Does the New Crown Heights Starbucks Threaten Small Neighborhood Businesses?

The Pulp and the Bean and its new neighbor, Starbucks.
The Pulp and the Bean and its new neighbor, Starbucks.

The coffee tension brewing in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, started after Starbucks opened a new location right beside a four-year-old coffee shop, the Pulp and the Bean. Owner Tony Fisher is not necessarily scared of the competition. But he believes Starbucks will usher in even more commercial chains, causing the rent prices in the already expensive neighborhood to continue to soar. While Fisher appears visibly unfazed by Starbucks' presence, the anti-big-business slogans occasionally scrawled on chalkboards in front of his stores betray his fears about working next door to a corporate Goliath.

On September 25, only about five days after its neighbor began operations at 341 Eastern Parkway, the Pulp and the Bean's chalkboard read, "Everytime coffee is not bought here, a baby crys [sic] somewhere in the world." On a different day, the board at Fisher's other store, Bob and Betty's (an organic-foods market on the other side of the Pulp and the Bean), read: "Support big families not big business. Buy local."

There is no shortage of Starbucks in New York City. Last year, there were 283 Starbucks in the city (up from 272 in 2012 and 245 in 2009), according to the Center for an Urban Future, a NYC-based think tank that traces economic growth in New York State for policymakers. New Yorkers have grown accustomed to seeing a Starbucks every quarter of a mile, and the coffee company has evolved into a socioeconomic symbol.

Starbucks is often regarded as the last phase of gentrification in neighborhoods in the city. According to one Business Insider reporter, a new Starbucks suggests that a neighborhood is "up-and-coming," "a smart real estate bet." And the real estate part is one of the reasons Fisher is concerned. Rent prices in Crown Heights have risen in recent years.

"Two years ago [the rent was] $35 per square foot on Eastern Parkway," Fisher says. Now it's valued at $100 per square foot. "Starbucks will attract other corporate entities and rents in the neighborhood will go up," he adds.

When Fisher, 41, started his coffee shop in the fall of 2009, it was the first store of its kind on the street. He and his brother, Mohamed, both coffee addicts, were tired of taking several trips from the Heights (where they managed the food market they inherited from their parents) to Park Slope for a caffeine fix. After a beauty salon adjacent to Bob & Betty's closed down, the Fishers converted the space to a storage unit before finally turning it into a coffee house. The snug triangular café has since earned a reputation for its genial baristas, swift service, and homey atmosphere. It is also strategically located near the subway, making it a prime spot to grab a coffee on the way to the 2/3/4/5 trains, though now it will have to share that spot with Starbucks.

Ironically, the new Starbucks has been somewhat good for business, Fisher claims. "They have done us a favor by being next door," he says. "They have drawn a lot more traffic in this direction."

Fisher sees no point, at least for now, in initiating take-out-the-giant-next-door strategies with his staff. The intimacy entrenched in his business model, he believes, is something that Starbucks just doesn't have.

Customers like Nikita Felix, a Binghamton alumna and Brooklyn resident, go to the Pulp and the Bean because they love the ambiance. "It's better and cheaper," she says. Her friend and Spanish tutor, Lewis A., agrees: "Little stores try to beat bigger guys, so they keep it fresher." When regulars stroll in, the baristas rush to fetch their orders before they open their mouths.

"Getting coffee from Starbucks is like getting a burger from McDonald's," Fisher says. "There's nothing personal there."

Fisher is trying to create humor out of an otherwise threatening situation with witty sidewalk signs and subtle calls for solidarity with small businesses, but he remains fully cognizant of the fact that change has come, and it may not be the good kind. He worries that Franklin Avenue will eventually resemble Montague Street in Brooklyn, with its inflated rents and high turnover on commercial storefronts.

"A lot of the businesses on Franklin, I don't think they'll last the next two years," he says, referring to other coffee shops, restaurants, hair-braiding salons, grocery stores, and family-owned businesses that "don't have big bankrolls."

Other known indie coffee spots on Franklin Avenue include Little Zelda and the Breukelen Coffee House, both of which are not too anxious about the Starbucks. Like Fisher, these small-business owners would like to believe that people in the neighborhood are loyal to their local businesses. None of the coffee shops, including the Pulp and the Bean, has noticed any significant decline in customers since Starbucks came.

But these coffee shops also worry about rent. Little Zelda manager Paul Harlan said if the rent increases too much, the shop may have to rethink the prices of its products and expand the services it provides, perhaps by creating a bar-café. But for the moment, the shop is "just taking it as it comes."

The new Starbucks is occupying the ground floor of a recently erected eight-story residential building at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway, where rentals start at $2,200 for studios.

"We are proud to be a part of the Brooklyn community and are committed to bringing unique experiences to each neighborhood we serve," Starbucks told the Village Voice via email. "Choosing a site for a new Starbucks location is a key element in providing customers with the best Starbucks experience and we carefully consider many factors when opening a new store.

"We believe that any investment in specialty coffee is a good thing and that the community can choose the coffee experience that is best for them," the company added.

Starbucks, by itself, will not cause commercial rents to rise, says Lance Freeman, a professor in the urban-planning program at Columbia University. "But it could be a 'canary in the coal mine' that signals what is to come," he says, adding that investors and landlords who were on the fence about investing in the neighborhood might see Starbucks' arrival as confirmation of the neighborhood's gentrification and then get off the fence and invest and cause rents to rise. "But without the fundamentals of the neighborhood changing (demographics, economy, attractiveness), I don't think Starbucks by itself will precipitate such change," he says.

Freeman goes on to give a rather hyperbolic gentrification timeline: It often starts with "starving artists," struggling college students, and the like. They are followed by small shops like the Pulp and the Bean. Then come yuppies, families, chain stores -- and "The next thing you know, the neighborhood looks like the Upper West Side." The small businesses are then left with trying to adapt to the changing environs, which is easier said than done.

Will quick service, intimacy, cheaper products, and an amiable staff be all the pebbles and slingshot needed for the Pulp and the Bean, and other indie stores, to keep their local Starbucks in check?

"Everyone has the right to be wherever they want to be," Fisher says. "Whether it works or doesn't work, only time will tell."

Email the author: icnwoye@villagevoice.com Follow on Twitter: @irenecnwoye




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