Opinion
 

Hipsters, take note: Still not crazy about Starbucks after all these years

The Starbucks logo has become ubiquitous.

Starbucks trademark

The Starbucks logo has become ubiquitous. But in New Orleans? Not so much.

While the proposed Habana Outpost restaurant is drawing fire from neighbors on one end of the French Quarter, on the other end an older nemesis has moved in right across the street.

On the way to drop the kids at school in the morning, I routinely pass the shiny, spanking new Starbucks on the corner of St. Charles and Canal, with the oversized sign rubbing it in the face of those New Orleanians who view Starbucks as an affront to local cultural identity.

When it comes to New Orleanians who like to think of the city as something special, few national chains evoke feelings of disdain as readily as Starbucks. The Walmart on Tchoupitoulas stirred up a firestorm of opposition, but that had a lot to do with the scale of the project, which isn’t an issue for a corner coffee shop with no parking lot.

Nobody grumbles about a new Costco, AutoZone, or Foot Locker, so it’s not really a matter of automatically resisting national chain businesses of any type. Even a new McDonald’s or Subway sandwich shop doesn’t rankle in the same way, so at heart it’s not even about an onus on national franchises that serve food and beverages.

The Habana Outpost fight carries a whiff of anti-national franchise feeling, but, since Habana Outpost has only one other location — in Brooklyn — concerns of scale, noise, and parking seem to be the arguments driving local opposition more directly.

So what’s with the anti-Starbucks froideur? I think it’s a sense that coffee, and the places that serve it, are especially beloved symbols of local identity. Exacerbating the anxiety about national competitors in a field of such ancient and deeply held personal attachment is the symbolism of Starbucks itself.

A worldwide corporate Goliath, it represents exactly what’s loathed by New Orleanians who like to think the city’s culture is special — call them the Exceptionalists — and what’s longed for by those who wish the city could get more fully in stride with America’s go-go corporate culture — the Americanists.

For Exceptionalists, global chains like Starbucks threaten to wipe out the last vestiges of an alternative, smaller-scale, and more locally managed way of life. For local Americanists, Starbucks represents membership in a national community — “America” — that has often regarded New Orleans as a dubious investment.

I suppose everyone knows that coffee and coffee shops were integral to New Orleans daily life even before Rose Nicaud opened her French Market coffee stand in the Antebellum era.

In George Washington Cable’s 1880 saga of New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, The Grandissimes, he describes a “frugal” breakfast that nonetheless featured “coffee, that subject of just pride in Creole cookery.”

In Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, major characters happen to run into each other at an out-of-the-way place — run by an Afro-Creole woman named Catiche — that they appreciate for its “good coffee.”

Tennessee Williams, setting the scene of A Streetcar Named Desire, notes the “faint redolences of bananas and coffee” coming from riverfront warehouses. That smell still characterizes some of the downtown riverfront to this day, though home-cooking smells wafting through open screen doors have declined in proportion to the loss of older residents.

There’s actually a more recent New Orleans play that’s all about hating on Starbucks specifically, Barret O’Brien’s Midnight in the Marigny, which I recall seeing at Southern Rep in 2000. It depicts a plot to sabotage a new Starbucks before it can open. And in the introduction to the popular post-Katrina anthology, Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?, David Rutledge opines, “If there is a Starbucks in the French Quarter, something has been lost.”

The local coffee house scene was still thriving immediately before the Starbucks era dawned.  When the Ben Franklin High School students of my day wanted to skip class, the original PJ’s on Maple Street, with its spacious backyard, was a preferred destination. Closer to my neighborhood, the pre-gentrified Marigny, we loved French Quarter hangouts that included La Marquise on Chartres — where Restaurant Sylvain now stands — and La Marquise’s sister cafe, Le Croissant d’Or, in the old Brocato’s on Ursulines Street. In the evenings we opted for the eminently bohemian Until Waiting Fills, in an old garage on the corner of St. Philip and Chartres.  A later generation will remember Kaldi’s on Decatur, which, like PJ’s, offered a variety of roasts by the cup or pound.

Starbucks has done a great service to the United States in general by putting semi-decent coffee in places that never had it before. But that obviously doesn’t apply to us. They’ve also done a grave disservice to American coffee culture by promoting a standardized taste that I, personally, find comparable to asphalt. The scorch they subject their poor beans to is beyond “dark roast” — it does violence to the flavor and actually gives it less body to balance the hit your stomach takes.

