Will Starbucks Upset the Coffee Culture of Thompson Square?

By Seth Daniel

There’s a lot of coffee consumed in Thompson Square.

And the coffee culture around the Square is a delicate eco-system and balance whereby some folks define their allegiances and their social status to the outlet where they buy coffee.

Nearly everyone knows that there are Dunkin’ Donuts (“Dunks”) people and there are Zume’s people, and there are the Whole Foods shoppers who indulge in coffee as an aside.

Now, the national chain Starbucks is entering into that delicate dance of morning java, and there are many different reactions in the Town – a business district that has always been more local than national.

The entrance of Starbucks will bring five outlets for coffee into the square within a 300-yard radius, including Zume’s, Dunks, Tedeschi’s, and Whole Foods.

Starbucks told the Patriot-Bridge that it is, indeed, moving to the old Five Cent Savings Bank building in Thompson Square, and that it believed there was enough of a market for everyone.

“Starbucks is always looking for great locations to better meet the needs of our customers, and we are happy to confirm that we will be opening a new location at One Thompson Square in Charlestown later this year,” read a statement from the corporate press office. “We are proud to be a member of the Charlestown neighborhood and believe it has a thriving coffee community that allows all types of businesses to exist together.”

Some agree, and some don’t around Charlestown.

Kim Mahoney of the Charlestown Chamber said they have met with Starbucks already, and are excited to welcome them to the Town. She cited that they would provide great jobs with benefits, a good product and hopefully will be as charitable in the Town as local businesses like Zume’s have been.

“From a Chamber perspective, we’re excited about what they can bring to the Town,” she said. “Starbucks brings jobs for young people in the community. I like that they provide an educational incentive and the benefits for employees…One thing we did discuss was how they can give back locally. That’s important to us as a Chamber…It ends up being a preference for people. Zume’s does a great job and is committed to the community. You don’t get much better than them. They are constantly giving back and provide a great product. I hope Starbucks will do the same…In the end, it’s a preference for people.”

State Rep. Dan Ryan agreed that it’s nice to see a new tenant that will bring foot traffic to the old  bank building, but he cautioned the spread of chains in the business district. Maybe, he said, it’s time for a conversation about protecting the character of Main Street.

“I’ve heard some rumblings about the appropriateness of a chain coffee shop in that location,” he said. “Unfortunately, when the real estate market is at an all-time high, franchises and chains have a competitive advantage. We learned when Dominos came in that there is not an appetite locally to take on the ‘Franchising of America.’ There are pro-active ways through proper planning and local zoning in which a community can protect its character and local businesses; but Charlestown decided years ago not to prioritize these programs. If the business community wants to engage in a conversation I’m ready…but we can’t pick and choose specific brands and treat them differently.”

For customers, there are all kinds of different reactions.

Nick McGrath, born and raised in Charlestown, said he is glad to see the Starbucks. Though he goes to Zume’s and others, he prefers the jolt of four Starbucks espresso shots.

Now, he said, he’ll have that choice down the street.

“For me, it’s about convenience because I don’t have to go to Somerville or Cambridge for a Starbucks,” he said. “There are some who don’t like the idea of it. Some of my friends made fun of me for liking Starbucks. The Town is changing though. We have a T-Mobile store here now and a Whole Foods. Things are changing and I say go with the flow… I don’t think it will affect anyone like Sorelle in City Square, but it may affect Zume’s. I don’t think it will squeeze anyone out, but there might be an effect.”

Others disagree and say they will support the local business over Starbucks because they don’t want to lose the community feel that comes with a place run by local people.

“I am a ‘frequent flyer’ at Zume’s and Grasshopper,” said Rosemarie Boucher. “I have met and connected with many neighbors and community members of all ages, both Townie and Toonie and Newbies, at both places. I have gotten to know the owners as well and they add their personal touch making it feel like ‘a home away from home’ in a busy fast-paced urban community.”

Jennifer Rossi also agreed, saying she supports additional retail, but would also support local business over Starbucks.

“In terms of Starbucks, my opinion is that we do have a lot of coffee places already, but I think more retail in Charlestown is a good thing,” she said. “Personally, I have been a loyal Zume’s customer since they opened and I plan to continue that loyalty. I am a fan of locally-owned businesses.”

One long-time resident, who didn’t want to be named, said he recalled that a Starbucks came to Marblehead some years ago, and a panic went up at the abutting, locally-owned coffee shops.

“Two of them closed almost right after Starbucks opened and everyone panicked,” he said. “But less than a year later, they opened back up and apparently did okay. In the end, I think there’s going to be a lot of people drinking a lot of coffee around here.”

And that will certainly not detract from the “buzz” around Town about the culture of coffee in Thompson Square.

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