Friday, May 30, 2008

What's all the brew-haha?

Coffee shops in Conway, N.H. not worried by the arrival of Starbucks

Who is afraid of the big bad Starbucks? Not the coffee shops of the North Conway and Conway villages.

The corporate coffee powerhouse opened for business in Settlers’ Crossing May 16, but the owners and managers of The Met Coffee House, Teeny Bean and Frontside Grind are not worried. In fact, depending on whom you ask, Starbucks has already been in the valley for the past two years.

“I think it is interesting how people would ask for two years, ‘I hear Starbucks is coming’ and I’d look around and say, ‘Coming? Its here,’” said Joe Quirk, the manager of the Conway Village’s Conway Café, which has been selling Starbucks coffee for the last couple years.

Quirk formed a business alliance with Starbucks that allows him to sell the Starbucks product, but keep the name Conway Café on the business.

“They [Starbucks] may not be able to carry a full-service store in a small village, where as I can complement my product with their product,” said Quirk. “I approached them with that and this is kind of an experimental basis because Starbucks owns all their own stores, so this is a very unique opportunity and a good opportunity to get to leave some of the money in town.”

Quirk believes the Starbucks shop, or the “second” Starbucks in Conway as he calls it, will complement the Conway Café similarly to the way the Dunkin Donuts throughout the valley complement each other. He is eager to work closely with the new location and to become “one happy family.”

But what about the coffee shops down in the North Conway Village? They aren’t too concerned, and nor should they be, at least according to an article in Slate by Taylor Clark. In the article, Clark contends a Starbucks moving into town can actually help independently-owned shops.

Clark cited several examples of owners of coffee shops having business boom thanks to the presence of a Starbucks. But Clark was also quick to say this was, of course, not the conglomerate’s intent. Starbucks would love to drive the competition out, Clark said, but when lines were too long at Starbucks customers would look elsewhere. The independent shops reaped the benefits.

This logic seems to hold true for North Conway, which was already competitive before the arrival of Starbucks’ shop on the strip. The Met, Frontside Grind and Teeny Bean are all within walking distance of each other in the North Conway Village, and yet all three carve out their own piece of the market.

“Competition is the key to thriving,” said Dianne Mello, the manager of The Met. “If you don’t have any competition you tend to lose focus, you tend to not grow, and Starbucks being in the valley is pushing us to be on top of everything.”

If anything, the three coffee shops seem to supplement each other and make sure a wider cross section of the community finds what they want.

“The Teeny Bean is great for outside seating and quick, on the go. They’ve got the little coffee handle kiosk,” said Mello. “Frontside Grind offers a different kind of climate, they offer more of a sporty atmosphere.”

Laura Denis, the co-owner of the Frontside Grind mirrors those sentiments, agreeing that The Met and Frontside Grind cater to completely different audiences.

“Our customers are kind of like the sports enthusiasts, the bikers, the climbers. They [The Met] cater to more of a metropolitan crowd,” said Denis.

Nestled at the end of the Norcross Shopping Center, and located between The Met and the Frontside Grind, the Teeny Bean manages to get by having a low overhead and small staff.

“We have no employees, we just work really hard and it is a small shop so the rent is not too high and we get by,” said Betsy Schurmas, the manager of the Teeny Bean. “We make enough in the summer to get through the winter.”

While this trifecta of coffee houses may be competitors, the rivalry is hardly cutthroat. Quite the contrary, it is downright friendly, according to Denis.

“It has always been great. When we run out of stuff we borrow it from them [The Met], and sometimes they borrow stuff from us,” said Denis. “It is a friendly, competitive atmosphere.”

Surely, if these shops can survive each other, they can weather the existence of Starbucks, the location of which is well down the road from the hustle and bustle of the North Conway Village.

“I think that particular store is going to get a lot of drive-through because that’s what we don’t offer here,” said Mello. “None of the coffee shops in this area have a drive-through capability. I think they’ll probably hurt Dunkin Donuts more than anything else because Dunkin Donuts is the only other drive-through coffee.”

Both Mello and Denis are willing to admit that Starbucks has a name recognition advantage for tourists driving through town who are just looking for something familiar.

“You go into an independently-owned coffee shop, you just don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Denis. “You don’t know if it's going to be good or bad. And that’s an advantage of a whole automatic system that they have. Push a button, a drink comes out and it is the same drink I got 50 miles away or 200 miles away.”

That isn’t pessimism, just an understanding of the market. Denis also believes that there is a strong mentality in the valley to support local businesses.

“People who work in town are going to keep coming here,” said Steven Cooney, a regular costumer of the Frontside Grind. “There’s a certain amount of resentment to places like Starbucks. So I’m sure they’ll continue to come to places like this.”

All three businesses hope to keep customers coming back to them by keeping the quality of their product high and by putting a focus on customer service. Mello and Denis agree that a friendly atmosphere and a sense of ambiance are what keep their respective clientele returning.

“I’ve gone into Starbucks before, but I don’t go in there because I enjoy going in there, I go in there because I need a cup of coffee,” said Mello. “People come here because they want to sit, they want to talk to our employees. They’ve gotten to know our employees. We know what they like to drink. It is like ‘Cheers,’ everyone knows your name.”

The other theme to come up from each of these conveyers of caffeine was art. Mello and Denis see themselves as artists with their canvas being a latte.

“It is not just making lattes and cappuccinos; we’re making art,” said Denis. “We pour latte art. We have people come in who’ve never seen it before and they drink lattes every day. They may be like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ ‘It is a Rosetta, you’ve never seen one? Because you should be getting one.’”

Starbucks is fast-food coffee and there’s a place for that just as there is a place for what Mello, Denis and Schurmas offer. At the end of the day, Starbucks may just be another coffee shop, another competitor, albeit a corporately backed one. They're not necessarily the big bad wolf that will gobble up all the valley’s customers.

“All of us need to do better a job as far as the coffee industry,” said Quirk. “Realistically, we’re all in this together. We have to make sure we have satisfied customers.”

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