Thursday, December 09, 2004

Where Starbucks Foundered, Old and New Cafes Flourish

December 10, 2004 Edition > Section: New York > Printer-Friendly Version

Where Starbucks Foundered, Old and New Cafes Flourish
BY JEREMY SMERD - Special to the Sun
December 10, 2004

Jean Delphouse is trying to do something Starbucks couldn't do: successfully run a coffeehouse at the Dominican stronghold of Hamilton Heights, where people like their coffee strong, cheap, and served in Spanish.

Last month, Mr. Delphouse opened an outlet of Java's Brewin', the coffeehouse chain's first Manhattan franchise, on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 140th Street. The venture challenges the notion that cafe culture might find a foothold in a neighborhood known more for crime than for coffee, where the barbers outnumber the biscotti.

"I'm trying to offer something you can't get across the street," Mr. Delphouse, 30, said, pointing to a recently closed restaurant that serves the typical local fare of rice and beans.

When Starbucks moved into the renovated storefront of the Gotham Theatre, on Broadway at 138th Street, three years ago, La Flor De Broadway, a Cuban coffee and sandwich counter across the street, had everything to lose.

"At first, we thought we were going to have to close," the man working behind the counter, Angel Franco, said. Wearing a white apron and paper hat, Mr. Franco looks more like a short-order cook than a "barista" - in the Starbucks lexicon, a coffee server.

In May, however, it was the coffee giant that shuttered its doors. The reason was poor performance by the store, a company spokeswoman, Wendy Beckman, told The New York Sun. La Flor De Broadway, meanwhile, grinds on, as it has for 40 years.

"You never saw it full," Mr. Franco, who likes a frappuccino as much as the next guy, said of Starbucks. "Just some students doing homework."

One reason, according to the chairman of Community Board 9, Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, was the corporate chain's inability to tap into local tastes.

"They were not attracting the neighborhood support because of a lack of cultural affinity," he said. "Most of the people don't go to hang out in a cafe. If they hang out, they hang out on the sidewalk. And it's mostly old men talking about the old days."

Indeed, tiny La Flor De Broadway is the anti-coffeehouse. It has no seats, and it does not encourage loiterers. A sign politely asks newspaper addicts to take their reading to the back counter.

Nevertheless, even people like Gabriel Serpa, 27, who enjoyed Starbucks for its chairs, didn't necessarily spend money there, preferring cheaper, better coffee at La Flor De Broadway.

"I'd sometimes bring my cup of coffee over to Starbucks," Mr. Serpa, an artist, said as he stood with a cup of coffee and a Cuban steak sandwich in his hands. "They never bothered me about that stuff. They just let me sit there."

Another sign in La Flor De Broadway reads: "You can't eat food from other places."

Others identified simple economics as the culprit for the demise of the local Starbucks. Why pay $3 for a cup of coffee when 80 cents will do?

Those factors make for tough competition, Mr. Delphouse acknowledged as he puzzled over the best ways to attract Dominicans to his cafe.

"I'm starting to wonder," he asked, "when a young Dominican guy takes a girl out, where does he take her?"

He said he hopes owning a franchise will give him more flexibility to cater to local tastes. He points out that his coffee, which costs $2, is cheaper than many a Starbucks offering, and he also sells soups, breakfast sandwiches, and, soon, paninis and poetry for the crowd from City College, which is one block away. Wednesday nights already bring live music.

Half a block uptown, Stacy Morris, 35, is planning her own neighborhood revolution, what she calls "the second coming of the second Harlem Renaissance." As she waited for the exterminator at her bistro, which she hopes to open in mid-December, she brushed off concerns that she had to cater to Dominican tastes to survive.

"I really think this neighborhood is changing," Ms. Morris, a City College graduate who learned the art of running a coffee shop while on a Fulbright Scholarship to Germany, said. "It's becoming much more of a melting pot. People want a place where they can sit without having to go downtown." She added: "As far as Starbucks failing, I don't have a problem with that."

Neighborhood groups, such as the Hamilton Heights Homeowners Association, did: They petitioned Starbucks to keep its store open. The chairman of the association said, however, that it was encouraging to see other businesses trying to create what Starbucks couldn't. "If you walk around the neighborhood, it continues to improve every month," Marcus Edward, the chairman, said. "The opening or closing of one store doesn't change that."

Still, the group's persistence may pay off. Starbucks is in the process of identifying possible sites for a new store in Hamilton Heights, though no location has been specified yet, Ms. Beckman, the company spokeswoman, said.

December 10, 2004 Edition > Section: New York > Printer-Friendly Version

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