Just as with many a Pacific Northwest ultra-hopped micro-brew beer, the point of a Starbucks cup isn’t so much sensual enjoyment as proving oneself worthy.  Starbucks is proud to be a “lifestyle” brand. It’s not really about the coffee. Brands like Starbucks make Karl Marx’s notion of “commodity fetishism” easily understood by any eighth-grader. The idea is that the commodity is valued not for its use-value (what it actually does) but for the social signification conferred on the buyer.

Starbucks, with its old-world cultural pretensions (Italian words like “grande” and “venti” instead of “medium” and “large”), sells culture — that is, the idea of culture — to socially mobile people who view culture as a stepping-stone to higher status. It’s a classy touch of cosmopolitanism in a safe, clean, predictable, and homogeneous environment (in other words, everything cosmopolitanism ain’t).

The good news is that Starbucks doesn’t seem to be much of a threat to local, independently owned coffee houses. We have two large local chains here as well as smaller two- or three-shop operations and lots of totally independent one-offs.

The chain’s relative impotence in the face of this local coffee culture is because few new residents of New Orleans, and few tourists, feel the itch for Starbucks’ products — either the coffee or the pseudo-identity conferred on the buyer.

A New York Times travel section article on New Orleans by a new resident specifically praised the absence of Starbucks franchises as part of the “intoxicating, tradition-steeped charm” that is our brand (and fetish). The new residents’ go-to site for re-making the city in their image is neighborland.com, and it does have a call for a new Starbucks in Mid-City, but only two people have signed on since 2011.

Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher, writes that taste is really a matter of placing oneself in the social hierarchy. He refers to the “sense of distinction” that many people seek to imbue themselves with through their consumer choices. The idea is that some people make choices that they believe set them apart from an imagined mass of people without taste.

Starbucks offers this allure — of making the customer feel more classy than the guy who gets his coffee from McDonald’s (even though McCafe tastes better). But the sheer size and omnipresence of Starbucks limits its ability to confer true exceptionality on the buyer.

The new residents of New Orleans’ downriver wards are far more sophisticated than Starbucks regulars in their effort to set themselves apart. Some of the newest establishments in the Marigny/Bywater area are proud to offer, not Starbucks, but elite roasts from Portland. Pair these beverages with a hoppy micro-brew beer or craft liquor, and a tapita built around a rare vegetable and animal organ, and you and your buddies are truly in a class unto yourselves.  The choice of New Orleans as your residence is part of the game, too, since, until recently, the city was a “well-kept secret.”

The tenacity with which many New Orleanians defend the city’s “uniqueness” is mother’s milk to seekers of personal distinction, even though the newcomers may not fully grasp the tenets and history of local exceptionalism. The problem is that coffee roasted in Portland or Boulder and flown in is totally divorced from the local historical and cultural contexts of coffee in New Orleans. The result is a culture that’s unique to a growing number of great American cities, but not necessarily unique to New Orleans. Also, I want to smell that roasting coffee wafting from the river, as did Tennessee Williams and generations before him; and coffee that’s not roasted here doesn’t accomplish that.

But because of its visibility and international cachet, Starbucks remains a greater challenge to preserving New Orleans as a different-tasting and different-looking place than do the new hipster haunts of the latest bohemia to occupy the downriver wards. I have no doubt that O’Brien’s script for Midnight in the Marigny would be re-enacted today in the event some unsuspecting person proposed a Starbucks on St. Claude Avenue, and the newest downtown transplants would no doubt be on the front lines.

I’m grateful for the new residents’ general commitment to difference from mainstream American norms (whatever their personal motivations), because it helps sustain New Orleans’ sense of itself as an alternative to the style of consumerism across so much of the rest of the United States. Having fewer Starbucks per square mile than other cities continues to be a worthy symbol of what makes New Orleans special.

C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University. 

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  • FitzDizzyspells

    I used to be a Starbucks-shunner, and I still prefer PJ’s coffee. But then someone pointed out to me that Starbucks treats its employees far better (better benefits, like health insurance) and uses more ethically produced coffee beans. Good on them, I say.

  • ohnonononono

    I think part of the difference is that New Orleans has had its own local coffee culture for hundreds of years. Starbucks’ ascendancy in a lot of the country really brought a coffee culture to places that lacked it– places where powdered Folgers or old diner coffee was the norm. New Orleans isn’t that kind of place.

