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. 

 
 
 
 

Transport for London just cut its bus services. You probably didn’t notice.

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

One of the biggest changes to London’s buses happened on Sunday 16 June – although Londoners won’t have realised the full implications until the following morning, when they tried to go about their morning commutes. Then, they might have been surprised and angered with how inconvenient the service has become.

Transport for London has a strategic plan to cut the total length of routes it operates every year to 2022, and then to start increasing them again. The idea is that, by 2024, services in inner London will have fallen, and services in outer London will go up.

The Central London bus changes are part of the Inner London cuts part of the plan. Transport for London says bus use is dropping, and the changes reflect demand. But if you take a closer look at the changes, they don’t make sense when you consider what people use Central London buses for.

The basic difference between inner and outer London routes is that the inner routes, as well as interchanging with tube and train for the last part of the commute, are able to get people from home to work in Central London; whereas the outer routes complete local journeys and connect to transport hubs.

There are historic reasons for this. Many inner London buses are the successors to trams and trolleybuses. Their purpose was to get people from the early suburbs to the centre of town. Because of their high frequency and competitive fares, they were so successful that they killed off a number of railway stations close to the terminals. If you look back at old tram route maps, you can still see the clear lineage to current routes.


Bus routes in London have experienced only a couple of major changes in their history. Perhaps the most significant is the Bus Reshaping Plan of 1966, which responded to traffic congestion in the centre by splitting up routes that crossed the capital into overlapping services. These were complemented by new bus routes that operated around suburban hubs that would not the vulnerable to central congestion. All this ended the ability to get from outer suburbs to central London in a single trip.

The last significant change came in 2003 when money from the new congestion charge was used to enhance bus services which crossed into the central charge zone. This was intended to encourage more journeys by bus: the improved service carrot to the stick of charging. These reforms saw an increase in bus passengers because the enhanced services could make use of the less congested streets.

The latest changes achieve the strategic plan operation cuts objectives by lopping off sections of routes near the centre. Without wanting to get stuck into too many examples, this means that many inner routes barely enter central London at all. The 134 from Finchley, for example, gets curtailed at the Euston Road instead of going along the length of Tottenham Court Road. The 45 from Clapham Park now turns back at the Elephant and Castle. There are numerous examples where the change makes no sense at all; Transport for London says the hopper fare will mean that you can changes buses to complete your journey at no extra charge.

People do not just use the bus because it is cheap. They do so because it is convenient, even if slower. Having to change repeatedly makes the journey longer and less convenient. Buses are subsidised by London Underground fares, and it is a good job they are: if everyone that needed to get from Finchley to Tottenham Court Road did so on the Northern Line and not the 134 the system would be in trouble.

The real losers will be anyone who finds it difficult to get on or off the bus or doesn’t want to wait around at night on their own. The rerouting of the number 40 completely away from Fenchurch Street exemplifies how the changes remove convenient and safe interchange. The station is already the only station with no direct tube interchange: now it has no direct bus link either, necessity a long walk to the nearest options.

A final thought on the changes: they have been communicated terribly by Transport for London. A few announcements on buses that people tend to ignore anyway, and not much else, unless you like to regularly trawl their website for information. Operators who make a lot of big changes all in one go have not been very popular since the May 2018 rail timetable change. Londoners might not be willing to put up with another transport planning fail.

Steve Chambers is an urban planning and transport consultant, lecturer and campaigner. He can be found on Twitter as @respros.