The Story of How Ocean Beach Took on Starbucks

by on March 25, 2014 · 26 comments

in Culture, Environment, History, Ocean Beach, Organizing

OB starbucks protest Rio

Boycott leader Rio Mezta.

By Marc Snelling / Special to the OB Rag / Mar. 25, 2014

Part 1

Thirteen years ago today – March 25th, 2001 – the first No Starbucks in OB protest took place. Hundreds gathered at the corner of Newport Ave and Bacon St to send a message to the corporation that the community did not want their store.

OB got the message, Starbucks corporate HQ didn’t.

Starbucks is back in the news this month opening another controversial San Diego location. After a vote allowing a Starbucks to replace the the fair-trade Espresso Roma Cafe, two UCSD students stand accused of arson and ‘eco-terorism’ for lighting fires in Price Center restrooms to prevent the opening.

The Advisory Board of UCSD which claims to have a ‘Fair Trade Policy’ voted 11-4 to approve the mega-chain’s entry, taking the place of an Espresso Roma Cafe location, a small chain of 12 coffee shops, with more than half of their locations in Berkeley CA, as well as locations in Boulder CO, and Eugene OR.

Thirteen years after that first OB protest Starbucks’ business practices are still met with vehement opposition in many communities.

OB starbucks protest 3-25-01

Mar. 25, 2001: the very first anti-Starbucks protest in OB. Here, organizer David Klowden is speaking to the large crowd while standing on a step ladder.

Why do people care so much about selling coffee? What is Starbucks doing that people object so strongly to?

Contrary to popular belief Starbucks’ core business is not selling coffee. They are selling ‘an experience.’ It is a corporate belief held so strongly that they will put image concerns ahead of profit when they see a threat to their precious brand.

Few communities have exposed Starbucks’ true motivations as clearly as OB. To this day, the Ocean Beach Starbucks sees the least traffic of any location in the area. One of sixty-seven in San Diego County when it opened on 9-11, it is either a money-loser or the least profitable location in San Diego. Either way the “No Starbucks in OB” actions, now over a decade old, struck a chord that continues to resonate outside the borders of OB even today.

But don’t take my word for it, read some of the out of town one star reviews from Yelp:

 “Do NOT EVER GO HERE!” – Gilbert S. Whittier, CA, 10/25/13

When I am in town I just can’t give this place my business out of respect for the Mom/Pop places that truly need your money.” Rem R. Hermosa Beach CA, 4/24/12

“Starbucks does not fit in with the rest of the establishments on Newport” Staci J. McPherson KS, 1/27/09

Or the five star local reviews that unwittingly drive home the same points:

“…it SUCKS when your paying customers have to wait because of bums… born and raised true OB local who loves starbucks- booya biatches!” – Sierramarie B San Diego CA, 12/2/13

“I love Starbucks and am stoked they have one in Ocean Beach! Forget about all of the haters, namely hippies that hate Starbucks because it is a “corporation.” Morgan M San Diego CA, 11/7/2010

“Old school San Diegans will remember all the protests when Starbucks announced they were moving in? … I can’t thank you enough. Why? Because, thanks to you, I can run into this Starbucks, each and every morning and there is practically no one in line. It is the only Starbucks in San Diego I am aware of, where I can run in and be out in 2 minutes. I’d be in line at any other Starbucks for about a half-an-hour.” Glenn G San Diego CA, 11/16/11

Somehow the eighties yuppie wave that swept away the hippies of the sixties and seventies missed Ocean Beach. Even in the nineties yuppiedom had not yet caught up to OB.

OB starbucks protest cornerA fact known even well outside the community as evidenced by a 1994 LA Times article, noting “The nearest Starbucks is miles away. Million dollar mansions don’t exist.”

The local business community saw this as a positive trait to be promoted. “We don’t even have a Starbucks” beamed Gerrie Trussel, then director of the Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association (OBMA), commenting on the “quaintness” of OB in a late nineties promotional video titled “Ocean Beach, a Sense of Place”.

That sense of place was soon to be threatened. By the early 2000’s Starbucks had set their sights on a location in OB at the corner of Newport Avenue and Bacon Street.

A March 15th 2001 Peninsula Beacon article by Rebecca Kimitch was the first of what would turn out to be many on the subject.

It could be the beginning of the end.” Green Store co-owner Colleen Dietzel was quoted as saying, “OB’s anti-corporate sentiment still exists. It’s not just nostalgia from the 60’s.”

Her words were soon to be proved very true. But not everyone felt the same way. The OBMA who had only a few years earlier pointed to the absence of a Starbucks as a positive soon pulled an about face.

“Three times a day I see the vagrants, the drug use, the sleeping vagrancy in the doorway of that building” OBMA representative Julie Klein noted in the same article. Instead of holding property owner Torrey Pines Property Management responsible for the apparent upkeep issues, Klein suggested a corporate lease holder would clean it up. A corporation that could afford to pay what Klein noted was nearly double the average rate for commercial property on Newport Ave. A fact that was conveniently ignored as a reason for the continued vacancy of the storefront. As the owner of the property across the street her interest in increased lease rates was clear.

OB starbucks protest banner

Starbucks protesters gather at the foot of Newport Ave.

