Food & Drink

Brooklyn has spoken: No one wants to get drunk at a Starbucks

Via @starbucksnorth7th on Instagram.
Via @starbucksnorth7th on Instagram.

It’s hack to get upset about Starbucks these days since the omnipresent, if not eternally boring, chain has become such a part of the background of NYC, like many banks, Vitamin Worlds and other things that pass through our vision like reused backdrops in old cartoons. So when the Starbuckses (Starsbuck?) arrived in Williamsburg in 2015, it was met with a sigh of inevitability: the neighborhood well on its way to being little Soho was of course a natural home to the coffee giant and its copy-and-paste coffee house furniture, soundtrack and food.

The problem with Starbucks is that it’s so unnecessary in a neighborhood like Williamsburg, which has long been filled to the brim with a bounty of coffee places surfing riding that coffee third wave. That means the only reason you’d choose to go to Starbucks is that you: A) don’t know about the other spots in the neighborhood or B) genuinely prefer it to a local shop (A is slightly more offensive than B to me for many reasons).

But shortly after opening, things got a little more intense in the Brooklyn coffee wars: The Starbucks off Bedford Avenue started selling beer and wine to attract the nighttime caffeinated drinker crowd, which put them in direct competition with many of the bars and coffee shops in the neighborhood. And guess what just happened? Starbucks lost. 

Yesterday, the chain announced it was ending its “Evenings” program that offered beer, wine and small plates in the evening hours to attract the happy hour and cheap-date crowd. Grub Street put it bluntly: “Starbucks beer-and-wine idea was a disaster.”

The decision to end the program was made on a national level, so it’s hard to say if the Williamsburg branch attracted that many people who couldn’t find anywhere else to get a beer along the desolate, tumbleweed strewn stretch of Bedford and North 7th Street. I have passed it many times, and been in a few, and it’s been just as busy as any other Starbucks across the city.

At the time, local businesses and the community board opposed giving the chain a liquor license, but the state liquor authority still granted one.


The sign outside Cafe Beit, which was taken over by baristas last year. Via Facebook.
The sign outside Cafe Beit, which was taken over by baristas last year. Via Facebook.

Coffee shops around the borough have punched back at Starbucks in interesting ways: The West, near the chain’s Union Street location, came out swinging, offering a discount for anyone who threw away the (increasingly prevalent) Starbucks trash littering the streets. In Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, a landlord told the chain to get lost because she wanted to rent to a local restaurant instead, and ensure another local coffee shop stayed alive. When a Starbucks came to Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights in 2015, local shops (of which there are so, so many on Franklin alone) responded by offering their own versions of the chain’s famous creations, including Pumpkin Spice Lattes.

Starbucks isn’t the devil — it offers decent pay and benefits to its workers, and it’s by far not even the most prevalent chain in New York City. In the alternate timeline where Hillary wasn’t sabotaged by Russians/the FBI/a World’s Finest team-up of racists, internet trolls and dumb people, its CEO might even be labor secretary. In some places in America, it’s probably the only place to get a decent cup of coffee that isn’t a gas station (and maybe the only place that offers non-dairy milk options too).

But the booze offering thing was a misfire for the company, a false step in an attempt to become a Walmart of culture that customers rejected. You probably don’t need your local Starbucks, especially in gentrified Brooklyn, providing your coffee and your meals and your wifi and your booze AND a place to meet your Tinder date.

To embrace Starbucks as your one-stop-shop for all that is to lock yourself in a silo of assimilated culture that negates the offerings of the neighborhood you ostensibly chose to live in. Around the corner, for instance, is Cafe Beit, a coffee shop that is now 100 percent barista-run, where the staff is friendly and young and the grilled cheese sandwiches can be made vegan. A short walk away is The West, a roomy slice of a shop that has outdoor seating, cheap beers on tap and events at night. Everyone is on a laptop, and most people seem hard at work, maybe some are just dicking around on Facebook. But it feels like being in a coffee shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, whatever that means these days, instead of just another Starbucks that could have been airlifted in from a highway rest stop in Dumfries, Virginia.

When Starbucks entered the booze market, we published a guide of non-chain coffee shops that already offered beer and wine across Brooklyn. As of today, most of them are still going strong. Cheers to that.

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