Late last year, I was asked to write about the handful of newly redesigned Starbucks’ stores here in Seattle for The New York Times’ T Magazine. It’s my first piece for the NYT and I am pretty excited about it. Here is the full text, as well as a link to the story online.
In the 1990s, Starbucks was opening one new store per day. Green mermaid logos popped up on retail facades everywhere, sometimes within feet of one another, making the sameness from store to store all the more noticeable. But it’s not the ’90s anymore, and when Starbucks stock began dropping in 2007, the Seattle-based company realized, among other things, that the cookie-cutter approach to store design had fallen out of fashion. Last year, Starbucks announced it would renovate its thousands of company-owned stores, in 52 countries, to be more sustainable and to look, well, less global and more local.
In several Seattle neighborhoods, Starbucks’s design team — led by the company’s president of global development, Arthur Rubinfeld — has introduced the first of its revamped stores, testing concepts it will apply to locations around the world. If these stores offer any glimpse of what’s to come, the new Starbucks will be subtler, earthier and conscious of its surroundings.
15th Ave. Coffee & Tea
In neighborhoods teeming with hipsters, how does a Starbucks fit in when residents regard its opening as a sign that their neighborhood is turning yuppie? In this case, it starts by losing the Starbucks sign. 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea’s lack of obvious branding, aside from the curious “Inspired by Starbucks” on the facade, might lead passers-by to think that this is just another locally owned coffeehouse. Submerging the brand illustrates Rubinfeld’s experimental approach, but this otherwise excellent coffeehouse does offer a valuable lesson: No matter how quirky the neighborhood, Starbucks should not hide the fact that it’s still Starbucks. Otherwise, it feels like corporate trickery. With its variety of seating — from cupping tables to repurposed theater chairs — and pages of Plato lining the walls, the place lacks the consistency of the classic Starbucks experience. However, the espresso bar and ordering counter are Starbucks at its best — a warm blend of European mercantile and American modern that Rubinfeld has carried out in other locations (albeit with greater success). Likewise, the use of repurposed hardwoods and open-air displays of whole-bean coffees and full-leaf teas near the entry are fine examples of how sustainable materials reinforce the organic nature of the Starbucks product.
Roy Street Coffee
Like 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea, Roy Street submerges the Starbucks brand in a way that is tasteful and in harmony with its surroundings. Facing an indie movie house and a 1930s Tudor Revival building, Roy Street embraces the subtle, artsy elegance of its neighbors by having a quieter — but still impossible to ignore — facade. Rubinfeld and his team made the most of its choice location, in the corner of the first floor of a mixed-use building, and installed floor-to-ceiling glass, opening the store up to the community. Small silver disks affixed to the entry signal that you are indeed entering a Starbucks. Inside, it’s all dim lighting and comfortable seating, a reminder of how warm and inviting the company’s stores can be. In the past, Starbucks would throw up its bright green logo and bold block lettering with little regard for its neighbors. But with Roy Street, the message is clear: Starbucks isn’t here to destroy your community, but to be a part of it. I assume this same strategy will go over well when it is unveiled in Europe.
Starbucks has been a fixture in this upscale outdoor shopping center for some time. So if it’s not broke, why fix it? With its new exterior of sleek, recycled redwood and a prominent community table (of rough-cut ash) that extends outdoors, Starbucks is making its retail neighbors look slow and out-of-touch. Unlike the Roy Street and 15th Ave. locations, the interior is exactly what we expect from Starbucks, but with enough subtly new elements to make the store seem fresher and the experience more special. The height of the bar top emphasizes the boxy design of the company’s new espresso machine as well as its chrome and copper accents. The overall earthy tone of the store inspires you to stay and make yourself comfortable, and the mural of a farmer harvesting preroasted beans makes you think about the drink in your hand and where it came from. The view of the store from the street offers perhaps the most impressive evidence of how Starbucks has rethought its logo for a new era. Atop the store’s corner is a steel cutout of the famous mermaid that gleams like the hood ornament on a Mercedes-Benz — a symbol of good taste.