Believe it or not, Starbucks is actually somewhat polarizing in Seattle. It’s a hometown favorite that has spread around the world, but its huge size is in conflict with the local/independent/liberal vibe that characterizes the unofficial capital of Cascadia aka Eco-topia aka the Pacific Northwest. Starbucks is a representation of multinational capitalism that many people want to tame. But many people also recognize the good that Starbucks does in the Seattle area and throughout their supply chain. They were a pioneer in Corporate Social Responsibility and constantly strive to improve their environmental and social record. But there is no escaping being the largest coffee chain in the world, no matter how progressive they are or try to be. So there are always haters, even in its hometown. Especially with the matter of the Seattle SuperSonics, our former NBA basketball team. But that’s another story. Another really long story.
So what’s my take on the green siren? Well here’s the thing. I started drinking coffee because of Starbucks. Back when I was in college, working on a final group project, we were getting ready to interview someone. A fellow group member was thoughtful enough to bring a bottled coffee drink called a Frappuccino for everybody. Me, I’d never really liked the few cups of (black drip) coffee that I’d tried before. But my group member insisted on giving the Frappuccino a try. And it was mocha flavored, so chocolate helps anything go down, right? I tried a sip or two and made a face. But a few minutes later and a few sips later, and I was getting the hang of it. Hey, this Frappuccino thing is pretty good! Wouldn’t you know it, in the next few months I was an addict, buying Frappuccino 4-packs in bulk and using them to fuel my last few quarters in college. I of course eventually tried the regular in-store Frappuccino, and then other drinks, and from there, the rest is history.
So, yeah… Obviously by now I’ve “graduated” beyond Starbucks and tend to go to a lot of the other independent shops and small chains in the Seattle area. But every so often, I will return to where it all began. So no hate from me. I complement the big with the small, the chains with the independents, the bitter with the sweet. The sea with the seo…
So when I reviewed The Coffee Bean, I noted that I went there in 2003, and that I went to Starbucks too. A quick search reveals that Starbucks entered Korea in 1999, so when I went there in 2003, they had been established for a few years but were still in their expansion phase. From my 2003 pictures I can see I went there twice. I certainly remember the first time, because it was part of my first time in Apgujeong with my friend’s brother and his friends. The picture I took there wasn’t really about the coffee, it was about something else that shocked me. One of the guys whipped out his 2003 Samsung flip phone and started watching live TV on it! In 2003! That little experience helped solidify one of my big impressions of that trip to Korea, namely that it was so ultra-modern. (Other ultra-modern things included digital door locks everywhere (which I’d never even heard of), the amount of new cars compared to Seattle, the ondol system, the amazing and flashy subway system (turns out I visited Seolleung Station on the Bundang line just a month after it opened, and it was full of flat screen HDTVs (in 2003!)), etc.). Anyway, I visited Starbucks at least one more time during that trip, and took a picture of a beautiful cake display, fancier than anything I’d remembered seeing in Seattle. I vaguely remember this Starbucks being near Gyeongbokgung, but I might be mistaken.
Okay, back to the future! To Starbucks in Korea in 2010-2012. My first time at Starbucks during this trip was on a date with a girl in the middle of April 2010 at one of the Gangnam locations. We drank tea and talked for a few hours and had a good time. Two big impressions here. First, the sheer size of the Starbucks and the amount of people there, happily conversing away. This was a 2-story Starbucks, which already makes it larger than 99% of the Starbucks in Seattle. I usually go to the main University Village Starbucks, which is 1-story and quite large for Seattle, and one day when it was packed to the brim I counted about 100 people, some of which were standing and/or waiting in line. But normally it doesn’t get that full. But this Gangnam Starbucks surpassed that easily. Yes, I know Korea and Seoul especially is much denser than Seattle, but still, it’s amazing to see something from your hometown both more popular and taken to another level halfway around the world. The second impression was negative. You see, at the cashier, along with the small mints and snacks, they were selling individually wrapped bananas! And they had the gall to put the Starbucks logo on it and call it a “Chiquita super premium banana”! I mean, seriously? You’re gonna call a banana not just premium, but super premium, because you can get it at Starbucks? AND you’re gonna waste loads of plastic to individually wrap each one? Because it really needs to be protected from fingerprints, right? So much for Starbucks’s environmental goals. Plastic, in case you don’t know, is made out of petroleum, and while it’s reusable in many cases, I can’t see anybody reusing a tiny plastic banana bag. So it’s just pure environmentally unfriendly waste. Not to mention pretentious. Take a look:
Needless to say, I was a little disappointed with Starbucks after seeing that.
