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. 

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.