Will Frith
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» As it cools

Specialty coffee in Vietnam: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) coffee shops, roasters, and baristas, and Dalat green coffee farmers, processors, and evangelists.

Can Anyone Beat SBUX?

I really think it's possible for a quality-focused, independent Specialty Arabica operator to beat Starbucks. Not that there's any need to compete directly with them in their market, because then they will crush you. They've got massive buying power, R&D dollars/history, marketing genius, build-out design that will make the most discerning designer/architect pay attention and a drink selection that spans more demographic groups than you or I even knew existed. The Big Guys have to achieve consistency across thousands of retail locations, and there simply isn't enough of any one coffee (much less a selection of multiple coffees) to supply that many stores with any hint of "consistency." A Big Mac is a Big Mac, no matter where you go, just as a Venti Caramel Macchiatto is the same wherever you are. But for some reason, we never expect a Specialty Burger experience when we're at McD's, nor do we expect to pay specialty prices... While pretty much all cafes charge similar prices for a wide range of quality (that's a separate problem in itself).

In order for them to achieve the consistency required to maintain their blends, they have to roast really dark. Their quality control is in place to avoid big defects, mainly. The regional (and micro-regional) differences may sometimes show through their preferred roast level, and are only really noticeable if tasted side-by-side (and through calibration to the roast level). Which isn't meant to be an indictment of their model so much as an acceptance of the necessary operational practices... This mode of operation fits their market well, and is responsible for their resounding success.

Their market is thankful for their existence. Years ago, Starbucks was the place I went when in a strange town, being completely unaware of which independent operators were worth $2-3 dollars I budgeted for my daily dose. Times have changed a little since then and I can usually find some better coffee through either tapping my network or various online espresso mapping sites, but back then the Bux was a solid stop when on the road. And in Saigon (for now) it will probably serve the same need for refuge among the travel-weary who are just looking for a dependable, consistent cup. Not to mention the effect that this option will have on Vietnamese tastes. I applaud them for recognizing the potential of this market and going for it. Starbucks' presence will help to bring a legion of smaller Gourmet and Specialty operations to fruition.

That's not the Specialty operator's game, though. Two areas in which we have the potential to excel are coffee quality - from seed to cup - and transparency (which meanders into the marketing realm a bit). On the boutique level, many more micro-roasters have popped up and are pushing the current known limits of quality in places as far-removed as Alaska, the Midwest, the South and beyond.

Origin countries are also pushing quality in their big cities, where local-powered micro-roasters are building retail spaces that rival the best in the Global North. Transparency has shown itself to be a valuable marketing tool to these smaller operators, too. Since there are no CEOs with yachts or stakes in pro sports teams involved, more of the revenue can actually make it back to the source, which can lead to more consistent, sustainable (equitable) production practices.

These practices will lead to a push toward higher and higher production quality, as growers could then afford to invest more into their plots and facilities, creating a positive feedback loop that pushes growers away from the feudal, peasant-farmer status into the realm of small business ownership.

At least that's my very generalized take on it.