Your local indie coffee shop may be a Stealth Starbucks

A Starbucks in disguise: Seattle's 15th Avenue Coffe & Tea in 2009. Image: Getty/AFP

Coffee giant Starbucks is always looking for new ways to tighten its grip on the coffee market. Last year, to take one example, it launched “Starbucks Reserve®”,  a new line of Starbucks outlets finely tuned to corner the market of coffee drinkers looking for a more high-end experience.

Of course, there’s one subset of coffee drinkers the firm has yet to conquer: those who refuse to get their coffee from big coffee chains like Starbucks. But they’ve got a plan for that too: the Stealth Starbucks.

Stealth Starbucks actually have a considerable history. The first one opened in 2009 in Starbucks’s traditional stomping grounds, Seattle. The new store was named “15th Ave Coffee & Tea”, but the front door featured a telling disclaimer: “inspired by Starbucks”. In the years since, Starbucks has opened two more stealth locations in the city.

Word got out about these Stealth Starbucks, and though some reacted positively to them, others lashed out. Independent coffee shop owners were naturally displeased with the thought of a giant chain camouflaging itself and possibly siphoning off their business. As far away as Chicago, a local coffee shop owner called Stealth Starbucks “the equivalent of unmarked cars”.

But Starbucks’s CEO, Howard Schultz, has maintained that these outfits were never intended to dupe indie-loving coffee customers. “It wasn't so much that we were trying to hide the brand,” he said in a 2010 interview with Marketing Magazine. “[We were] trying to do things in those stores that we did not feel were appropriate for Starbucks.”

Whatever the motivation, the project nevertheless did well enough that the company’s higher-ups decided to take the project on the road, from sleepless Seattle to another city that never sleeps. In 2012, the chain opened its first stealth Starbucks in New York, inside a Macys department store.

There are hints that there might be more. Veteran barista Molly Osberg feels that New York City’s unique love of independent coffee shops may be behind Starbucks’s move. “Almost 60 percent of New York coffee shops weren’t associated with a corporation,” she wrote in a recent article in The Awl. “The trend is so pervasive that Starbucks itself opened its own unbranded coffee shops, sans the company’s own name.” 

In the midst of the continuing hubbub over Stealth Starbucks, the fundamental question still remains: why is Starbucks doing this? Aren’t they making enough money already as the world’s biggest coffee chain? Is their motive really, as their CEO says, to serve as a “laboratory” for new products and ideas?


The answer may actually be yes, though for much more cynical reasons than any Starbucks rep would care to admit. Mike Hudson is the founder of the independent coffee chain Handsome Coffee, which was later acquired by Blue Bottle Coffee. He thinks that these stores are effectively a mechanism for Starbucks to test out which ideas it’s going to steal from potential competitors.

“Given Starbucks’s market position, it could fall prey to a competitor with innovative ideas,” Hudson says. “The stealth outlets are a grossly patronising move by Starbucks to stay current. But they’re also a legitimate attempt to make better coffee, in the event America decides that Starbucks’s mass product offering is inferior to ‘the new thing’.”

While marketing calculus and experimentation may be the prime motivator in the creation of Stealth Starbucks, the outlets are still intended to turn a profit – and in that sense it’s significant that the mega-chain opted to open them exclusively in Seattle and New York. Despite the standardisation of consumer preferences worldwide after decades of omnipresent brand-based marketing, local preferences can still vary widely. These two cities, the move suggests, are the places Starbucks feels must be hungriest for some kind of change.

But ultimately, the most significant development to emerge from the Stealth Starbucks program may be its influence on the strategies employed on the Starbucks Reserve outlets. A New York Times article from last December confirms that the outlet’s logo, which abandons the traditional Starbucks “mermaid” seal, is a deliberate attempt to distance the Reserve locations from the standard Starbucks brand.

Starbucks plans to open roughly 100 outlets under the “Starbucks Reserve” branding scheme, far more than the four Stealth Starbucks outlets it currently operates. But those stealth Starbucks are still going strong, and there are no plans to close them in the near future. That Starbucks has made such inroads into the anti-Starbucks market is, in a way, a testament to quite how sophisticated modern marketing has become. 

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook