Andrew Carroll looks at the increasing amount of chain coffee stores cropping up throughout Dublin. Are there two sides to every story?
There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Bart goes to the mall to get his ear pierced. Surrounding him are multiple stores being turned into Starbucks coffee shops. When Bart asks to get his ear pierced the sales assistant tells him: “Well better make it quick kiddo. In five minutes, this place is becoming a Starbucks.” It’s an extreme (and extremely funny) example but one I feel fits nicely into what chain coffee shops and cafes have become in Dublin.
One can’t walk five minutes in Dublin City Centre without coming across a Starbucks, Costa, or Insomnia. Nestled snuggly in between these monolithic global corporations are smaller chains or independent coffee houses. This abundance is one noted only by those on the fringes. Either by coffee purists (snobs if you want to be snarky) or by those who see it as mega-corporations pushing smaller, home-grown businesses out of the market. Both concerns are justified by currently a delicate status quo is being maintained.
There will always be places to cater to people who treat their coffee like fine wine. Likewise, there will always be places like Starbucks for people who just want to hurry off with their double espresso or venti triple shot mochaccino with caramel syrup. It’s a push and pull system. The more chains there are the more pushback there will be against them. The more latte artists there are the more people will want grab-and-go simplicity. The thing the chains effect the most are the scenery.
Cities are made up of small and large stories. Whether it’s the Empire State Building or the Tower of London or the Ha’penny Bridge or even Coppers it’s the buildings and the stories they tell that make the city. Now imagine if the Central Bank Building was bought by McDonalds and what an eyesore that would be. It’s when chains put their mark on a city that the stories are ruined. The purchase of the Ballsbridge Kiosk by Starbucks recently caused a great deal of outcry. A once small and idyllic traffic island kiosk made into a glaring green and white headache. Other places such as The Bald Barista café in Avalon House on Aungier Street have been bought by Starbucks. Another iconic Dublin landmark made into a much less visually appealing coffee shop. That said there isn’t much that can take away from that red brick, not even a Starbucks.
Of course, there’s two sides to every story and this side to Starbucks history in Dublin has always been a favourite of mine. Three years ago, the old Anglo-Irish Bank headquarters officially changed its signage to that of a Starbucks coffee shop. Ireland was beginning to emerge from the long dark night of a recession and what better way to symbolise that then to replace one of the main architects of our financial crash with a coffee shop synonymous with popularity and quality. Once the deal went through I bet there was a room full of Starbucks executives patting each other on the back for achieving such a feat.
Chain coffee shops aren’t just about coffee. What goes great with coffee? Food. Whether it’s a sandwich, cake, or a plain old biscuit it’s usually guaranteed to go down swimmingly once partnered with a hot cup of joe. Now I’ve worked as a barista/waiter and I’ve done a trial and interview for Starbucks. The difference I noticed between a small café in Celbridge and a Starbucks in Blanchardstown was simple: no kitchen. That’s not to say the food in Starbucks is bad but there is something comforting and definitively better about fresh food prepared metres away from where you’re sitting. It’s what makes the smaller cafés and coffee houses more appealing and appetising when it comes to food and coffee. “But what if coffee is just my morning pick-me-up Andrew?” I hear you ask. A valid question valued HeadStuff reader; what if you want affordability and speed over a more leisurely and acquired taste experience?
I don’t love coffee but I don’t hate it either. I drink the instant stuff in the morning loaded down with milk and sugar. I’m not a fan of bitter tasting drinks nor am I fan of letting boiling liquid linger in my mouth just so I can taste some subtle hints of caramel or notes of cinnamon. If you are then hey good for you I won’t stop you but leave me and my unsinged taste buds out of it. It’s unfortunate for those who love coffee that they’re being forced to pay exorbitant prices for something they could get for cheaper in one of the chain places. But that’s the price of fighting for quality as well as your place in the market. Out charge the giants just to break even. The worst part is it won’t change. Starbucks, Costa, and Insomnia will always be around, barring some madcap Communist revolt of course, and the independent cafés will be stuck charging five or six euro for a latte.
Ultimately, it’s people like real coffee lovers that suffer for their palette. They are at the mercy of chain shops just as the scenery lovers like architects, photographers or artists are at the mercy of city planners. The coffee situation in Dublin is stuck in limbo and just like Bart Simpson we’re left hoping the scales doesn’t tip and flood Dublin with Starbucks stores.