New Starbucks brewing near campus

By Kenneth Aliaga

At the corner of Woodlawn and 55th Street, next door to Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, construction workers are putting the finishing touches on a Starbucks, marking the corporation’s second retail operation in Hyde Park.

The 55th Street Starbucks—set to open October 24—comes soon after the arrival of another chain coffee store, Borders Book and Music Café.

The two venues join an already deluged Hyde Park coffee-retail market, consisting of corporate franchises, independent businesses, University-run coffee shops, and student-run coffee shops.

While the new coffee bar will probably be welcome by bleary eyed students, its presence raises a simple question: is there enough of a demand for brew to sustain all of Hyde Park’s caffeine options?

Yes, and then some, according to some.

Starbucks’ brilliant marketing scheme resuscitated a waning coffee-retail industry in the early 1990s, proving to be a “powerful engine of economic growth, because industries spring up around them,” according to an article in The New Yorker in a January 2003. The magazine goes on to credit the establishment of more than 7,000 new coffeehouses since 1996 to Starbucks’s power of persuasion (2,000 of which have no affiliation with the chain).

Under this logic, the propagation of corporate brands should fuel product demand. But as the relatively recent demise of Hyde Park coffeehouses including Stay Up 4Ever and Café Sienna serve to remind, demand for java is not evenly redistributed among businesses.

The store manager of the 55th Street Starbucks, Amber Harnen, said that the new shop will detract minimal business from its 53rd Street sister-site and other coffee-related retail operations because it will focus on “creating a new customer base and new loyalties.”

“Starbucks doesn’t come into a neighborhood with the intention of shutting small businesses down,” Hanson said.

Similarly, Henry Webber, the University of Chicago’s vice president for community and government affairs, forecasted that the 55th Street Starbucks will deter customers from non-corporate businesses in a very minor way. “I believe the neighborhood can and will continue to support a large variety of coffee options,” Webber said.

Students seem equally unfazed that the arrival of a new Starbucks will divert substantial business from other coffee-retail venues—seemingly for no other reason than student lethargy.

“The people who won’t get on a bus to Shoreland because it’s too much of an effort not going to walk to the 55th Starbucks,” said Ariel Sweet, a third-year in the College.

While the students who are too lazy to party at the Shoreland probably won’t be sobering up at the new Starbucks, it will be convenient for many other students. It is located near Pierce tower and along Woodlawn Avenue, places that are heavily populated by students.

Kirsten Esterly, the manager of the Medici Bakery, said that while Starbucks can offer consumers the familiarity of a corporate emblem, small businesses can offer a unique menu and an antidote to standardized social settings.

“We focus on the quality of our pastries, which are far superior to Starbucks’,” she advertised. “We bake our stuff fresh, while Starbucks is bringing it in from other vendors.”

But the structural realities of Hyde Park’s coffee retail landscape—quality management, reputation, and location—may not be enough to ensure the survival of an independent business like the Medici Bakery.

Both the brew houses scattered around campus and the corporate franchise have built-in advantages for their long-term survival over the independent, off-campus stores.

Besides being nestled in very convenient locations, like Cobb Hall or the Reynolds Club, the former attracts students through low prices or alternative forms of payment, like Flex Dollars.

Starbucks, unlike many independent businesses, does not solely rely on coffee and pastry sales for its survival. It has the luxury of relying on corporate merchandise, including mugs, CDs, and stationary, to counterbalance any decline in beverage and food sales.

Despite the opening of a Subway, a Borders and now another Starbucks, students have not mobilized against big business in Hyde Park. “I just don’t think there are enough people who really care enough to take a stand against it. It’s just one of those things people will continue to complain about whenever the topic pops up in conversation,” said Ann Gawel, a third-year in the College.

While it is easy to classify Starbucks as a corporate predator that feeds off independent businesses and fuels commercial homogenization, its presence is consciously orchestrated to serve community interests.

The 55th Street Starbucks will be the 50th retail operation brought under the Urban Coffee Opportunities program, a joint venture between Starbucks and Johnson Development Corporation. The program aims to stimulate economic growth in racially and ethnically diverse “under-served communities in key metropolitan cities.”

As of now there are three partnerships operating in Chicago, located on 47th Street and Cicero, Madison Street and Morgan Street, and Wilson Avenue and Magnolia Avenue.

Taking into account a stagnant national economy and high unemployment rate, the 13 jobs being created by the arrival of the 55th Street Starbucks may be a financial release to community members and students.