TCS Daily

Go-Cup ` Go-Go

By Emilie Boyer King - January 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Alone it stands in one of the busiest streets in central Paris, bearing its unmistakable round logo like a shield. Starbucks, or as French newspaper Le Figaro calls it, the "Microsoft of coffee shops", has steamed boldly into France, opening its first store last week on the busy Avenue de l'Opéra. Will Starbucks find a place in the city of more than 2,000 cafés? Is this the end of French culture as we know it?

Renée Mougel and her husband, owners of the brasserie "La Clef des Champs" a few meters away from France's first Starbucks, couldn't seem to care less about the bigger and bolder newcomer down their street. They have seen a few changes in the neighborhood over the past few years, and to them, Starbucks is only part of a natural evolution.

"I didn't know what it was before. But I don't mind, our customers will still keep coming. You don't go for Starbucks for the same reason," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "They'll try it one day, but they'll come back here the next." Her husband agrees. "We're French! We'll get over it. I started work when I was 16, in the merchant navy, I saw the world. Well this is the same. I say, the sun rises, and there's a ray of sun for everyone," he adds, philosophically.

Their views are echoed at "Le Ventadour" on the other side of the street. "It's good the place isn't left empty," says the owner.

But despite the insouciance of its direct competitors, the arrival and success of Starbucks in France begs a few questions. Will the French, who commonly prefer short espressos (with a cigarette), take to this non-smoking American style café, with its huge portions and take-away coffees? Is there room for a coffee chain in a city that boasts a long established and vibrant café life?

"What is interesting with the arrival of Starbucks in France, is that this country already has a strong café culture unlike Britain or the US. Everyone has doubts on how a newcomer will invent, or reinvent, a concept which already exists," says Philippe Bloch, co-owner of Columbus café, Starbucks' direct competitor in France.

Luckily for Starbucks, Columbus Café, which first opened in France in 1994 and today boasts 36 outlets throughout France, Belgium, and most recently Dubai, has done much of the grunt work. Success did not come easy. "Today the market is more ready that it ever has been. But when we started ten years ago, our concept was absolutely new," adds Bloch. "Everyone said it would never work, that French people would never drink cappuccinos in the street."

With new plans to expand in the Middle East, and ten years' experience behind him, Bloch hopes his company will finally break even this year and banks on Starbucks to further open up the market. But he also warns that the coffee giant could be in for a struggle. "One of the difficulties Starbucks is going to face is discovering real life over here. Life in France has nothing to do with life anywhere else, even in the UK," he says, hinting at the expensive and restrictive French employment laws, such as the 35-hour work week, and the high property prices.

But even if Starbucks is in for a culture clash, the future of the company, which raked in over $4 billion in revenue last year, looks rosy. Losing money in France would be like be a drop of water in the ocean -- or even a grande cup. Besides, the concept may well succeed over here in the long term, attracting a new, regular clientele.

"Young people and women will certainly prefer to go into these [Starbucks] establishments, where the service will invariably be good," says Christian Navet, president of the Paris Union of Cafetiers. "Tourists who are familiar with Starbucks will also use their facilities, or people who need a meeting place and want to stay for a while."

When McDonalds arrived in France over 20 years ago, the success of the fast food chain in the land of gastronomy par excellence wasn't a sure thing. Today, the chain is still a frequent target of anti-globalization protestors and French unions -- in 1999, French farmer and activist José Bové became famous internationally for ransacking a McDonalds to protest American-led globalization. But despite causing a stir, the French love McDonalds and the country now has almost 1,000 outlets. Will Starbucks follow the same path?

The street is not so confident. "I'm not sure it's going to work," says 32-year-old interior designer Flora de Gastines. "In France, we don't really like American style coffee." Her view is echoed by Hélion de Villeneuve, who runs a travel agency in central Paris. "When I lived in the US, I loved going to Starbucks, I thought it was great," he says, adding with surprise that he even enjoyed the coffee. "But back in France, I have my own coffee machine and if I want to go out, I prefer to drink it calmly on the terrace of a traditional café."

Whether or not French café aficionados will warm to the "American coffee experience," there is room for more coffee shops. The number of cafés in France has dwindled steadily over the last century, falling from 300,000 in the early 1900s to around 40,000 today. Newcomers will help to shake up the traditional institutions, many of which do not fit the needs of customers today.

"The Starbucks will make us more dynamic, more innovative," agrees Madame Mougel from behind her bar where a dozen customers, all regulars at "La Clef des Champs", are propped up. "But over there, it won't be the same service. In Starbucks, customers can't get my own hot chocolate, with a home-made sweet cake". The choice lies between that individual touch, and a large, trusted skinny latte served with a smile. The jury is out.


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