bigger than Starbucks'," he says, describing his defense. "All of ours are double-shot. And it's a better-tasting drink. I've got as much market research behind my store as Starbucks has in theirs, and this is what my customers want, from the drinks we serve to the urban-distress look of the place.

"But I promise you," he adds, "if my business drops off because of them, this place will look like a Starbucks tomorrow."

Jeff Sacher, owner/operator of three Copperfield's Cafes in Sebastopol, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma, is equally pragmatic. "I've had experience with them already," he says, "since they opened up across the street from me in Santa Rosa. And yeah, I was worried, but it's been a positive experience for us. I'm busier than ever. The only thing that bums me out is that in an area of small, local businesspeople, we now have this corporate giant sending our business dollars up to Seattle. That doesn't appeal to me. On the other hand, their presence has helped spruce up a decrepit part of the downtown area." Which means increased downtown traffic, and potential increases for everyone.

Ross Blau, of Cotati, is the manager of the Petaluma Starbucks. He declined to even acknowledge the controversy surrounding his store, pointing instead to the positive contributions Starbucks makes to the communities it sets up shop in.

Unsold goods are donated to local charities. Used coffee grounds are given for free to local gardeners. Employees wander the neighborhood picking up trash. There is an aggressive recycling program, plus enticements to customers who bring their own coffee mugs, and a corporate policy of sending monetary aid to impoverished coffee-growing regions of the world. Starbucks' workers are unusually well compensated, with starting wages well above minimum wage, and medical/dental benefits for part-time workers. Clearly, these programs are nothing to throw beans at.

Yet in spite of such efforts--some of which even the most pro-community businesses aren't making--Starbucks' presence in the county, and certainly in Petaluma, has many folks worrying about their own survival.

The Apple Box, Café Passport, Aram's Café, and especially the Brickhouse, directly across from Starbucks, are hoping that after locals satisfy their curiosity with the new kid on the block, they will return to the cappuccino makers they know and love.

And what about Jette, the celebrated first customer of Starbucks, and a daily customer of the Brickhouse? How does he find the coffee at the new place?

"Coffee's coffee," he states sensibly. "But people are people. If you have wonderful people behind your counter, then that's where customers are going to go."

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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