Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Great Coffee Wars: Amsterdam Style

The assault is on and I predict a knockout!

Two months ago Starbucks opened its first full-fledged branch in Amsterdam.  The popular American coffee chain which has made an international splash to be found on many street corners in the hippest European cities is finally making its way to Amsterdam.  Starbucks has been around in some train stations in the Netherlands but until April, had not made a foray out into the cities.  That has all changed.

The whole to-go coffee culture is not something which has taken off in Amsterdam, or in most of Europe actually.  America is just a to-go culture, probably because of American's love and dependence on their cars. Europeans rely much more on public transport or bicycles and as far as I know bicycles don't have cup holders.  For the Dutch, to go coffee is something which is looked down upon a lot.  Drinking coffee is a sport in Amsterdam and it is required to sit at a cafe and drink your coffee, rather than carry it with you.  For years I have been bummed about that, missing the familiar white cup with sleeve with that familiar green logo on it.  Because I don't always have time to sit at a cafe and there is nothing I love more during my morning and evening commute than a latte.

But now the onslaught is on:  and who is probably shaking in their boots?  Coffee Company.  Coffee Company is the kinda-sorta-Dutch equivalent of Starbucks.  You line up, order your coffee and can get it to go.  Although most Coffee Company patrons seem to drink their coffee there, at the long tables and read newspapers, text and chat with friends rather than walk down the street with their cup a joe.  I have been a frequent customer at Coffee Company in the past, particularly when I first moved here since it was the closest thing I could get to decent coffee to go.  I used to go there and buy coffee just to feel a little closer to home, although their latte is not milky enough and it is not possible to order it extra milky, they make it how they make it. Also their coffee does not have that good roasty-toasty flavor, it is just strong and can be bitter.    Plus their cups don't have sleeves, so you carry your coffee and scald your fingertips.  After a while going to Coffee Company just made me homesick because of all the things it isn't and I more or less gave up my dream of coffee to go, except for when I was in London, Paris or the US.

When Starbucks opened at the Amsterdam airport, I used to try and find any excuse to take the train to the airport so I could get my latte fix. Last year when they opened at the Amsterdam Central STation right next to my office, I jumped for joy.  But I really thought that would be it.  A couple of years ago when Starbucks announced their arrangement with the Dutch train stations they said that would be the extent of their foray into the Netherlands and that Starbucks would not expand into the cities.  That announcement made Coffee Company breathe huge sigh of relief and they went on an expansion kick all over the city Coffee Companies were popping up all over the place.  There is pretty much a Coffee Company in every neighborhood in Amsterdam.

Starbucks offers variety and choice over Coffee Company which has about 5 or 6 different coffee products on sale as opposed to Starbucks' 20.  Plus Starbucks offers tons of options (low fat, non fat, half caf, decaf, with or without whipped, extra hot, kids' temperature).  You can literally have your coffee any way you want it as opposed to Coffee Company where you get it how they make it, period.

As much as the Dutch resist American consumerism and complain how American chains are ruining the Dutch landscape, American chains do very well in the Netherlands.  McDonalds is booming as is Burger King and I think Amsterdam has the only Hard Rock Cafe to turn a profit outside of Orlando, FL.  The Dutch may not like American Consumer Imperialism but they certainly do like the products that it turns out.

Now that Starbucks has opened its first store in the city, and business, naturally is booming and this week they have announced the location of their second store, which will be right across the street from Coffee Company.  Although they seem to be moving pretty slowly, I predict that they will pick up momentum.

It will be interesting to see if the Dutch become Starbucks converts.  I don't think Coffee to go will ever become a huge thing here.  Actually a friend once told me that they can always recognize Americans in Amsterdam because they are always carrying to go cups.  But it will certainly be fascinating to see if the Dutch  give up their home grown coffee chain for Starbucks.

It wouldn't surprise me that within one year if Starbucks did not buy out Coffee Company and turn them into Starbucks.  Then they would have dozens of stores in great locations.  If I were Coffee Company, I'd seriously approach Starbucks while they can sell at a big profit.  If they wait until Starbucks gains their own presence in Amsterdam they will be lucky to get half what they could get from Starbucks now because if Starbucks does gain that presence (and there is no reason to think they won't, they have brand recognition and have been very successful in other European cities) Starbucks can then just bleed them out of business.

If I were the CEO of Coffee Company, I'd be telling my lawyer to put some feelers out.

Meanwhile I am so happy to have my lattes back, you have no idea.

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