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Exposed! Starbucks Goes Undercover!

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Seattle surely has more coffee shops per capita than any American city, so the arrival of another one would ordinarily not get much attention. But a newly-renovated coffee shop called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea in the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood is attracting interest--because it's a Starbucks in disguise.

YOUR neighborhood coffeeshop is a Starbucks!

Crazy as it sounds, Starbucks, which has its headquarters in Seattle, operates 16,000 stores around the world and has spent countless millions to build its brand, is going undercover.

15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, which used to be a Starbucks, is one of several stores in the Seattle area that will be un-branded, as a way to see whether the chain might do better by adopting what a company executive called "a community personality."

"This one is definitely a little neighborhood coffee shop," said Tim Pfeiffer, senior vice president of global design at Starbucks, according to the Seattle Times.

You can imagine where this un-branding campaign could lead. A little neighborhood burger place run by McDonald's? A little neighborhood hardware store owned by Home Depot? A little neighborhood five-and-dime operated by Wal-Mart?

Visiting Seattle the other day, I trekked up to Capitol Hill to check out the new store. Alas, it's not going to open until this week. But the city's newspapers are reporting that all traces of the Starbucks brand or logo will be erased from 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.

Transparency? Authenticity? Aw, never mind.

Here's how a company spokeswoman explained it to SeattlePi.com:

We're continuing our commitment to delivering specialty coffee excellence while refreshing our store design approach with amplified focus on local relevance. Ultimately, we hope customers will feel an enhanced sense of community and a deeper connection to our coffee heritage.

Those, my friends, are words only a corporate PR person could utter. Any resemblance to spoken English is purely coincidental.

To be sure, Starbucks is responding to strain of public opinion that says local is better than global, small is better than big and independent is better than chain-owned. I've never been much persuaded by this line of thinking, if indeed it is thinking. The primary reason why Barnes & Noble hurt some but not all independent bookstores is that it offered a bigger selection in a more pleasant environment. But there's no doubt that the small-is-beautiful bias is out there. The morning that I visited 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea (and I'm not making this up), I walked by a young woman wearing a T-shirt with a fake Starbucks logo that said "Corporate Coffee Sucks." It's possible that Starbucks' "amplified focus on local relevance" will turn her into an ally, but somehow I don't think so.

I'm actually a big fan of Starbucks. The company's coffee-buying practices are admirable. Starbucks has worked hard to develop more environmentally-friendly packaging (as the Environmental Defense Fund has said). And of course CEO Howard Schultz has won deserved praise for providing health-care benefits and stock options to even part-time employees.

While Starbucks has been accused of destroying independent coffee houses, the opposite is true: The company transformed a commodity into a premium product, taught millions of Americans to spend $3 (or more) for lattes and cappuccinos, and thus spurred the growth of the specialty coffee industry.

Now, because Starbucks is suffering after years of hyper-growth, you can't blame the company for trying new approaches, or copying others. (Owners of three independent coffee shops in Seattle report that Starbucks' employees have been visiting their stores and taking notes, with some carrying folders labeled "Observation.") The new unbranded neighborhood stores will "serve wine and beer, host live music and poetry readings and sell espresso from a manual machine rather than the automated type found in most Starbucks stores," the Seattle Times reports.

But I wonder if the people running Starbucks are overcomplicating it business. The company grew too fast and lost focus (dabbling in music and movies) and so quality suffered--particularly the quality of store managers and baristas. I frequent three Starbucks near my home in Bethesda, Md. One is unfailingly clean and pleasant, with baristas who appear happy to be there. A second offers spotty service and decor. A third is predictably subpar--and often empty.

Starbucks will come back. It's a great company with a great brand, and it doesn't hurt that its core product happens to be addicting. Why go into hiding?