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Closing Starbucks are symbols of lost luxury

July 22, 2008|SANDY BANKS

Roby T. Chapel's history with Starbucks is long and sweet.

He can recall his first gourmet coffee drink, 10 years ago at a Starbucks in Beverly Hills. "It was a Caramel Macchiato, and I took it back to my office and nursed it for, like, three hours," he said.

"I remember saying, 'Oh my God, now I know what people are talking about.' After work that day, I went right back."

On Sunday, I sat with Chapel at the counter of a Starbucks on the edge of Exposition Park. He was sipping a Doppio -- two shots of espresso, nonfat foam, one pump white mocha -- and trying to absorb what I'd just told him: That this store -- his new favorite -- was among 88 California Starbucks to be shuttered this year.

"I remember the first time I saw it," he told me. "I hadn't been back in the neighborhood for years. And I was passing by here, a corner I'd known all my life. And I saw a Starbucks. I was floored. I never would have imagined it."

I can't fault Starbucks for shutting down "underperforming" stores in the face of falling profits and a faltering economy. And it's hard to lament the demise of the $4 latte in communities where most residents struggle to pay rent, buy groceries and gas up aging automobiles.

But Starbucks is about more than a cup of coffee in many neighborhoods. That block-letter logo on a strip mall marquee can be considered a public stamp of approval, a symbol of hope, a suggestion of brewing economic vitality.

That's why a new Starbucks in the inner city tends to produce the kind of excitement that suburban neighborhoods reserve for the debut of a Bloomingdale's.

The two South Los Angeles Starbucks on the closure list are fairly new, comfortable and sleek. Both -- one at the corner of Martin Luther King and Vermont; the other a few miles away on Crenshaw and Vernon -- are products of a collaboration with another marquee name, Magic Johnson, and his economic development company.

When I visited the stores Sunday, neither of the two was bustling. Turns out, both rely on outsiders to fill their coffers -- police officers, university employees, government workers, teachers at nearby schools. These customers count on a Starbucks coffee to be the same in South Los Angeles as it is in Woodland Hills

The Crenshaw store had been holding its own until a Starbucks with a drive-through opened nearby. On Sunday, a barista named Warren cheerfully handed me fliers touting the Crenshaw store's Sunday afternoon poetry readings and comedy showcase on Monday evenings.

"People ride the bus over from the Westside," he told me. But there were more baristas than customers when I visited.

The Exposition Park store was busier, but of the half-dozen customers I talked with, only one lived in the neighborhood and visited the store regularly -- once a week for a Grande drip and a pastry.

She was surprised when I told her the store wasn't making enough to stay open. She seemed offended by the notion. "Not everybody down here is on the county or on crack, you know," she said.

Like many of the 50 million customers Starbucks serves each week, I scanned the list of closures posted online this weekend, expecting to find at least one of my local shops.

There are seven Starbucks within a five-mile radius of my home in Northridge. Every one of them is staying open. It feels like an embarrassment of riches.

Starbucks likes to be known as a company with a conscience. CEO Howard Schultz is fond of telling reporters that the firm tries to balance "profitability and a level of benevolence."

I tried calling company headquarters Monday to ask how that balance played out in these decisions. But all I got was an e-mail from a public relations firm, saying:

"Starbucks recognizes the potential social implication that closing these stores may have on the communities they serve. However, it is necessary to make decisions that will strengthen Starbucks U.S. store portfolio . . . and ensure long-term value for our partners, customers and shareholders."

So much for benevolence.

The losers are those loyal customers who considered it a privilege to join the cultural mainstream, sipping overpriced Frappuccinos. For them, losing the neighborhood Starbucks is a rebuke that stings.

Chapel said he'd probably find a new Starbucks home -- at 7th and Figueroa or University Village. But he'll miss the feel of the one he was so delighted to find in his old neighborhood.

"It's the one place, besides home and work, where you can relax," he said. "You sit at the counter, chitchat with your friends or even with somebody you don't know.

"It's a comfortable place. A safe place," he said. "And a chance for us to have access to luxury. Just like everybody else."

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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