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.