Starbucks, The West, And the Follies of Protectionism

coffee

I recently moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The neighborhood is an interesting mix of longtime locals and young, semi-affluent adults who escaped from Manhattan. Despite being the furthest thing from hipster, I’ve absolutely loved the ‘hood. There are a ton of good restaurants with casual vibes and short to nonexistent lines. Bars are more laid back, less crowded, and generally feature awesome beer selections. A 15-minute walk can get you to more cool social settings than just about any neighborhood in Manhattan.

The West has been a staple of my new-found Brooklyn routine. It’s a coffee shop with a bar, or a bar that serves coffee, depending on who you ask. I’ve been a regular weekend customer because of their delicious cold brew coffee, impressive draft beers, friendly service, ample space and free WiFi. I’m usually one of the few folks not wearing tight jeans and a beanie, but that’s OK…folks are nice even to boatshoe-wearing recovering preps like myself.

This is all to say that, in a completely free market, The West is a place that I believe would thrive. Sadly, it has reverted to shameful lobbying against its competition.

In July Starbucks opened their first location in Williamsburg, and it happened to be directly across the street from The West. Soon after it applied for a liquor license.

“Hipster” is, to be sure, an amorphous term; hipsters politically and culturally aren’t uniform. But, generally speaking, hipsters hate huge corporations and, despite anti-establishment inclinations, aren’t averse to using protectionist tactics against companies like Starbucks. As such, The West has formally (and probably successfully) lobbied against Starbucks’ right to have the very same permit that they have. From their petition (H/T DNA Info):

“The billionaires of Starbucks are now threatening to undermine a major lifeline of Brooklyn’s small businesses…Selling beer, wine, and liquor is one of the few ways that local restaurants, bars, delis, and coffeehouses can make ends meet in New York City.”

This petition is dubious on both practical and ideological levels. Practically, The West has several advantages over Starbucks. To my pallet its coffee is far superior; it has intensely loyal clientele in a neighborhood that hates big corporations; its service is better; its layout is more comfortable…I could go on.

Furthermore, while there’s some overlap, I don’t think Starbucks’ and The West’s demos are all too similar. Sure, Starbucks might take some business away from it, but The West will always attract more locals and regulars. (Read: repeat business and people who leave tips.) And you know who else serves liquor? About 50 bars within a quarter-mile radius, some of whom I’m sure would gladly cook up a pot of coffee for you.

Ideologically, this petition has even more issues. If The West ownership claims to care about the community, why are they lobbying to deny the community another choice? That’s all this is: the denial of choice to protect its own (perceived) interests.

How can Esther Bell and others with a straight face say that Starbucks shouldn’t be allowed to engage in the very same business practice they do? Because they’re small? Starbucks started small; because myriad people voluntarily sought out their product and deemed themselves better for the exchange, they no longer are. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were created in the process. Business growth is a good thing! And I say this as the son of a man who ran a small family business for his entire life.

Finally, I think Bell undersells herself and other small businesses. Having a piece of paper backed by people with guns (government) saying that other people can’t do the same thing you do is not one of the only ways they can succeed. The West can–and has–succeed(ed) by offering a better product at an acceptable price to willing buyers. As much as this petitioning disgusts me, I’m still going to gladly pay $4 (plus tip) for a cup of coffee from them! (And I’ll still follow those up with a couple beers.)

So, Ms. Bell: please don’t fight this license. Instead, continue to improve the awesome place you’ve built. Williamsburg will be better for it.

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