Local business owners were less enthusiastic about leasing the property to Starbucks, well known for their predatory business practices. Beth Turner, owner of nearby Jungle Java noted that Starbucks had targeted her coffee business a few years earlier, handing out free samples in front of her store. However she was not intimidated by the bare knuckle corporate competition.

Starbucks is a mainstream type of venue” she noted, “My store is about as far from that as you can get. I’m sure it will affect business… but the people that appreciate Ocean Beach will continue to come here.”

 Local merchant Gary Gilmore cited the rights of free enterprise and also his intention to continue patronizing only his favorite local café.

“If they are accepted by the community they will survive, and if they are not accepted they won’t.” he said.

Apparently unaware of Starbucks practice of operating locations at a loss in order to drive competition out of business. A process Starbucks describes as “cannibalization” in its annual reports. Small businesses can only afford to operate at a loss for short periods. Starbucks, on the other hand will permit losses almost indefinitely in order to achieve a monopoly. A fact proven by its over-saturation in countless markets, and its lackluster yet ongoing presence in OB.

The next week the Union Tribune picked up the story, and the following issue of the Beacon was flooded with letters expressing opposition to the opening of a Starbucks in OB. Among the letters was one from David Klowden of the Save OB Coalition announcing a “massive peaceful protest” on Sunday March 25th.

His letter clarified that this fight was not about “one little coffee shop” but about Starbucks predatory business practices and dishonest marketing. He noted that “protests were not always successful in keeping Starbucks out” but boldly promised “the beginning of the biggest fight Starbucks has ever seen.”

On March 25th the first protest against Starbucks took place. The boisterous and cheerful crowd that started to gather on the four corners of Bacon and Newport soon grew so large that it took over the street and then marched down Newport Avenue to the beach. With the crowd numbering in the hundreds, a rally took place that was covered in many media outlets including NBC television. Klowden’s promise of OB resistance turned out to be not so bold after all.

The media coverage was so widespread that soon people from communities all over the US were contacting local OB groups asking how they could organize a similar action.

Starbucks’ response to the protest was to immediately sign a lease for the Newport and Bacon location. The April 12th issue of the Beacon reported on the lease signing in an article entitled “Starbucks to Serve Steaming OBCeans”. CEO Howard Schultz had previously claimed Starbucks did not move into communities that didn’t want them, one of many blatant lies.

Unable to deny the community opposition from local groups including the Save OB Coalition, the Green Store , OBGO and the OB Greens, Starbucks Regional Director Greg Robers changed the tune saying:

“If we thought the vast majority of the community was against us we wouldn’t have come in the first place.”

In the hopes of finding some local support to justify that statement Starbucks turned their attention to the Ocean Beach Town Council (OBTC). The OBTC organized a meeting in the gym of the community center to gather input. The turnout for this meeting was even larger than the March 25th demonstration. The gym was packed with people over 90% of whom expressed a desire to retain OB’s small town Starbucks-free character.

The OBTC subsequently sent a letter to the Starbucks Corporation on May 7th stating:

“There were approximately 500 people in attendance” and “thirty one speakers opposed to Starbucks”. It further stated that “Our beach town is one of the oldest beach communities in San Diego. We have a proud history of individual achievement, and have preserved a small town flavor for generations.

Our Main Street on Newport Avenue has received national recognition for its preservation of small town character and was in fact featured in the recent movie ‘Almost Famous’ portraying San Diego in 1969. Ocean Beach community members take enormous pride in civic participation and are known throughout San Diego as spirited debaters on issues of public policy.” Starbucks rep Greg Robers only response was a weak “We look forward to becoming part of the community.”

The community clearly did not feel the same way. In an April 26th Beacon article covering the meeting, local Point Loma High School teacher Tom Parry was quoted as saying:

We don’t want the future of our community decided in some boardroom, where the bottom line is profit, not the welfare of our community.”

A sentiment echoed by many others. The April 26th article by Rebecca Kimitch also noted that the OB Juice Bar had approached Torrey Pines Property Management multiple times in an effort to lease the property. Even going so far as to present a letter signed by 300 of their customers.

“The property manager said the owner was tired of small businesses and wanted a bigger corporation” said juice bar owner Rick Nespor.

This shocking revelation countered what Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association representatives had said only a month earlier. Insisting they had contacted owners from a variety of local-owned beach area businesses but that none were willing to pay the elevated rent.  At that time, the OBMA turned out to be the only local group willing to support the entry of Starbucks into the community.

Even with the huge swell of local opposition, Starbucks was not without the odd local supporter. Amidst the wave of ‘No Starbucks in OB’ letters to the media there were a few who still bought into the Starbucks PR. A PR machine that insisted they help the communities they move into.

An April letter to the Beacon by William Sammons stated his desire to :

“allow some corporate businesses in OB” in order to provide “a source of funds to develop The Strand into a community theatre”.

Ironically The Strand was later taken over by the Wings Corporation and gutted to be made into a souvenir beach store in direct competition with nearby local store Ocean Gifts & Shells.

To be continued…

Marc Snelling is a former OBcean and OB activist who now lives near Ottawa, Canada, with his partner Alicia and their daughter Ava.  Marc was a board member of the OB Planning Board as well as a founding member of OB Grassroots Organization.

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