Starbucks, the French still think coffee-to-go is a big no-no

Where oh where have you bean?

Starbucks CoffeeWhen I moved to France, I rented an apartment in the Place des Arcades in Valbonne. Every morning, I would open my kitchen windows overlooking the 16th-century Square and, while the coffee percolated, observe my constituency below. I’d then pour my cuppa joe into a Starbucks Travel Tumbler before heading out to my battered 1991 Mini with its makeshift sneaker-cum-coffee cup holder. On that less than 10-minute walk, I would be met with gasps from the local villagers, mouths gaping as fingers in slow motion pointed towards me ... or I should say, in the direction of my thermos.

My French friends enlightened me: no well-respected French person would ever drink or eat on the move. Un café is to be had at un café. And, I was warned, never order your coffee at the same time as dessert. Only after you’ve licked the crème brûlée dish can you order a coffee, but only an espresso. Otherwise you’re a tourist.

With nowhere to go on the Riviera for a coffee-to-go hook-up, American residents and visitors over the years have suffered Starbucks withdrawal. And no wonder. As of 2012, there were more than 11,000 Starbucks across the US, and for travelling Americans there’s been no shortage of the green-eyed lady abroad – in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and as of last year, in India, too.

Where you will not find a Starbucks is in Italy, even though Milan arguably “gave birth to café and coffeehouse culture” and inspired Howard Schultz in 1983 to transform Starbucks the coffee roaster into Starbucks the multi-billion dollar coffee kingdom. (The company posted a record Fourth Quarter and Fiscal 2012 Results of $3.4 billion sales worldwide).

Starbucks Coffee France opened its first café in January 2004 on the Avenue de l'Opera in Paris. There are now 59 Starbucks in the capital alone and the company employs 1056 permanent employees of nearly 60 nationalities. Last year, with reasonably low-volume fanfare, at least within the anglophone community, the company finally opened a coffeehouse at Cap 3000 in St Laurent du Var (where incidentally a McDonald’s has just put up its arches). And by the end of September 2013, café number 86 in France is scheduled to launch in Nice Étoile.

There are two challenges facing the Seattle-based company in France. First, according to The New York Times in March 2012, “After eight years spent setting up 63 French Starbucks stores, the company has never turned a profit in France.” This is put down to expensive rent along with complex and costly employment contracts, all of which cut into a company’s bottom line.

In addition, Starbucks (much like the EU) is up against the Continental divide: each European country hangs on dearly to its own traditions. In the UK, most orders are to go – a big earner for the company – so Starbucks announced plans to install 500 drive-thrus over five years. By contrast, in France, the locals are not taking their coffee à emporter, instead opting to “sip where they sit”.

Olivier de Mendez StarbucksOlivier de Mendez, the Regional Director of Operations for Starbucks Coffee France, is an EDHEC Business School graduate. Amongst his various posts he spent 8 years in Dubai with a global communications agency and was Communications Manager at Microsoft France.“French customers are demanding, and unlike other countries the coffee market in France is mature,” explains Olivier de Mendez, Regional Director of Operations for Starbucks Coffee France, in an email. “The French are big fans of coffee, espresso particularly. So Starbucks offers a range of combinations beyond the traditional espresso: a double ‘blond and brown’ or coffees from around the world.”

When asked for statistics such as how many customers per month are served at Starbucks Cap 3000 or how long the average French or foreign coffee drinker spends at a Starbucks café in France, Mr de Mendez says, “Starbucks does not provide this kind of data … customers can stay as long as they wish.”

“We believe that we must be constantly innovative to stay ahead of our customers' needs. We have diversified Starbucks products, like Discoveries and bottled Frappuccinos, available in supermarkets since spring 2012.”

After a six-month test period in Switzerland, Corner Cafés – Starbucks-branded vending machines selling cappuccinos to chai tea lattés – is now, in partnership with Selecta, at companies in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland.

So how does my first visit to a local Starbucks rate? At a friend’s insistence, I finally visit Cap 3000 and am impressed. The staff smiled, fellow caffeine junkies were young, and prices are comparative. And, as my lactose intolerant pal pointed out, Starbucks is the only place other than Emilie’s Cookies in Nice that serves soya milk. Cue gasp, gape, point.

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