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Protest Starbucks

As Starbucks Close, Patrons Go Local, Organic & Fair Trade

Patrons of Starbucks coffee shops in Salinas are expressing some jitters following the company's announcement last week it will close 600 company-operated stores across the nation.

That means any of the 10 Starbucks locations in Salinas could be on the chopping block.

"I didn't like hearing it at all," said Bobby Burnett, a patron of the Seattle-based coffee giant for seven years. "There is a difference between most locations."

Burnett favors the Starbucks on South Main Street, where the former motion picture set painter has developed a rapport with the baristas.

"They have always been nice to me here," he said as he visited the store Wednesday.

Jason and Kelli Greenwalt married just two weeks ago and bought a home not far from the Starbucks in the Creekbridge shopping center on Constitution.

The couple come to this location because of convenience but also out of familiarity with the brand.

"I love Starbucks," Kelli Greenwalt said. "I used to live in Greenfield and hit it all the time on my way to Salinas."

Although Starbucks has been tight-lipped about which locations may be shut down, The Associated Press reported that 70 percent of the stores slated for closure opened after the start of 2006. The location on South Main and the one at Creekbridge are less likely to close, because both opened before 2006, but the newest location in the Sherwood Garden shopping center could be in trouble. That one opened its doors only a couple of months ago.

Kelli Greenwalt said it's a shame Starbucks outlets are shutting, but she understands why they would do so.

"I think they hurt themselves by branching out too quickly," she said.

Jason Greenwalt agreed, saying he loves the quality and quantity of Starbucks coffee, but the city could stand to lose a few stores.

"Seeing eight or nine in one town is a little too much," he said. "I see the Starbucks logo more than any other."

Independent shops react

For independently owned coffee shops around Salinas, Starbucks represents both their largest competitor and the cultural icon that has made their businesses possible.

Richard Fenton opened Rollick's Specialty Coffee and Internet with his partner, Dave Mickelson, five years ago. Fenton described Starbucks as a corporation that is always trying to grow as big as possible and aims to dominate the market.

"They are the McDonald's of coffee," he said.

Just like McDonald's, the Starbucks appeal is presenting a consistent experience for customers at each location.

"Atmosphere does not dictate quality, but it is an important part, which is what Starbucks pushes," Fenton said. "Starbucks in D.C, it's going to be the same in Beijing. That's their business model."

Rollick's has a bank of computers for customers to use, and Fenton said the shop uses more coffee in its mixed drinks, which makes them less sweet than those at Starbucks.

Owner Fernando Torres said his coffee shop, Viva Espresso Organic on North Main Street, targets niche consumers who crave economic justice along with a tasty cup of coffee. The 6-week-old store offers a menu of organic fair-trade coffee from Santa Cruz.

Torres explained fair-trade coffee is produced using sustainable agricultural practices and ensures workers tending coffee plants are paid a fair minimum wage.

"Starbucks is still king, but they spawned a bunch of alternatives and specialty shops," he said.

Hard economic times

Among those in the Salinas-area specialty coffee industry, Starbucks' pending closures are seen as a result of over-saturating the market, but also a struggling U.S economy.

"What I think happened with Starbucks is that over time they grew so large you began to see quality slip," Fenton said. "If people are going to spend money, they want something they are going to walk out of there and enjoy."

He said the economic downturn has had an effect on growing his business.

"People aren't as willing to drop 5-6 dollars on a cup of coffee anymore," Fenton said. We are fortunate to have a strong customer base that is loyal. We are not losing customers, but we are not growing."