To: Howard Schultz, Chief Executive Officer, Starbucks Corporation, Seattle, Wash.From: D.A. Kolodenko, Columnist, San Diego CityBeatI know you won't respond to this letter. You won't even read it. CEOs of mega-corporations hire people to read their mail. Maybe if I were Oprah or the president of Kazakhstan, your underlings would bounce this up the chain of command, but I'm just a lowly columnist for a free weekly in a city with only 233 Starbucks locations. No matter.
This is an epistolary column, Howard (Can I call you Howard?), and whether or not you read it is irrelevant.
Seven years ago, I wrote a letter to former CEO of Starbucks, Orrin Smith, who took the gig from you when you became chief global strategist. In that letter, I asked Orrin to cancel the proposed opening of a Starbucks in my neighborhood. I'm pretty sure Orrin never got the letter. Otherwise, they would never have opened that Starbucks, right? Anyway, now that you're back at the helm and have decided to make the closing of 600 locations in the U.S. part of your corporate restructuring plan to address Starbucks' plummeting stock, I was kind of hoping you might put Ocean Beach on the chopping block.
According to The Associated Press, you guys are still trying to figure out which ones to close. They report that 70 percent of the ones getting axed opened within the last two years. That leaves about 180 more Starbucks that you'll be unloading. I'm assuming that “underperformance” is the criterion.
Surely, the O.B. Starbucks is in the lower tier of profit-makers. After all, the rent you're paying there is about three times the going rate for Newport Avenue, and most of the 14,000 citizens of O.B. would rather have their mom catch them walking out of the Hustler Superstore with a stack of DVDs than be seen carrying a $5 cup of coffee out of the O.B. Starbucks.
But given that there are more than 12,000 Starbucks locations in the U.S., you'll probably be able to find 180 stores making even less money than the one in O.B., which unfortunately attracts a few locals and tourists who don't know better.
So let me make a case for a different criterion in deciding which Starbucks will go: Shut down the ones in neighborhoods where you're least wanted.
In an interview with Business Ethics magazine in December 1995—around the time your coffee empire was just starting to become the ultimate symbol of the corporate homogenization of nearly every aspect of human life—you said that you didn't want Starbucks to open in neighborhoods where they were not wanted. It was in the context of explaining how you'd do whatever it takes to make everyone like you, remember?
But, of course, that didn't work. Not everybody likes Starbucks. Some resent the ubiquity. Others take issue with the predatory business practices, labor policies or product quality. They make websites like ihatestarbucks.com. In O.B., the opinions vary. Some of us are fine with patronizing the Starbucks in the nearby chain-store-laden Sports Arena area, where it fits the already mega-corporatized strip-mall environment. What unites the majority of us is the desire not to have one in O.B.
In 2001, I seized on your claim. I joined the effort to preserve the character of our community, as all around us the neighborhoods of San Diego were starting to, in the words of New York's righteous rabble-rouser, Reverend Billy, “drown in a sea of identical details.” My O.B. homies and I took you at your word, collecting signatures on a petition (thousands of them—they might still be in a file there somewhere), holding massive protests (hundreds showed up—on March 25, 2001, O.B. held one of the biggest protests ever against a Starbucks) and even conducting a survey of hundreds in O.B., resulting in rejection of the proposed Starbucks by the Ocean Beach Planning Board and Town Council.
But Starbucks ignored our wishes and opened on Sept. 11, 2001. It felt like an omen. The argument was that if some people wanted it, they'd open anyway. Well, there will always be a few who care more about having an “emotional brand experience,” as you call it, than in protecting the character of a neighborhood, but I honestly can't imagine a Starbucks being less wanted than the one in O.B.
What you have always seemed unwilling to accept, Howard, is that no matter how much money you give to the Democratic Party, no matter how many cups you claim to recycle, no matter how good you think you treat your employees, no matter where your heart is, no matter how much you try to make ethics at the very least a consideration in your business practices, some of us still don't want you on every corner of every block in every city in every country in the world. Closing 600 locations to protect profits is fine, but how about protecting neighborhoods?
To be more specific: Some of us would like it if our little corner of the world could remain unbranded. Should there be a Starbucks at the Great Pyramid of Giza? On the Galapagos Islands?
Our little main street of small, locally owned businesses may not seem like much to you, but to OBceans the albeit funky character of this place is as precious as a natural or architectural wonder. It doesn't matter that you try to blend in by creating a chameleon store facade or encourage your employees to join a beach cleanup. The point is that we need some cities, villages and neighborhoods that are not just a little bit different, but utterly different. Humans benefit most from real diversity, not manufactured diversity.
Last year, the infamous Starbucks in China's Forbidden City was shut down. It was forced out because it didn't fit the character of the ancient palace grounds. We don't have the clout of China. Hell, we don't even have the backing of the San Diego City Council, but we do have a request: Let us be among the lucky 600. Pretty please with sugar stirred in?