Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

21 November 2013

Should you be enjoying this read during your commute from Geneva to St Gallen, we suggest you slink on down the corridor. You’re in for a big surprise.

Last week, Starbucks unveiled its first ever store on wheels. The caffeinated colossus has teamed up with Swiss railway network SBB and taken up residence in one of the company’s double-decker carriages. Downstairs, there’s the bar area where you can order your beverage. The main lounge area is on the upper deck with leather booths for the more sociable traveler or quieter areas with just two chairs for the commuter with reports to write or conference calls to join.

But the real surprise is it’s actually really nice. There’s a touch of ‘private jet’ about Starbucks’ design approach, headed up by the company’s director of global concept design, Liz Muller. Lots of warm wooden details add to a palette that creates a totally inoffensive, calm atmosphere. The designers were inspired by coffee hues, which – as banal as that may sound – actually works very well. It’s sophisticated and elegant. Besides that infernal mermaid which emblazons the train’s exterior livery and is subtly stamped onto the leather chairs, branding has been kept to a minimum inside.

And yet, inevitably, it’s hard to not roll your eyes when you come across this. It’s part of an international Starbucks strategy to try and meet its consumers on a whole new level in the wake of some hard years. Recent café concepts have included a ‘community store’ in Bangkok that uses reclaimed timber from coffee plantations in northern Thailand and a store in Paris’s Galeries Lafayette that is supposed to pay homage to the city’s fashion legacy with black marble, brass and glass. There’s also an outpost in New Orleans that features fixtures and fittings made by local artisans.

The results of each of these retail concepts vary quite considerably. Some work, some don’t. And the attempt by Starbucks to try and do something interesting with its stores – which just five or so years ago were globally, unanimously, unexceptionally dreadful – is not to be sniffed at. But in the company’s efforts to overcome a problem – its increasingly unpopularity in the world of indie start-up cafes – it’s actually owning up to something much more fundamental: its now eternally misplaced cool factor. What is most surprising about this new venture is the same thing that unifies each of Starbucks’ new cafés: they each do their darndest to avoid being a Starbucks at all.

The problem is that if I want a one-off, unique café for my flat white, I’ll go to one. I don’t think I would mistake a Starbucks for being one, however sly the branding might be. That is unless I get stuck on a train commuting to work. And that’s why perhaps the location of this café on wheels is the cleverest component about the whole cynical endeavour. It’s not a matter of surprise, there’s simply no other choice.

Tom Morris is design editor for Monocle.

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