The Starbucks Coffee House

In my writing class we had an assignment to write an essay about some place in Iowa City with cultural or historic significance. This is the essay I wrote:

The Starbucks Coffee House

During my first visit to Iowa City, after a day full of walking tours and departmental presentations, my mom and I stumbled across a café at the edge of downtown. At the corner of Clinton and Burlington, where close-knit brick edifices give way to expansive parking lots and construction projects, sat the Starbucks coffee house. Since this is a rather obscure café, I’ll explain that it isn’t owned by a person named Starbuck, but rather the name refers to a character in Moby Dick. We entered the handsome little square building, and were embraced by an aura of inspiration and nurture. Of handcraftedness and innovation. Of intimacy and charm. It was the spirit of the Starbucks coffee house. I ordered a cappuccino and my mom ordered a chai tea latte, and I new I’d found a home away from home.

Half a year later, I return to the café regularly, knowing that there I can find tradition, hospitality, and a good cup of joe. The whole building is permeated with these qualities, from the dark woodgrain countertops (and tabletops and paneling and flooring and bathroom doors), to the news stand with chalked-on prices, to the burlap sacks displaying POP! Gourmet Popcorn—almost as if the Lite Salt popcorn bags had come fresh from the harvest just minutes ago. Sepia-tone photographs on the walls display Iowa’s rich agrarian heritage in various images, such as fields, a man putting wheat into a machine, and other fields.

As entrenched as the Starbucks coffee house is in Iowa City history (opened all the way back in 2003), the café actually had its beginnings in Seattle in 1971, and has since opened a few locations across the country, and greater world.

Learning this, I was excited to search out a second location in Iowa City, but quickly realized there wasn’t one. Doing some further research, I found the reason why. Iowa City has long been dominated by local-owned coffee houses with a stranglehold on the caffeine-and-pastry market. While there is some local support for the café (the Iowa City pharmacy and general store CVS stocks Starbucks roasts and blends), most people don’t even mention it when recommending cafés. So I decided to look into a few of these local-owned coffee joints, to understand why they’ve managed to so thoroughly box out the Starbucks coffee house.

First and foremost is Java House, a massive monopoly operating four locations in Iowa City, along with three kiosks in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. It got it’s start on the second floor of the goliath book retailer of Iowa City, Prairie Lights, in 1994, and rapidly spread from there. I visited their downtown location, a narrow space stretching far back from the façade, and was horrified to be reduced to just a number when I ordered my pour-over coffee. I was just an American Gothic on spot five to them—something the Starbucks coffee house would never do (if they did pour overs or any other variation on their standard brew.) With such titan corporations controlling the city, it’s a wonder that poor little Starbucks has trouble getting an edge.

And where that first Java House once was, now sits The Prairie Lights Café. I ordered a cappuccino there, and perused a large rack of periodicals as I waited for my drink to be made. I also noticed some photos hung on the walls, and realized the truth behind the chinaware cup of coffee I received. The café hosts exhibits from local artists, and the bookstore they’re attached to has regular author readings. It’s clear (though I have no statistical data to support this) that they subsist on the starpower of these artists and writers to drive up their clientele, and drive them away from the Starbucks coffee house.

It doesn’t help either when coffee shops use cheap tricks to drum up their revenue. High Ground is a great example. It’s an open plan café with high windows located a few blocks from the capitol. They too display local artwork, and they engage in predatory pricing tactics. They offer a discount to anyone who knows the answer to the daily trivia question—and this is the vicious environment the Starbucks coffee house has to deal with. Not to mention the overwhelming brand awareness of Wild Bill’s, courtesy of a huge publicity stunt they pulled years ago.

Wild Bill’s was started when Bill Sackter was released from a mental institution, and faculty member Barry Morrow invited him to start a coffee service in the UI School of Social Work. Bill was a charming, harmonica-playing, local celebrity, and in 1981 the television movie Bill starring Mickey Rooney introduced him to the world. How could Starbucks ever hope for that kind of global advertising reach?

Wild Bill’s continues to employ persons with disabilities, but they also exploit unpaid laborers—or “volunteers receiving valuable social work experience” as they might call them. The bright colored chairs and shelves of board games in the café are just a mask of this grim reality.

While it’s clear that all these underhanded schemes and maneuverings have hindered the Starbucks coffee house, I fear there’s a much more profound reason it hasn’t progressed. There’s a deep-running, anti-corporate seam in Iowa. I mentioned Prairie Lights above, which—along with the Haunted Bookshop—so dominates the local literary market that the closest Barnes and Noble (a New-England-based bookstore) sits in exile in Coralville. Restaurants like the Hamburg Inn and Shorts Burger and Shine are why the sixty-year-old burger joint McDonalds hasn’t penetrated downtown Iowa City, and its most central location is almost ten blocks away from the capitol. If Iowa City residents can’t rise above their obsession with local-owned businesses and community support, there may be little hope for the Starbucks Coffee House.

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