The Coffee Struggle


Starbucks is not my “standard” coffee choice.

Are you surprised? I don’t think so.

In Singapore at least, Starbucks is not the leading coffee provider.

Who is then the top coffee provider in Singapore?

Not a single name crops up, though there are a number of global/regional chains competing in the market place, such as Spinelli or Cedele or Coffee Bean, etc., My favourite coffee maker is Spinelli, but unfortunately they are not omnipresent in Singapore. Coffee Bean comes next, followed by Cedele and then finally, may be Starbucks, if there is no other option.

Why is this the status for the number #1 coffee chain in the world, which is dominant in the U.S. and China and in several other countries? I know that in China, Starbucks is opening a new outlet every 15 hours – yes, you heard it right, every 15 hours. I have been to China many times in the past couple of years, and I have witnessed the fact that the Chinese folks are friendly towards Starbucks, and it is their favourite coffee brew. We even have a new Starbucks outlet in our own office building!

What about the U.K., a close friend of the U.S. where you would normally think and expect that Starbucks would be the #1 coffee shop?

The answer is no, they are not. In fact, I saw that the Brits favour their own coffee chains such as the ever present Caffe Nero coffee chain, Costa Coffee, and of course, the famous Pret A Manger chain. In all these coffee shops, you get good food choices, whereas in Starbucks London outlets, the food choices are bad. One of my ex-colleagues working now in London in fact stated that Starbucks has been fast losing market share in London because of just one fact – they do not offer a variety of food options which the Brits love. If I may add, the Flat White Coffee at Caffe Nero or Costa is far better than the Starbucks factory produced coffee!

Let us now come back to Singapore. Starbucks did not customize its offerings for such a sophisticated market, and that is very surprising. What you get in Singapore is almost exactly the same as what you would get in the U.S. In countries like India, Starbucks learnt its lessons fast, and started offering a variety of local Indian food options along with its expensive range of coffees. But not so in Singapore. The Starbucks coffee is not “strong” enough for the Singaporean palate, which is used to the “Kopi” offered in the local Kopi Tiam coffee shops, which is a strong brew with a variety of variations such as “black without condensed milk”, “regular with condensed milk”, “regular with less sugar”, etc., Singaporeans like their coffee to be very strong – almost dark brown, and I have seen people drinking their bitter coffee which is dark brown with hardly any milk in it. It goes with a variety of foods popularized by local chains such as “Toast Box”, which is one of the most preferred breakfast and coffee places in all of Singapore. I do not like to eat or drink at the Toast Box as it is always super crowded and the coffee is a bit too strong for me! Further, I do not eat the toasted bread with peanut butter that is almost standard fare out here at the Toast Box!! As I mentioned above, I like the Spinelli coffee the most, and sometimes walk into the specialty coffee shops which dot the island, which provide interesting variations to the standard coffee offerings.

While Starbucks is betting on China as its most successful and critical markets for the future (they plan to have 6,000 outlets by 2022), the world does not end in China. There are a whole lot of other countries which are important, though not as big as China market for coffee. However, I am afraid that Starbucks is not reading market needs well, at least in Singapore. In China, I do not have much choice, so I walk into the nearest Starbucks in Beijing or Shanghai, which is probably less than 500 metres away! In Japan, I do have choices for other coffee providers, but invariably there is a Starbucks nearby. However, if you can find it, I would recommend the Blue Bottle Coffee which is amazing.

There are so many options for good coffee anywhere you go, and I am now more tuned towards craft coffee makers, and tend to avoid Starbucks as much as possible. The food options in Starbucks Singapore outlets are not great and do not meet my needs anyway.

So, in a nutshell, if you are a coffee lover, I see no reason why you would spend on a Starbucks coffee when even your own office can probably produce a nice Italian coffee! Not always, and not for every office of course!! The other dimension that you would like to keep in mind (especially during weekends) is that you would find more interesting people in more sophisticated coffee places as compared to Starbucks with people busy on their laptops even during the weekends. If you want to strike a conversation with the barista or the server, then Starbucks is not the place, you would agree with me on that!!!

I bought some excellent coffee from Kenya, Ethiopia and Honduras during my recent trip to London, and more about my experiments with such coffee in my future blog posts.

Cheers, and have a great weekend,

Vijay Srinivasan

17th November 2018