Coffee and culture at 25th and Riverside

Just in time for the holiday season, Starbucks has announced it’s launching its first-ever national television advertising campaign. The 30-second spots started popping up on cable networks on Friday, with at least two additional ads launching this week.

It seems even bubbly baristas serving up frothy holiday cheer aren’t immune to higher fuel prices and tighter consumer spending. Sales are down a full 1 percent at Starbucks’ stores nationwide, as the company is reportedly showing its first signs of saturation. The ad campaign is designed to “reach out to a broader audience,” according to Starbucks CEO Jim Donald, and is “very culturally sensitive [and] product driven.”

Despite the recent chink in Starbucks’ marketing armor, if you’ve ever had coffee at the Starbucks at 25th and Riverside in Minneapolis, you might think reaching out to a broader audience isn’t a problem for the nation’s No. 1 one coffee chain.

On any given day of the week, the small parking lot there is usually filled with taxi cabs, and spilling out of the crowded coffee shop, onto the sidewalk, are scores of Somali men engaged in loud and animated conversations.

Inside, every table is filled with more of the same.

As I approached the counter, the chatter stopped for a brief moment as the men seated in the small crowded shop shot quick glances my way, before resuming their conversations. It didn’t take long for me to realize, aside from two employees behind the counter, I was the only woman there.

“This is typical,” says assistant store manager Brendan O’Donnell. “This is every night. A lot of them have been here two or three hours.”

Most of them are cab drivers, waiting on fares. And it’s evident the conversation flows more freely than the coffee.

I ask O’Donnell how sales are.

“We do well.”

Could you do better?

“Always, [but] success to me is this,” O’Donnell says gesturing to the crowded coffee shop. “Having that community and creating this kind of atmosphere. We know almost all these guys. We see them every day.”

They are men like 39-year-old Osman Dagahe, a cab driver who left Somalia 16 years ago. He comes here, like many others, to debate politics. They are the “fabhi ku dirir,” or the arm chair warriors — immigrants with strong emotional ties to their homeland.

In their culture, I’m told, women are forbidden to talk politics in public, which explains their absence here.

In many ways, this Starbucks is to these men what “Cheers” was to Sam, Norm and Diane: a meeting place where the locals hold court, pontificate and create a sense of community.

“Sometimes you’ll see someone who just came from Somalia,” says Dagahe. “You talk and ask them questions and they will give you the full information. Sometimes people are going [there], and you can send messages or they bring messages.”

Dagahe tells me he feels safer here than going to a bar. And so Starbucks and its $3 lattés, helps provide his cultural connection.

Broader audience? Yes, even it’s not exactly what Starbucks founder Howard Schultz had in mind when he set out to “rekindle America’s love affair with coffee.”

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