Quick aside about large Starbucks in Seattle. The largest one apparently is in Downtown, at the base of what is now the Russell Investments Center (formerly the Chase Center, formerly the WaMu Center, after our failed local bank, Washington Mutual, which was great as a savings bank but obviously screwed up with subprime mortgages, leading to its unfair takeover by the government and Chase. Another really long story haha.). I’ve been there once back when it was the WaMu Center, and yeah, it’s pretty big, but didn’t realize it was the biggest in town until a quick Internet search.
But, it’s a minor transgression. I ended up going to another Starbucks just two days later with some friends after dinner (my first soondae! yum.). Don’t remember which coffee I had, but the scene I saw when I walked outside reminded me of home:
It was nice to see Starbucks and Costco so close to each other, and slightly coincidentally, Starbucks headquarters and the original Costco are just a few blocks from each other in the SoDo area of Seattle. But not close enough to take a picture like this unless you take it from afar.
About a week later I was shopping in a grocery store in Cheongdeok, and suddenly I was surprised to see this:
It’s part of a series of refrigerated quick coffees sold in Korea named after various cities. Milano and Venice were others, if I remember correctly. But I was really happy to see a picture of my city, a nice reminder (or suggestion) to Koreans of where Starbucks comes from. (Many, understandably, have no clue that both Starbucks and Costco are from Seattle). I always told myself I would buy it sometime, but in the end, I forgot and never did.
So over the next few months, I went to Starbucks from time to time while of course trying all the other chains and independent shops around the country. One Sunday in May, I went to Gangnam again to work on my lesson plan for the week. The first Starbucks I went to, near Gangnam station, was absolutely packed. So I kept walking and found one about a block away which was also packed, but not as much. This is actually a reason why I love going to Starbucks in Korea. Even if they are 2, 3, or 4 stories, they are almost always full of people and energy. I love the noise and the bustle and the conversations. So many of the cafés in Seattle and Washington DC might be crowded, but silent, due to everybody working on their laptops. But in Korea, people haven’t forgotten to talk! So even though I love the independent shops, as I’ve mentioned, if I see an empty one and I’m alone, I might sometimes regrettably pass it by to go to an energetic Starbucks next door. The noise and the bustle help me work. But with friends, I’ll check the empty independent shop out.
A few months later, in August, I finally checked out the famous shopping district Myeongdong. Here, there’s one of the 4-story Starbucks. Check it out:
In September was the Chuseok holiday, so I got a few days off from work. On September 21, I went to Itaewon, which I don’t normally care for too much, to look for restaurants to go to. The forecast for the day was “rain”. Okay, I’m a Seattleite, I can handle rain. But when I got to Seoul it turned out to be torrential rain. I of course did not take an umbrella and promptly got soaked. A nice lady from one of the street stands had pity on me and gave me an umbrella, a really nice gesture that I fondly remember. Being a rainy day, I was feeling super-Seattleite, so I ended up going to Starbucks to complete the reverie. So I spent some time there people-watching with a Signature Hot Chocolate before heading home. Later I learned that the day’s rain was the most in Seoul in over 100 years… at least until next July, when Korea sadly suffered disastrous floods. Anyway, I’m glad I made it home safely.
Here are some pictures of that day and visit to Starbucks…
Usually I don’t get snacks at Starbucks; a lot of them I don’t care for too much. About a week after the floods I tried a new dessert at Starbucks. A dessert that looks suspiciously like that fondant chocolat from I’m Home. Hmmm, looks like Starbucks smelled competition and tried to copy it! In this case, it was an Espresso Shot Cake. But, I have to report, it was nowhere near as delicious as the fondant chocolat.
About a month later, I decided to try another dessert. This one was a winner. But it was small and a little pricey. Folks, let me present to you the chocolate tart:
January 2011, I felt like a Cinnamon Dolce Latte, one of my favorite winter drinks. I tried ordering it at the Gangnam University branch in Yongin, but they didn’t know about it. Looks like it’s one of the drinks they don’t make in Korea.
