Corvallis Coffee War?

Starbucksdowntown2When the subject of Starbucks comes up, all the negative stories I’ve read come to mind first. The coffee empire has gained a reputation for squeezing out smaller competitors (usually mom and pop, neighborhood coffee shops) to expand its own world-renowned brand. It’s also difficult to forget reports of Starbucks baristas receiving decent benefits, but barely making minimum wage.

While this once small-time, Seattle-based coffee shop set the trend for espresso and coffee drinks over the last 20 years, it’s hard to see Starbucks as anything more than the McDonald’s or Wal-Mart of the industry nowadays.

A friend recently said, “We practically have a Starbucks on every corner now.” And there’s a lot of truth to that statement, especially on the global scale. There are reportedly over 17,500 Starbucks locations worldwide. In fact, Santa Fe Springs, California, has 560 locations alone crammed into a radius of about 25 miles.

According to the company website, Starbucks has six locations in Corvallis, which includes little kiosks in Safeway and Fred Meyer stores. As our small, college city population continues to grow, so too will its ability to add more chain box stores like Starbucks.

Do local coffee shops feel the pressure of having all these Starbucks around? Not so much, it turns out.

“I don’t really consider Starbucks a competitor for the Beanery, because it’s such a global brand,” said Melanie Bazan, director of operations for Allann Bros. Coffee. “We’re really more of an Oregon brand. I think there’s room in the market for both of us.”

New Morning Bakery owner Tristan James disagrees. His downtown business has experienced a negative effect from a nearby Starbucks on SW Madison Avenue, but not in the way you might think.

“They’ve kind of popularized espresso drinks, but at the same time people associate our drinks with Starbucks. They’ll come in and order things based on the Starbucks name for them, which makes it really hard,” James said.

Coffee Culture owner Paul Totsberg says when he opened his first shop 10 years ago, a drive-thru stand in the Timberhill Shopping Center, he worried that a Starbucks in the same vicinity would create issues.

“We were concerned that they were going to take half of our business. But what we found was our sales went up, partly because they don’t have a drive-thru,” Totsberg said.

Oregon-based, privately owned Dutch Brothers, much like Starbucks, has rapidly expanded its presence in Corvallis over the years. Dutch Bros. Regional Corvallis Manager Brendon Gilbert doesn’t single out Starbucks as his company’s main opposition.

“Every coffee shop is competition in one way, and that same way we’re all in it together. I wouldn’t say Starbucks is any more competition specifically than any of the other coffee shops in the area,” Gilbert said.

Confidence in offering what the big chain shops do not is something all the local, independent shops have in common.

“We’re really a different coffee shop,” Imagine Coffee owner Bonnie Lang said. “Ours is more of a sit-down, relaxed family atmosphere. We’re kind of the opposite end of the spectrum from corporate coffee.”

Imagine Coffee dedicates much of its shop space to local artists and live music, and is an ideal place for meetings. Bazan points out that Allann Bros. Coffee has history on its side, specifically the downtown Beanery.

“The one on 2nd Street is a Corvallis institution, in my opinion,” Bazan said. “We offer that story. People remember our founder, Allan Stuart, roasting in the original Beanery.”

Both Allann Bros. and Coffee Culture claim the freshness of their locally roasted coffee blends is what sets them apart from Starbucks.

“We are roasting our own coffee, so it’s fresh and that comes through in the cup,” Totsberg said. “If you’re a big chain like Starbucks or some of the others, they’re a bit restricted as far as the freshness of the coffee. They’re roasting massive batches and shipping them to four corners of the globe.”

Totsberg was quick to mention that without the introduction from Starbucks, specialty coffee and independent shops like his wouldn’t be as successful as they are today. Though some of that influence works both ways.

“Starbucks tends to brew their coffee really dark, so any high quality coffee that roasts at a lighter level, even a medium roast, is going to get a lot more interest,” Totsberg said. “That’s a big factor, and I think now Starbucks over the last couple of years has recognized that and began to offer levels that are lighter than they’ve ever been.” Many coffee aficionados prefer lighter blends because the roasting process can cause caffeine content to be lost as the beans get darker. Traditionally, many independent coffee shops that control their roasting do so to the end of medium and light blend.

Although a good number of their locations aren’t even full ‘shops,’ it does seem Starbucks is gaining major ground in Corvallis, or is at least poised to do so. But the folks from these area coffee shops aren’t sweating it, and for good reason. They all make great cups of coffee, and it’s obvious that each one cares about their place in the community.

by Patrick Fancher