The Null Device

Melbourne: 1, Starbucks: 0

In the wake of Starbucks' Napoleonically epic retreat from Australia, The (Melbourne) Age has a piece on Melbourne's indomitable coffee culture, which apparently goes back long before mass Italian immigration in the 1950s and the resulting espresso boom:
In his entries on coffee and coffee palaces in the Encyclopedia of Melbourne, [historian Andrew Brown-May] retells the beginnings of Melbourne's coffee culture, traced back to the street stalls of the 1850s that offered caffeine hits to rushed city workers, then re-emerging as continental coffee houses in the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s.
By the 1950s, the influx of Italian migrants had helped redefine coffee for Melbourne once again, serving it up in espresso cups instead of percolators. Yet two of the key proponents of the espresso bar were father and son team Harry and Peter Bancroft, Anglo-Australians who in 1953 secured the rights to manufacture Gaggia coffee machines and set up a cafe in St Kilda.
I didn't know that they actually made Gaggia machines in Australia. You learn something new every day.

The article then points out that narratives framing the vanquishment of Starbucks in simple plucky-Aussies-vs.-Yankee-imperialists terms aren't entirely accurate; rather, it's a case of Starbucks sowing the seeds of their own defeat by not acknowledging that the café-culture experience they were trading on is essentially one of differentiation from the mainstream, and that a Starbucks in every suburban shopping mall destroyed a lot of the cachet behind the brand; it's the "nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded" phenomenon that poisons cultural trends (from musical genres to fashions—think the trucker hat, the "Hoxton fin" haircut, or anything labelled "indie" in the UK) as soon as they become successful.

Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Temple University historian Bryant Smith argues that when Starbucks began, it offered Americans an entree into a status-filled world with is own language of ventis, grandes, Tazo teas and special-blend coffees, all stamped with the company's distinctive green logo.
But by becoming too common — Starbucks first opened in Australia in 2000 and expanded to 84 stores in eight years — the company "violated the economic principles of cultural scarcity", Smith says.
One cause, of course, doesn't exclude the others. Starbucks never became the all-conquering juggernaut in Australia it became elsewhere, due to the sophisticated local coffee culture, and while its recent misfortune has been global, it would have hit particularly hard in a relatively inhospitable market such as Australia.

There are 2 comments on "Melbourne: 1, Starbucks: 0":

Posted by: datakid Sat Aug 2 01:15:46 2008

For those visiting Hobart, I recommend my old stamping ground, Criterion Cafe on Criterion Lane: even staffed with my old flatmate Astro: http://www.news.com.au/mercury/story/0,22884,24105548-3462,00.html

Posted by: gjw http://atriplex.info Sat Aug 2 12:06:50 2008

I could never get my head around the paradox of people considering Starbucks "quality coffee", while at the same time ordering no-fat-milk / sugary syrup-filled concoctions. If you like the coffee, order a short black and enjoy it. Starbucks isn't a coffee shop so much as a coffee-flavoured-desert shop.

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