Here are a few more random drink pictures:
A few changes started happening around May 2011. First, with a menu refresh came a whole panel about milk alternatives. I don’t know if this concept was available before if you asked for it or completely brand new in Korea, but it was nice to know how to say “nonfat milk” in Korean, so I could order this way going forward if I wanted to. Here’s the picture of the menu, and if you can’t read Hangul, nonfat milk is “mujibang uyu”.
Second, I noticed that some Starbucks started to close down. A prominent one in Apgujeong closed for construction, and in the end, I can’t remember if it reopened as Starbucks or not:
And then in Gangnam, of all places, two of the super-crowded Starbucks that I had visited before closed down permanently! And shortly thereafter, a few Caffé Benes popped up. So the native chain was finally having an effect on the Seattle chain. But most of the Starbucks in the other locations stayed open and as popular as ever.
Another hot summer arrived. So one day, I decided to escape the heat in the huge shopping mall called Coex. (or COEX or coex, I’m not sure… it seems to be all three!). At Coex, I didn’t go to Starbucks, but I did find this advertisement that made me smile:
“Go! Seattle”, hehe. I wonder how many Koreans will make the pilgrimage. 😉
Also in Coex, not Starbucks related but Seattle related, Super Mario was posing with his fans. Yes, Nintendo is based in Japan, but it has its North American headquarters just outside Seattle, in Redmond, WA. And interestingly, Super Mario was named in Redmond after the landlord of their building back in the early 1980s. So here he is at the release of the Korean version of Super Mario Galaxy 2, known there as Super Mario Wii 2:
Lastly at Coex, an interesting coffee book:
Sometime in 2011, Starbucks slightly modified their famous siren logo to make it more “modern”. Frankly, I think it’s uglier. Before, it looked like a medallion. But the new version looks faded with only two colors, and without a frame it looks like it’s there but not really there or something. Anyway, the new logo soon appeared in Korea too. Here’s a store in Sinsa-dong with the old logo up above and the new logo by the entrance at street level:
Time to start wrapping up… first, two Photosynth panoramas (iPhone version) of one of the remaining Gangnam Starbucks:
Next, for New Year’s 2012 I went skiing with friends at Hyundai Sungwoo Resort. There is actually a Starbucks at the base of the mountain! We don’t even have that in the Seattle area ski areas. Only concessions run by the ski area itself are allowed. So obviously the laws are different in Korea. I thought it was a little strange and intrusive to have Starbucks at a ski resort, but still cool.
Finally, the day I left Korea, I saw a new type of Frappuccino being advertised at Incheon airport. I didn’t order it, but I of course took a picture. Interestingly, this wasn’t offered in Seattle until about a month later.
So, overall, you’ve seen that I did go to Starbucks quite a bit. Maybe on average once or twice a month. Sometimes I went more than I wanted to because a friend wanted to meet there. But sometimes I really wanted to go there because I wanted to be around lots of people, noise, and energy. The drinks are comparable to Seattle, with just a few differences. They are not in a huge expansion phase like they were a decade ago, but they are quite an established presence in Korea. I really like the huge stores and also how they sometimes highlight their hometown. If it were for the coffee and snacks itself, it would get three stars, with some good and some not so good drinks and snacks. But the ambiance and other touches raise their rating.
2013 PICTURE UPDATE
Update – LEED certified Starbucks visit, July 20, 2013
The LEED certified Starbucks is located at the brand new IFC Tower. Yeouido is Seoul’s financial district (though it has many other attractions), and IFC stands for International Finance Center. It has a large underground mall that opened in summer 2012. But here, first of all, is the entrance:
Beside this entrance is an interesting sculpture that looks radically different from different angles.
In a corner of a lower level you’ll come upon the Starbucks. It’s quite a small one by Korean standards! And I found it quite busy and tightly packed. I started to admire the architecture and the green features first. Then I moved on to taking pictures, when suddenly the barista signaled to me that I should stop! Why? I wondered and asked. Well, I didn’t understand his answer. I’ve never heard of Starbucks not wanting pictures taken inside their stores. If anything, they should want pictures taken at this store in particular, since it’s unique to Korea. So, I resorted to taking pictures surreptitiously, with the full store view taken once the grumpy barista had left, and after I had finished my drink, a cocoa cappuccino.
I took one more picture at IFC before finding dinner nearby. It’s just a hallway, but it’s nicely decorated:
Finally, here’s a picture of the IFC Mall Starbucks, courtesy Starbucks itself:
US website: http://www.starbucks.com
Korean website: http://www.istarbucks.co.kr
Final verdict: ****