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WHY CAN'T YOU GET A DECENT COFFEE IN NEW YORK?

By Andrew Jack

NEW YORK, 25 OCTOBER 2009 - It has long mystified me why Starbucks was so successful in the U.S., let alone in other countries. The prices are high, the wait is usually long, and (heaven knows) the coffee is not so stand-out. The setting is cozy enough, and I'm not averse to the experience. But the extraordinary thing is how ubiquitous they (and a handful of other chains) are.

A decade ago, things were different, but travel today to Paris, Pisa or even one of the UK's smaller towns like Peterborough, and you can scarcely move without seeing cafes - chains and independents alike - offering decent cappuccinos and skimmed lattes. But go to even that most cosmopolitan of U.S. cities, New York, and the story is very different.

It seemed absurd and culturally disrespectful in equal measure that on my most recent trip to Manhattan, I ended up frequenting the British chain Pret a Manger. Faint mental images of the prototypical "Yank" landing at Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle and asking "Where's the nearest McDonalds?" played in my head. But I was growing desperate for a reasonable cup of coffee. And that was when the epiphany struck: Starbucks is king because of the near-total lack of reasonable alternatives.

I had thought my hotel, the comfy and intimate Roger Smith, would have delivered my morning wake-up. Its arty bedrooms are designed as though you are staying with a friend, each personally adapted with books, art and original furniture. But the friendly-looking cafe downstairs offered appalling over-boiled brown sock juice for breakfast coffee (accompanied by ghastly loud piped music).

At Penn Station, one of New York's busiest transport hubs, there is clearly no lack of demand (or money) among the tidal wave of passengers being disgorged from their trains. But despite the wall to wall shops, many with promising names like the European Bakery and Delicatessen, a quick glance behind the counters consistently revealed walls of monstrous coffee boilers with near-transparent long simmering liquids within.

With an enormous queue at the one fallback option - the single Starbucks outlet - I naively opted for another store offering "cappuccinno." The misspelling should have tipped me off. A little froth, quickly dissolved, revealed a machine-generated liquid with a distinctly artificial taste.

Elsewhere across the city, there are of course twee cafes like the Financier where you can get good coffee, tea and cakes. But they are tucked away, over-fancy and far from the norm. All too often, it's boiled "American" or trade up to Starbucks. Even Seattle's Best and other U.S. rival chains seem to have leap-frogged the East Coast for more exotic climes.

Protectionism? Nostalgia? Fierce brand loyalty? Hostility to fancy-schmantzy European drinks? It seems implausible. There's work to be done - by the connoisseur seeking a decent caffeine fix, by the urban anthropologist trying to understand the phenomenon, and above all by the entrepreneurs needed to build the market. But for now, I'm heading back to London, for decent and plentiful latte.

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com and last wrote on the film Afghan Star.

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