Off-Topic Friday: The Starbucks Curse – Is the Party Over?

After my wife and I got out of grad school with our newly minted MBAs from the University of Southern California, we high-tailed it out of Los Angeles to the Northern California town of Burlingame. This was in May of 1992.


At that time, Burlingame was a quiet little town with a slow and somewhat decaying downtown area – you know the type – three consecutive blocks of shops, restaurants, and offices not much different than you’d find in Northville Michigan or Monrovia California.


The only difference was that Burlingame had a commuter train station at one end of the downtown area that I used to commute north to my investment banking job in downtown San Francisco and my wife used to commute south to her Finance Manager job at Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto. And we walked to the train station together every morning.


The town had reached a sort of lazy equilibrium – no real action, 10-15% of the store fronts vacant, and you could find a parking spot on the street any time of the day or evening, even on weekends.


Then Starbucks opened.


Talk about a renewal program on steroids. In less than a year, every store front was full, and some of the old-time shops had closed and been replaced by new trendy ones, Some of the old buildings were even torn down, including the Mexican Cantina on the corner that my wife and I used to visit every Friday on our way home from the train for a margarita and basket of chips. That was replaced by a high-priced cosmetics store.


And by then you couldn’t EVER find a parking spot on the street, every restaurant had a line, and you could never find a seat in any of the coffee shops. Good for the town I guess, but in the process of transforming itself it lost every bit of the character that made it special.


A couple of years later we needed more space so we moved south a couple of cities to San Carlos. You know the story – a quiet little town with a slow and somewhat decaying downtown area . . . . .


And then Starbucks moved in there too.


And in less than a year the town turned into Burlingame – and lost all of IT’S character in the process.


It wrecked our little downtown. And so from that point we started calling it the Starbucks Curse.


What a shame.


I looked at the list of Starbucks closings and didn’t see either of these on the list. In fact when I was back in Burlingame last fall they told me that their store was in the top five busiest in the whole chain, and that it had been since the day it opened. So these two will likely remain open.


But otherwise this urban renewal program called Starbucks looks like it’s done.


And truthfully I don’t know if that’s good or bad – my heart tells me one thing and my head tells me the other.