  • boathead12

    I’ve still held out and never purchased Starbucks coffee in New Orleans, and I confess I was thrilled when the Starbucks on Magazine at State folded. I’m not likely to drop in on the Canal St. Starbucks since there is a fine PJ’s just down the block, however, hat tip to this Starbucks for promoting local artist David Borgerding in their chandelier of the new place. Maybe that alone merits my purchase of a Doppio Espresso.

  • Elizabeth

    Starbucks on Canal is one of the most beautiful storefronts along Canal. I do buy from Starbucks and will continue to do so. (I love PJs but their stores are filled with surly employees, and CCs isn’t much better). Besides economic development is economic development (better a Starbucks on Canal than another tshirt shop)

  • jeffreyskooks

    I can’t be the only person who watches the city budget hearings. Didn’t
    you see DDD declare Starbucks “A great entrance to Downtown New
    Orleans”? I think that should answer all your little complaints.

    http://cityofno.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=1698&meta_id=

  • Cazz

    Has everyone forgotten they closed all of their locations after Katrina when people needed places to work an find nourishment. I advise you all to look back, look to the re-entry,and the BS about how it is important to support an important city like New Orleans. How soon we forget. They are business people, nothing more.

  • Cazz

    Amen

  • DawnYawn

    I made the mistake of giving my N.O. friends & relatives a Starbucks gift card for Christmas last year. One NOLA friend told me not to do that again. Thanks, Peggy, for setting me straight.

  • Peris Brodsky

    Like McDonald’s, the masses that patronize Starbucks value a familiar, consistent, predictable product over quality. People are dumb, eh? So good to be smart.

    Starbucks, PJs, Spitfire: for me, leaving home to drink coffee from a cardboard cup is dumb. Or am I missing something?

  • Jenel Hazlett

    Amen! I’ve always said Starbucks burns their beans and then loads the coffee up with sugar, chocolate and other flavors to cover up the burn. When it comes to coffee shops….LOCAL is better. Now about that pay and benefits thing…

  • http://www.brottworks.com/ Andy Brott

    Great read-
    We have the iconic legend of Bob Borsodi o Freret-
    http://specialcollections.tulane.edu/archon/?p=collections/findingaid&id=469
    and his 70/80(?) coffee House at 5106 Fretet- then on Soniat- that’s still set as it was when he passed away and funded by his will to stay that way.
    I never met Mr. B, but I’m schooled on how important was as we live and work next door to where used to be (now Freret Paint), plus are blessed with his hidden street art he painted 20 (?) years ago on the side what will soon be Mint Vietnamese Bistro.
    Best From 5110 Freret,
    Andy Brott

    C below on BB- and if anyone has Walter Isacson’s ear in Aspen- please ask him to consider this as home town book topic?…
    Robert “Bob” Otto Borsodi (1939-2003) was born in Suffern, New York. He
    earned a degree in theater lighting and set design from Yale University.
    He lived in California for a period of time before moving to New
    Orleans during the mid-1970s where he opened his first coffeehouse on
    Danneel Street and later moved it to Freret Street. Borsodi spent the
    last twenty-five years of his life in New Orleans where he operated
    Borsodi’s Coffeehouse and Breezy’s, both located in Uptown New Orleans.
    Borsodi died in October 2003 when he jumped off the Hale Boggs Bridge in
    Luling, Louisiana, after suffering for some time with cancer.

  • C.w. Cannon

    I enjoy chicory coffee as a desert coffee, with lots of milk, perhaps in the afternoon, and as iced coffee (also with lots of milk), but my personal preference for regular morning coffee is black drip medium roast. Of course, NOLA coffee culture is far broader than coffee and chicory. Limiting coffee in New Orleans to that is like saying Dixieland Jazz is all there is to New Orleans music. However, I do also see truth in your critique of a New Orleanian tendency to be sentimental about local products that really aren’t that special–I dare say I would put Hubig’s Pies in that category, despite my fond childhood memories of getting them fresh from the Dauphine Street factory–sorry Simon the Pieman:(.

  • C.w. Cannon

    Yes, I remember Borsodi’s on Freret, went there with Uptown friends a couple of times, a true “rebel cafe.” I suppose Flora’s on Royal Street is in that direction these days.

