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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Starbucks and Argentina

This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army of the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensuing to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of with start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder. ~Honore de Balzac, "The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee"


This quote was actually about drinking a concentrated coffee on an empty stomach and its effects on the author as he sits down to write. It did remind me though of all the passion that the topic of coffee brings up when you mention it to local Argentines and expats.

The locals don’t really like what is normally consumed in the States (drip style coffee) and the expats don’t really like the coffee beans that are available in Argentina. When the topic of coffee comes up both sides just don't understand each other. Now just to clear things up a little. There is one local type of coffee that is virtually undrinkable unless you were brought up on it. I make this last point because it is the majority of the coffee available in the supermarkets so someone is buying this stuff. This is called Torrado and basically what it means is that they use sugar in the roasting process. This does not mean that the coffee made from these beans is sweet. It is an awful sour tasting concoction that results from roasting sugar and coffee beans together. It’s just plain nasty.

Argentina does have a strong and healthy coffee culture (not built on that Torrado crap thank God). There are many old style coffee houses. The city of Buenos Aires has even put together a list of cafes that have a historical relevance. And they have some newer modern coffee chains, kind of like Starbuck’s. The most important players in this category being Café Martinez, Bonafide, The Coffee Store, Havanna Café, McCafe and Aroma Cafe. The demand is so great for this that even the gourmet ice cream shops have gotten into the coffee game. Freddo offers coffee and tea and in some cases shares a store front with Aroma Café. Persicco and Volta offer coffee as well. Chungo does the same and basically just about all the gourmet ice cream stores do this.

So why on earth can’t you buy a decent coffee bean to take home? This is what most expats are complaining about. The only chains that offer coffee beans for home grinding are Café Martinez, Bonafide, The Coffee Store, La Bolsa del Café and Estación General de Café. Some of these businesses have been around for a long time like Café Martinez and Bonafide but the current day concept of gourmet coffee shops are fairly new. I mean those businesses started out as importers of coffee and eventually morphed into what they are today. This is still relatively new to Argentina. My impression is that most people only go out for coffee. There has been little demand for that gourmet mono-source coffee bean from Guatemala or Jamaica, but I also see that changing. Bottom line is they make their coffee with espresso machines here and sometimes they will cut it with milk. That’s pretty much the two main variations and they go by either “un café”—no milk, straight shot, or “cortado” –for the one with milk, or “lagrima” –mostly milk with a little bit of coffee, or cappuccino. There is one more variation that is called “café con leche” and this is normally served in the morning. It is the only one that comes in what would approach an American sized cup-a-joe and it is more like half milk, half coffee. Some places even leave a container of milk and a separate one for your coffee and you mix it yourself. For the other coffees, they are served in small cups that can be ordered a bit larger by ordering a double or “doble”. You can forget about drip style coffee. I have never seen it offered.

So why does Starbuck’s want to be in Argentina? I am sure it’s the same reasons why you would find that gas stations, car washes, movie theatres, ice cream stores and even some furniture stores all trying to get into the coffee market here. Just about everyone goes out for coffee. Argentina should actually be a no-brainer for a brand like Starbuck’s to be attracted to it. The real question is where will Starbuck’s fit into this local market? Are they a little late? Will locals go to Starbuck’s? I am not in the coffee business but I do supply it with baked goods. My impression is that there is room enough for another player in the market. Starbuck’s should be a catalyst for a lot of healthy competition among the gourmet coffee segment. Their focus should be on offering high quality gourmet products as well as integrating some of the local staples like medialunas and reacquainting the local Italian segment with their beloved cantuccini while offering authentic chocolate chip cookies to those American expats and tourists. They will be held to a pretty high standard so they will not be able to get away with giving out cheap products with their coffee like some local chains do. However, their main sex appeal will be there never ending variety of coffee drinks. This will be a novelty because no one has tried that approach here really. It will be interesting to see how locals will take to some of these new novel coffee drinks added to their current short list of coffee options. That I think is a crucial key to Starbuck’s success in Argentina.

If you would like to see some of the posts and comments regarding this topic I have collected several posts from other bloggers in Buenos Aires and an article on the subject. There were many comments flying around the expat sites as well but I can not publish those here. The topic makes for some interesting passion filled reading….
Expat Argnetina - Time to Cry for Argentina... Starbuck´s is Coming!

Cafe Culture in Buenos Aires - Not a Starbuck's in Sight.


Do Argentines Love Coffee or the Experience of Drinking it?

Your Set of Works - by Yanqui Mike

Yanqui Mike on Coffee Beens


Starbucks abrira en dos meses. - 283 comments and counting (in Spanish).

A Texan in Argentina: Confessions of a Former Starbucks Addict

Picture of Starbuck's coffee with brownie I found at this site.
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