News of a new Starbucks uptown location picked up speed on social media late last week as Ohio University students and community members debated the potential costs and benefits of a new chain coffee house in the uptown area.
The Athens NEWS reported last Thursday that a new Starbucks is coming to 16 W. Union St. sometime this summer. By Sunday morning, a Facebook post linking to the article had received 25,466 reactions, 91 shares and 74 comments, most of which accrued within the first 48 hours of posting.
“The majority of people that are making comments (online) are in favor of the local businesses,” said Debby Fulks, owner and founder of Court Street Coffee, one of the local businesses praised by several commenters online. “Wouldn’t it be fun if we were the town that drove Starbucks out because they didn’t get the business they were expecting?” Fulks asked.
Many comments offered concerns about the major chain moving in. “We already have Court Street Coffee, Brenen’s, Fluff (Bakery), Donkey Coffee, Front Room… all within walking distance to one another. Why are we adding Starbucks?” one person asked. Another queried, “Will nearby shops be able to survive? Donkey for sure, but how about the other three in such close proximity.”
Additionally, many commenters noted that Starbucks coffee is already sold in several coffee shops around town – including the Front Room Café in Baker Center, Steam Station in WUSOC (HDL Center), as well as the Ohio University Inn – and the franchise has an official location in the Kroger on East State Street. Plus it can be purchased at Kroger and other retailers for making coffee at home.
“It already has a campus presence,” Fulks said, adding that she’s more upset with the owners of the property than the franchise, and wishes they would have signed the lease over to another more unique or local business.
Although she can’t know for sure, Fulks said, she thinks local shops including hers can take the heat. “Am I, like, really nervous? No, I’m not,” she said. “I think we have too many people who do like to shop local.”
Josh and Jessica Thomas, co-owners of Brenen’s Coffee Café since 2000, said in an email that they expect the corporate competition to be a challenge for them. “Of course, any time a new business opens up selling similar products, you have to be concerned,” they said. Acknowledging the online support, the Thomases said, “Hopefully, that sentiment toward local stores like ours continues after Starbucks has opened.”
In the Facebook comments, Donkey Coffee’s official page thanked people for voicing their support. Co-owners Chris and Angie Pyle wrote in an email Friday, “Donkey will continue to focus on its mission as a local business to promote fairly traded coffee which helps traditionally disadvantaged coffee growers and to provide space for local art, music and community gatherings.”
The local shop owners all acknowledged the impact they have on the community. Fulks said that Court Street Coffee, Whit’s Frozen Custard, Donkey, Brenen’s, Fluff Bakery, and all of the local shops help support the city. “We support local charities and help fund local yearbooks… We give back to the community,” she said. “I don’t know how Starbucks does that” as a major corporation.
The Thomases acknowledged that local support based on their contributions alone won’t keep their doors open; they still need customers. “Sadly, everyone knows where the local businesses are located when they need donations for charities or soccer jerseys, or raffle items. But then they sometimes forget where we are when they are looking to get a quick cup of coffee or a snack,” they said. “Obviously, this isn’t just Athens. It’s everywhere.”
Indeed, many shared The NEWS’ Facebook post, rejoicing. Some comments poked fun at those who seemed upset while others simply expressed a love for the brand. “Finally, let’s play catch-up, Athens. More options forces others to step up,” one comment read. In reply, another person said, “Starbucks has excellent consistency in their espresso. I’m with you.”
Aside from quality, Fulks conceded that major brands – whether due to price or familiarity – often enjoy an advantage. “Starbucks is not Donkey,” Fulks said, adding that she thinks her product is better, too, but there will always be that person who wants the most expensive cup of coffee. “Some people are just going to go there because it’s Starbucks,” she said. “I have to stay positive about it. I don’t really know how it’s going to be. I’m hoping it’s not going to be a huge hit for anyone.”
Luckily, a strong customer base exists for local coffee, and the business owners each expressed optimism. “We are ready for Starbucks and think that its presence will only solidify the community’s support of Donkey and other local coffee shops,” the Pyles wrote.
The co-owners of Brenen’s said they’re not too concerned about their current customer base. “We believe that as long as as we continue to provide a good product, fast/friendly service, and a nice environment with ample seating, our customers will continue to support us,” they said. “The challenge will be drawing in newer customers as time goes by… (We) hope the community understands the impact their spending choices have on local businesses.”
As for Court Street Coffee, the shop in closest proximity to the future Starbucks along with Whit’s, “When classes change, I’m still the closest shop for those students to come to,” Fulks said, adding that her shop has a record of making good drinks and getting people in and out fast. “I’m hanging on to that and hoping for the best,” she said. “We’ll see.”
The Athens NEWS’ ongoing Best of Athens Readers’ Choice Awards’ competition is currently in its final round, with readers voting on a number of categories, including “Best Local Coffee.” The finalists did not include the Starbucks at Kroger, but rather Donkey Coffee, Court Street Coffee, Catalyst Café and Brenen’s, with a chain restaurant – Tim Horton’s – thrown into the mix.
The NEWS contacted Bruce Mitchell, co-owner of PM Management – the property management company that owns 16 W. Union St. – to respond to some of the criticism regarding the Starbucks outlet opening. Mitchell and PM Management co-owner Guy Philips are former owners of The Athens NEWS.
Mitchell maintained that Starbucks is a “great fit” for Athens. He also noted that Philips has been searching for a year-plus now to find a good tenant for the space at 16 W. Union St.
“Their record (Starbucks) socially, economically and ecologically is nothing short of remarkable,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that Starbucks is “known for paying higher wages,” and said that the company has a “very active” program in hiring veterans, while the brand is also known to provide college students with scholarships; meanwhile, he touted the business’s sustainability record, with efforts to improve recycling.
In response to criticism on The NEWS’ Facebook page about the potential for Starbucks to siphon business away from other local coffee shops, Mitchell said: “The coffee business in Athens I think is very competitive, and Starbucks is going to be the leader because they do a great product and they’re a great company. We hope there’s enough business for everybody.”
Mitchell also apologized for how long it took to rebuild the building after the November 2014 fire on West Union Street (apartments have been in operation on the top floors of the building since last year, but the storefront on the bottom floor has remained vacant since the rebuild). – Conor Morris contributed to this article.