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21/05/2004From cortado culture to frapuccino fortune
Starbucks, a controversial symbol of American culture, has arrived in Spain. What's more, it has ambitious plans to bring a branch to every street corner. So is this import a threat to the traditional 'cortado culture'?
I am at the bar surrounded by middle-aged men who smoke Ducados.
A cortado or perhaps a café solo might appeal. If I feel like more of a lift, I might have a carajillo — a coffee with just a hint of brandy.
If I feel a little hungry I might take my pick from the tapas at the bar — patatas bravas, tortilla, chorizos or albondigas are just some staples.
Is the archetypal Spanish bar under threat?
I am in an archetypal Spanish café. It is in inner-city Barcelona but it could be anywhere in Spain; these bars are as much a part of the country as castellano or los torros.
Switch scenes, and I am drinking an espresso in an altogether different environment.
There is no smoke or alcohol on sale. Most of the clientele are sipping on either Brazil Ipanema Bourbons or Panama La Florentinas. (They are coffees, in case you wondered.)
I look closer and, although this is the middle of Madrid, I can't see many Spaniards. Most of the customers, who are absorbed in their books, look foreign.
Welcome to Starbucks Spain.
Starbucks' well-known black and green signs have been here for three years, but the company is now in the midst of an ambitious expansion programme.
It has opened 13 stores in the past eight months alone. It already had 22 cafeterias, 15 in the capital and seven in Barcelona.
But in May, it started a big push into Andalusia, opening first with stores in Seville. By the end of the year, it wants to have 40 in Spain, all along the southern coast, where many foreigners live.
Starbucks wants to bring a branch to every street corner and be as familiar as McDonald's.
But could this American import be about to challenge the 'cortado culture'?
For many – particularly women - Starbucks offers an attractive alternative to the smoky, loud, dirty, cafes which have been the only choice until now.
Charlene Harrison, 29, who is as originally from Louisiana, United States, but is working in sales in Madrid, finds Starbucks a breath of fresh air.
She said: "I love the concept; you can come in here and enjoy a coffee without any smoke or loud music and sit down and read.
"I do love Spain, but it is such a nice contrast to all those old cafes you get here. I just enjoy tall lattes."
Starbucks has been seen by some elements of the anti-globalisation movement as a symbol of how the world is becoming swamped by a more homogenous culture.
But Charlene does not agree that Starbucks is another form of cultural imperialism.
"Starbucks is so popular in America and it's such a part of our culture and now it's come to Spain I think it will catch on."
However, Starbucks is not without its enemies.
Olga Hernandez de Paz, a 38-year-old lawyer, from Barcelona, feels Starbucks is "intolerant".
Starbucks has 22 stores in Spain - and plans many more
"If a friend of mine does not like smoking then I respect that. But, on the other hand, they do not respect people who like to smoke or have a drink.
"I would more often than not have a Coca Cola, but my point is if I wanted a beer, they do not give me the choice."
She believes Starbucks will only catch on with foreigners and act as a reminder of their own cultures.
She said: "I don't think that it will be as popular with Spaniards as it will be with foreigners."
Starbucks, which has 1,300 stores from Taiwan to Turkey, is sensitive to suggestions it might impinge on the cultures of countries.
It recently opened its first store in Paris; some French commentators saw it as a "challenge to the birthplace of café society".
But Bill O'Shea, of Starbucks, said: "I think every time we come into a new market we do it with a great sense of respect, a great deal of interest in how that cafe society has developed over time.
"We recognise there is a huge history here of cafe society and we have every confidence we can enjoy, augment and join in that passion."
In France, some younger people see Starbucks as an exciting import from America – and a chance to drink coffee in the same kind of bar that they might watch on the TV series Friends or Sex and the City.
In Spain, Starbucks seems to have the same appeal for the metropolitan elite. But whether it can spread beyond these cosmopolitan confines, where it may be more of an oddity than anything else, remains to be seen.
Some Starbucks facts:
- Founder Howard Shultz started Starbucks after a short visit to Italy 20 years ago. The first cafe was in a market in Seattle, north America.
- Now there are 7,834 cafes in 33 countries, from China to Switzerland, and the target is to open 10,000 by next year. Ultimately, the company wants to be more popular than McDonald's, which has 30,000 outlets.
- Its new strategy is to open in countries with a domestic company that knows the field; in Spain, the Americans work with Grupo Vips.
- Having established itself in countries which, like Spain and France, were once thought 'saturated' by cafes, it wants to exploit this foothold on the cafe-culture market as much as possible.
- Starbucks is listed in US money magazine Forbes' top 500 companies and its shares doubled in value last year. They currently stand at about USD 40 each.
- This year, Starbucks opens on average three new restaurants each day somewhere in the world.
Updated March 2005
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