  • Daniel J. D’Amico

    Yes NOLA coffee culture is broader than chickory, but that’s arguably thanks to rather than threatened by Starbucks. First, CC’s and PJs have basically just swagger hacked the bucks’ menu as have most smaller shops now serving soy and pumpkin spice etc. Second, the surge of new coffee locations throughout the city and country writ large is a post Starbucks phenomena, as ohnonononon above rightly points out. So the margin that seems exceptional here is location and ambience, and if you stick your head in the Canal location, I’ve gotta say, points got to Starbucks on this margin as well.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AhContraire AhContraire

    Bourbon St Big Talk versus Starbuck Benefits

    ….just wanted to point that out to all who say Bourbon St makes a lot of money for bartenders, waitresses, etc….

    How many “Big Talk” French Quarter Clubs and Bars compenstate their employees with benefits like Starbucks does?

  • http://www.twitter.com/AhContraire AhContraire

    NEWSFLASH TO NOLA EXCEPTIONALISTS AND PRESERVATIONISTS:

    The City of Paris, in France, has a Starbucks.

    Aren’t big name, national chain stores all in the top cities in the
    world, including Paris, France? Yet, did the City of Paris, France, lose it’s culture with allowing big name, national stores? Apparently, no, it did not.

    And if the City of Paris didn’t lose it’s culture, why should New Orleans?

  • scotchirish

    Peculiar obsession, given NOLA’s problems.. Can anyone tell the difference blindfolded?

  • Tom Pennington

    The difference between Starbucks and say PJ’s or CC’s blindfolded? Even with the “Starbuck’s Select” brewed through the Clover on Magazine?

    Not so much.

    Starbuck’s will be the one that tastes most like bitter, burned beans brewed through a dirty sock.

    The difference between Starbucks and the wave of “new” independent coffee shops offering specialty beans & take pride in their brewing prowess like Cherry Coffee & HiVolt Coffee in the Garden District?

    Absolutely.

    But you’ve probably never heard of them. :)

  • scotchirish

    If the Starbuck’s is that bad the local proprietors have nothing to worry about and the article’s local commodity fetishism is pointless.

  • rasputin66

    I like this article, but the author doesn’t really understand the concept of commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism isn’t about the cultural cache conferred by a product. It refers to the conceptualization of people and relationships in economic terms– in other words, placing a dollar value on your workers or boss.

  • scotchirish

    Explanations of what Marx was talking about, always entertain.

  • C.w. Cannon

    Yes, Newton, while I didn’t use the word “hipster” in the body of the article, the group that I would apply that label to is discussed in the paragraph beginning, “The new residents of New Orleans’ downriver wards are far more
    sophisticated than Starbucks regulars in their effort to set themselves
    apart.” In other words, you’re right, definitely not Starbucks customers. As far as what a ‘hipster’ is, I’ve complained of the change in the meaning of the concept of ‘hip’ over the past near century of its history in previous posts on this site. I do feel, with regret, that ‘hip’ has lost some of the political and oppositional connotation that it had from the 1920s through the 1970s as it’s become more of a niche consumer category precisely indicated by Bourdieu’s model of bourgeois categories of taste (the “sense of distinction”) covered above.

  • C.w. Cannon

    “The value of
    commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance,
    not an atom of matter enters into its composition.”

    “A commodity
    appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its
    analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in
    metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

    “In order,
    therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped
    regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human
    brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into
    relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of
    commodities with the products of men’s hands.”

    “This
    fetishism of commodities has its origin…in the peculiar social character of the
    labour that produces them.”

    According to Marx, the primary purpose of Commodity Fetishism is to “hide” the labor that goes into producing commodities, and this leads to the possibility of “fetishizing” the commodity, of mystifying it, in a variety of ways and thus opening the door to the wonderful and phony world of advertising.

  • C.w. Cannon

    Marx quotes above taken from Capital, Volume I

  • scotchirish

    Maybe I misunderstand, but it seems that the article characterizes Starbucks patrons as indulging in commodity fetishism, but not PJ’s patrons. Am I wrong? If not, what is the difference?

  • C.w. Cannon

    I’m not sure PJ’s has the scale of brand recognition to have its own independent fetish. Its fetish might be “independent coffee house” (as opposed to big bad Starbucks), but it’s a bit too generic and impersonal for that, too, since it is a chain. Someone who wanted the cache of a truly independent coffee shop–distinct from all others–would go to a single shop outfit. Also, PJs doesn’t try for a distinctive allure in the same way as some newer independent places do, especially because of the lack of attention to distinctive interior design, signage, logo, etc. But the point I made in the article is that New Orleans has its own brand/fetish and that it’s that brand “identity” that competes with Starbucks, not necessarily the brand of another coffee business specifically.

  • scotchirish

    I still don’t see the difference, but thanks for trying.