Maria Hennigan explains why it’s not just all fun and Starbucks
“What the …?” my girlfriend yells as she steers us through traffic on Patrick Street. “When did this get here?”
Her tone is disgusted; I prepare for the worst. She is pointing at the shop fronts but I can’t see anything out of order.
“What?” I ask.
And now I see it, but I don’t think I ever noticed any construction going on. I would have sworn that overnight the old O2 Shop just turned into a Starbucks. I guess a coffee shop is somewhat better than a carrier sales point? But my girlfriend is not happy with that answer.
“How many Starbucks do we need?”
How many, indeed. A few years back there was only one in Cork. It was in the airport and closed down in 2011. Except for third party operated shops like Coffee Dock in UCC, it seemed as if it didn’t work out for Starbucks here. But in recent years, Starbucks has crept its way back with stores in the City Gate (opened 2013) and Mahon Point (opened 2014).
The ‘invasion’ itself didn’t start until the beginning of this year, when the first city centre store on Princes Street was announced. Followed almost immediately by the announcement of a second store on Opera Lane. While some rejoiced and others moaned, some serious concerns grew loud. Starbucks received criticism from the City Council for opening both stores without having planning permission. Citizens and councillors lamented that no one was consulted about the preservation of the historic Queen Anne House. Unfazed, Starbucks was already working on a third city centre store on Patrick Street – the one that finally broke my girlfriend. Construction of this third store was temporarily halted in August – again, because of missing planning permission.
But now they’re all open, 3 shiny new coffee shops, and despite all complaints, criticism and concerns they seem to do good business. Who knew a reasonably small city like Cork has enough demand for a total of 5 Starbucks outlets? But after all, no one is crying about the 6 McDonalds, 6 Subways, 4 FourStar Pizzas and 3 Domino’s we have. Going by numbers, Starbucks is just a little over average. So, nothing to worry about? I doubt it.
Hateful reactions to the new Starbucks stores are often directed at the bigger picture; the arrival of other big chains like Weatherspoons and Nandos. It’s not just Starbucks’s invasion, it is big scale economic change. While big chains thrive, beloved institutions of the city like Crowley’s music store, Loafers and the Pav have had to close their doors in the past year or so. Some of these had a happy ending – but at a price. Our independent restaurant, coffee shop and pub owners can easily be pushed out of business by these giant corporations.
Frankly, these chains do not care about Cork’s heritage; its special mix of people or its reputation for artistic and culinary excellence. They are designed for the opposite; never changing sameness, whether you are in Hong Kong, New York or Cork. What they care about is fiscal growth and shareholders.
The sour taste comes from when the strive for money crosses the border into blindly trampling greed. At what point does it become tasteless to litter a city with your franchise? The three city centre Starbucks locations have only about 400m distance between each of them, but Starbucks has done worse with stores right next to one another in some US cities. Tasteless is also the lack of planning permission for all three Cork locations, while making unauthorised changes to historical buildings.
But it goes deeper than taste and respect. Starbucks has price-hiked their coffee, that is cheaply produced and expensively sold, fought employees’ attempts to unionise, prevented Ethiopian farmers from copywriting a coffee brand they produced, and used unfair labour practices in multiple countries. All for the sake of their syrup-y fast food coffee revenue. Again, this is something that not just concerns Starbucks. Pick any franchise and you will find evidence of some form of wrongdoing – from human rights violations and labour disputes to unsound marketing strategies. At least Starbucks sell fair-trade coffee. But it’s still also a brilliant distraction from unfair practices elsewhere. It’s that eerie feeling of someone lying to your face with the friendliest smile. That’s why Coca Cola and McDonalds are now green, and Nestlé slaps ‘30% whole wheat’ on the sugar cereal box, because that makes it healthy.
All this goes through my head now when I see a Starbucks. It’s too big, it’s too fake, it’s a monotony machine. But I choke on my righteous anger because my Chai Tea Latte is too hot.