December 30, 2004

The End of the Café?

The first Starbucks opened in France one year ago, across from the Opéra Garnier. Some people feared that this most recent manifestation of mondialisation would mean the death of the Paris café tradition. (Editorialists at the American Enterprise Institute, on the other hand, chuckled.)

Starbucks stepped carefully into the country, perhaps recognizing the sensitivity of the undertaking. The storefront on the Avenue de l’Opéra, adjacent to their business headquarters, served as a lone test case for several months.  The site was carefully chosen, and could be considered evidence that Starbuck’s primary business is not coffee, but real estate – it’s one of the most chic locations in Paris. The milieu gave the first Starbucks a cachet which the company has not striven for in the United States.

Yet a test site was a good idea. In a nation where the waiter can tell by the time of day what kind of coffee to serve, people needed instruction before they could order double skinny soy Lattes. Thus the six part informational poster, in gentle fonts, above the counter, and the folded paper menus with large pictures of each major drink, labeled with textbook-like callouts which elaborate the possibilities in glossy detail.

After initial success at Opéra, Starbucks added three others stores in key locations, while continuing to tweak. High-end pear juice was replaced by “Smoothie Smiley,” which frazzled mothers who rate Starbucks as a godsend must appreciate. Unfortunate British-style sandwiches also appeared, but shared display case real estate with croques monsieur and even pavé brioché aux rillettes de fois gras. Overreaching, the management even invited customers to sample the Grand Cru Starbucks – not wine of course, but ground coffee beans.

Starbucks has now expanded to nearly 10 Parisian locations, and while as yet there are no dueling Starbucks on either side of the same street (like Pioneer Square in Seattle or Oxford Street in London), it seems to be off to strong start. The puffy chairs are all taken, and it is not only tourists who are latte-sippers – on a recent visit, more than three-quarters of the patrons were speaking French. The crowd is pretty young; as with McDonalds, teenagers find it cool to hang out in an American chain.

So far at least, the traditional cafés have not suffered. Guidebook favorite Les Deux Magots, despite featuring what is arguably the worst service of any eatery anywhere, is among the plentitude of cafés within a short distance of Starbucks Odéon which continue to do brisk business. And Chez Starbucks does not have a monopoly on WiFi Internet access – some traditional cafés have added it more quickly, more reliably, and for free.

Despite a largely positive start, it’s clear that in France there is a love/hate relationship with Starbucks, as with many things American. After I ordered my coffee, I commented to the barista that the number Starbucks seemed to be growing quickly in Paris. His response: “Yes…it’s becoming worse and worse – oops, I mean, there are more and more!”
© Copyright 2004 Will Friedman

By Will Friedman in Commentary | Permalink  | 

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