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Starbucks foe Jeremy Dorosin tries new approach

Monday, April 11, 2011
By: Tony Hicks.

The battle is over, Jeremy Dorosin says, but not the war.

There's just been an adjustment in strategy.

Dorosin made national headlines in the 1990s after his first, and it turns out last, visit to a Berkeley Starbucks prompted him to form the website www.starbucked.com. The determining factor was his purchase of a defective espresso machine, which he returned for what turned out to be another defective machine, which he returned for a third one -- this time for a friend. That one, he says, didn't work out either.

"I told them either they make things right or I was going to take out an ad in The Wall Street Journal," says the 53-year-old Dorosin, sitting in the afternoon sunshine outside Walnut Creek's Pacific Bay Coffee Company. "They said, 'I'm sorry you feel that way,' which was another way of saying, '(Expletive) you.' "

He took out the ad -- and eventually four more -- and thousands of like-minded coffee lovers answered the call, phoning him at his Walnut Creek-based scuba store. "My phone began ringing off the hook," says Dorosin, who looks more like a Navy Seal than someone trying to save coffeehouse culture. "My life hasn't been the same since."

By 1999, Starbucked.com was born.



Change of focus

Now, the website isn't merely a clearinghouse for frustrated customers to vent, either about Starbucks itself or the growing corporate retail culture in America. Instead of fighting Starbucks, Dorosin has dedicated himself to strengthening Starbucks' opposition, independent coffeehouses that are slowly but surely disappearing as the number of Starbucks locations explodes.

The first step of his new strategy was to highlight independent coffeehouses from Sacramento to Santa Cruz on his site.

"San Jose was a shocking story," he says. "There are three coffeehouses left, in a city bigger than San Francisco. It's unreal. And they all say the same thing: 'Once Starbucks showed up, everyone got pushed out.' "

A representative for Starbucks declined to comment.

Dorosin says the company hasn't made any attempt to shut him down or shut him up.
"Starbucks isn't stupid," he says. "Attacking me would just make them look bad."

Dorosin has nearly 100 coffeehouses listed on the site, with photos and addresses. That's the first part of his new campaign. The second is publishing a quarterly, online magazine, "The Coffee House Culture Magazine," which he hopes to launch at the end of June.

"This isn't about bashing Starbucks anymore," says Dorosin, who talks as quickly and precisely as most people can think. "It's about promoting local, independent coffeehouses."

One Berkeley coffeehouse on the site took on Starbucks about as directly as possible. Keba Konte and his partners opened Guerilla Cafe right next door to a Starbucks, offering one-size-only drinks without flavorings, whipped cream or blended drinks.

"Just, straight up, the best coffee we could make," Konte says. "The community responded well and 18 months later, Starbucks closed their doors."


Well-armed enemy

Starbucks foes know what they are up against. The Seattle-based chain is fast, ubiquitous -- with more than 11,000 coffeehouses in the U.S. alone -- and boasts thousands of loyal customers who like Starbucks' wide variety of coffee drinks, teas and fairly extensive menu of sandwiches, salads and snacks. It's also an undeniable brand that has its own record label, Hear Music, and sells books and movies.

But Dorosin says the difference between Starbucks and independent shops is that the chain's goal is to get people in and out of their stores as fast as possible to maximize profit. Local coffeehouses, by comparison, have a greater variety of menu items, promote art, host poetry readings and live music, and generally possess qualities that Starbucks can't. They also claim to have better coffee
"Starbucks sells sugar," says Timber Manhart, the owner of Catahoula Coffee Company in Richmond. "We sell fresh roasted coffee. (Our store) does not directly compete with Starbucks. That's McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts' job."

Dorosin says things will only get worse if Starbucks' proposed acquisition of Peet's happens.
He says though it's a large chain, Peet's "doesn't have the same sinister, put-you-out-of-business mentality. But now that they're being bought by Starbucks, who wants to take over the world "... "

Bigger battle

Richard Fong has owned Pacific Bay for about a year. The coffee shop featured entertainment until running into permitting issues. But Fong says there's plenty to distinguish his place from Starbucks, including special coffee blends, food, and a noncorporate atmosphere, with plenty of regulars.
He says rising prices of coffee beans has made it difficult to keep up with the chains.
"Starbucks is like McDonald's," Fong says. "They have a name, Starbucks is not coffee. We're a family-oriented coffee shop. We have service. Other places don't have the owners there. I'm always here. I know the people who come in."

Dorosin is looking at the bigger picture. It's not just Starbucks he's targeting, but the fast-moving, corporate climate of America that he says tells people they have to fall in line and consume what everyone else is consuming -- be it coffee or electronic gadgets. He is nothing if not persistent. His first book, "Balance at Middlefork: An Adventure in Human Freedom," which he wrote at Cafe Milano in Berkeley, was rejected by 120 publishers. His next book, which he's working on now, will critically examine Western materialism.

"Complacency and conformity to habit is the real enemy here," he says. "We've got to develop a different cultural identity. My hope is with the younger generation. Education is the only ammunition we have against corporate greed."

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