La Vida SoCal: A Starbucks on Every Corner
Well, at least 2.5 per every square mile in Santa Monica, with yet another on the way
By Tony Peyser
There are a huge number of Starbucks Coffee locations and — this may come as a surprise to some of you — all 23,768 of them are in Santa Monica.
Actually, it just seems like that. There are 21 at the moment. Someone possessing far superior math skills than yours truly crunched the numbers and concluded this averages out to around 2.5 Starbucks stores for each of Santa Monica’s 8.4 square miles.
This city of 90,000 has been called many things over the years, but no one can accurately argue it’s under-caffeinated.
Santa Monica’s 22nd Starbucks location is poised to replace the Carousel Café burger stand and adjacent businesses at the base of the Santa Monica Pier in structures that date back to about 1920. Regrettably, these long-familiar buildings with colorful façades and outdoor patios along the boardwalk don’t qualify for landmark status because of too many alterations over the past 90-plus years.
Starbucks arrived in Seattle in 1971, but coffee culture was already in full swing in California before that with landmark coffee houses like The Med (short for Mediterraneum) on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in the mid-1950s. The Med is so iconic that a scene in “The Graduate” shows Ben hanging out there until he spots Elaine get on a bus and gives chase.
The popularity of places like The Med quietly created a new order for American life: home, work, coffee house.
When I left Berkeley in 1974 and came back to Los Angeles, I was stunned at how hard it was to find something like The Med. The first place I remember meeting the need was City Café, which opened in 1981. (Yeah, I know: Technically it was a restaurant, but the coffee was unforgettable.) Melrose Avenue wasn’t exactly happening then unless your idea of a hotspot was an abundance of plumbers, guys who could fix your vacuum cleaner and furriers. But City Café led the way to making Melrose hip, a singular feather in the cap of its trailblazing owners, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Millikan.
It takes guts to try and make an indie coffee house work. Hell, it even takes guts to figure out how to make a good cup of coffee.
I remember when an ice cream parlor on Melrose called Double Rainbow figured (like many places back then) it could get a piece of the burgeoning coffee craze. I went in one time (I was the only customer) and the one person behind the counter had New Guy practically tattooed on his face. I ordered a triple espresso. A few minutes later, he handed me a cup. My brow furrowed. I tentatively sniffed it and then took a tiny sip. I handed it back to him and noted, “You know, this kind of looks like bouillon.” He nodded. “Kind of tastes like it, too.” He sighed and refunded my money.
Today, Starbucks has only two real corporate rivals: Peet’s Coffee & Tea and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which each have just two locations in Santa Monica.
But there is a pitfall of Starbucks’ massive, global success: You can’t be a conglomerate and still be considered Bohemian, cool and cutting edge.
This basic fact (and Santa Monica’s apparently insatiable lust for coffee) is why non-chain coffeehouses are flourishing in Santa Monica — Primo Passo Coffee Co., Caffé Luxxe, Dogtown Coffee, Espresso Cielo, Lo/Cal Coffee & Market, La Monarcha Bakery, Funnel Mill, M Street Kitchen, UnUrban Coffee House, 18th Street Coffee House, Urth Caffé, Cora’s Coffee Shoppe, Demitasse, Café Bolívar, Elabrew Coffee, Espresso Cielo, The Refinery and the relatively new Café 212 Pier among them.
There are also two Groundwork Coffee locations, an outpost of the rising local chain Philz Coffee, a Spazio Caffe location and the flagship location for Bulletproof Coffee.
At some point in the late 1970s, Howard Schultz was a just a crazy kid from Brooklyn with a jones for java and a dream. It would’ve been easy to root for him back then. The same cannot easily be said of Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks Corporation. This is the inevitable downside of going from underdog to overlord.
This is also why some locals are less than thrilled with another (no, make that yet another) Starbucks in Santa Monica. Yes, they do make terrific coffee. And, yes, the people who work there are, as a rule, incredibly nice. It’s just that some of us prefer to see variety on the coffeehouse landscape.
When I was a regular freelancer for the Los Angeles Times years ago, I remember driving into the newspaper’s main parking lot and then slamming on the brakes in a mixture of horror and astonishment. I saw no people. I did, however, see around 100 brand new and identical white compact cars. What the hell was up? Had all reporters been whisked away in some kind of heretofore unknown vehicular rapture?
No, nothing quite that extreme. I later learned this was a recently delivered fleet of cars to be used by a host of Times employees. That vision of unassailable conformity was not reassuring: It was spectacularly unsettling. Seeing indie anything — book stores, music stores, restaurants —in our insanely over-franchised world will always be a welcome sight.