Why I am queasy about Starbucks opening on my high street

Starbucks have their eye on the former Best One store. Photo: SE
Starbucks have their eye on the former Best One store. Photo: SE
In 1993 I was making a BBC Horizon film about how digital technology was going to change everything. Inevitably, one of the places we filmed was Seattle, the home of Microsoft.

It was February and freezing cold, but looking out of my hotel room window, I saw a queue of people – at least ten of them – standing in sub zero temperatures, patiently waiting to get into one of the shops on the square.

That was my first glimpse of Starbucks. Plenty of folk must have had holidays in Italy and come back thinking, “Wouldn’t it be good to have coffee bars like that at home, where you can stop off on the way to work and get a really good coffee and a bun in a few minutes?” But these people had done it. They had not only injected it with American gigantism, they had wrapped it in the American dream – the dream that if you buy something, it will change your life.

Since 1776 America has been bewitching Europe with its dream of youth, equality and freedom. Just like Coca Cola, Starbucks promises that anybody can have that dream, for a price that seems easily within reach.

The low-key branch in nearby Haverstock Hill. Photo: Zomato
The branch in nearby Haverstock Hill. Photo: Zomato
So what is it that makes us so queasy at the prospect of Starbucks opening up in Kentish Town? Sure, we all know they don’t pay their taxes, but apart from a few zealots, that doesn’t affect people’s spending habits (Apple? Google? Amazon? Boots?).

It’s surely something more deeply to do with a horrible sense of phoniness; that we’re living in a world where nobody tells the truth – not even politicians – because the truth may not be palatable, and none of us wants to take responsibility for that.

A world where we’re so lonely and insignificant that even being known by name to a minimum-wage-zero-hours worker in a coffee shop makes us feel someone cares. After all, if we really cared about zero hours and crap working conditions, about cutting out paid lunch hours and the first day’s sick pay – we might have to pay more for our coffee. Or even pay more taxes ourselves.

Cheap, cheerful - and always reliable: Bean About Town. Photo: Stephen Emms
Cheap, cheerful, longstanding – and always a queue: the nearby Bean About Town cart. Photo: Stephen Emms
Here’s what Starbucks says on its website, to prospective employees (known in their cutesy vernacular as ‘partners’): “Being a Starbucks partner means having the opportunity to be something more than an employee. We offer the opportunity to be connected to something bigger, and become the very best you can be. Working in a Starbucks store, you are creating genuine moments of connection with our customers and making a difference in their day. You will handcraft delicious beverages, and build relationships with our customers…’

Really? Maybe it was once the case, maybe back in that first store in Seattle, when the company was small and new and every employee really did count. But now?

If that seems – to take a generous view – to be putting a positive spin on the life of a ‘barista’, here’s what Starbucks says in its application to open in Kentish Town:

“Kentish Town must have a Starbucks because a Starbucks coffee shop is needed to increase the vitality, viability and vibrancy of the centre. It will be conveniently located and will have an excellent level of accessibility [to public transport] and…prolong shopper stay within retail frontages…Starbucks is a compatible use to existing shops and services in Kentish Town Road.”

Well, last time I looked, the actual block of the proposed Starbucks has the following: Tolli at 327 (right next door), an independent coffee, tea and patisserie shop. Opposite under the canopy is the Bean About Town stall. A few doors away at 315 is Flapjacks, a council-owned coffee and tea shop benefiting people with learning disabilities. Almost opposite at 244 is Café Renoir, an independent coffee, tea and food shop. Not to mention Costa and Pret, two chains who’ve already got past the Camden planners.

Flapjacks Cafe benefits those with learning difficulties. Photo: LBTM
They are all “conveniently located” and have “an excellent level of accessibility [to public transport]”. So what value can we attribute to Starbucks’ claims, when it is perfectly clear from these facts that all it can possibly do is cannibalise the business of competitors, and drive the less well-financed independents to the wall – even though their coffee is better, fresher, more fairly sourced and maybe even served with a more authentic smile?

In the latest issue of the Camden magazine, our council claims to be all in favour of localism. The government makes this claim too – except they too appear to be suffering from a disconnect between what they say and what they do. In practice, Camden has no power to fix rents, to stop the endless ratcheting up that is driving out independents and letting in chains. They do have some power to fix business rates – but then, what becomes of Sure Start, of libraries and social care?

The one power Camden Council has, however, is to decide that an application does not benefit the local community, and that it’s better to leave a property empty for a bit than to let in just anybody. It’s not just in Kentish Town that people feel this way: in the whole of the UK only fourteen appeals have been granted in favour of Starbucks and only one in central London.

On balance, at the risk of depriving a Starbucks partner or two of the chance of creating genuine moments of connection with me – I hope they fail here too.

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