Affairs

Economics

Storm in a coffee cup— London

Preface

It’s gone. Ding dong the witch is dead. The tax dodger (alleged) has been run out of town.

Starbucks, Coffee, Tax

8 November 2012

It’s gone. Ding dong the witch is dead. The tax dodger (alleged) has been run out of town.

The nice little neighbourhood shopping street near where I live in central London has been home for the past couple of years to a branch of Starbucks. From the moment it filled its first venti cup it’s been the subject of some serious huffing and puffing from the neighbours. But now the shutters are down and a note in the window informs anyone yearning for a low-fat muffin to visit a branch just a few minutes away. Under where it says “This branch is now closed,” a photocopied sheet posted by a wag says “which makes you wonder why we needed one in the first place”.

Starbucks engenders in some people the same reaction that would greet Hannibal Lecter knocking on their door and asking if he could join them for a quick bite. Its brand has been dented in the UK by claims it pays almost no tax and that it used to run the water taps all day to save staff from having to turn them off and on. Oh and it’s an American company that’s gone global so it must be evil and bad for the environment, surely?

What some local people didn’t like about this particular Starbucks was that it sullied a road otherwise lined with independent retailers. Was nowhere safe from the chains? Plus there is an excellent independent coffee shop – where you can be sure of the heritage of every bean – and numerous other good cafés. Now I like my shopping strip and it’s got some great places to empty your wallet but was Starbucks really such a terrible addition to the road and were the objections not just a little tinged with snobbery? Nearby is a children’s hospital and often when I walked past the shop the people in there nursing coffee had the worried looks of parents waiting for doctors’ verdicts. I saw Gulf families sitting outside who had come to London to get their kids specialist treatment – sometimes with their pushchaired children. These people had better things to worry about than which Kenyan farmer grew the beans in their coffee and they didn’t give a damn about the flat whites vs lattes debate. What they saw in the green Starbucks sign was something they knew; perhaps something that seemed oddly reliable and untroubling at a moment when everything else was up in the air. Would they have felt comfortable trying to sit on the dinky stools outside my favourite hole-in-the-wall coffee shop?

Now, as you can tell, I am a sucker for a minimalist coffee shop that’s owner-run and cares about the ’hood it’s located in. But I don’t feel comfortable with some of the shrill nonsense that always attaches itself to Starbucks’ name. Is having a Starbucks really worse than drinking a Diet Coke? Or anything mass-produced – including that nice bottle of pinot grigio in your fridge? I am not sure that the retail world can really be divided by a wall of morals.

And what’s even funnier is that when yet another shop opens selling daftly priced frou-frou, nobody says a word. When a slightly rubbish caff opens, there’s not a murmur. And when a gallery selling art just this side of dreadful pulls up the shutters, there is smug silence. Expensive and unessential is good but utilitarian and cheap is bad if it comes in a Starbucks cup.

So now the shop is going to be taken over by yet another pop-up shop (what happened to the nice old charities that used to get a look in when these spaces needed a temporary lodger?). That will solve all of our problems. I wonder if McDonald’s needs a new site?

Monocle 24

× The Briefing

  • This one-hour show airs at 12 noon London time and includes analysis of the day’s news in Europe. This is also our drivetime show for the US East Coast.
Loading

0:00:00 0:01:00

Drag me