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.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar objamie March 25, 2014 at 11:56 am

They lost the battle…but are winning the war.

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avatar Marc S March 25, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Or did they? As far as lot of people are concerned there is still no Starbucks in OB.
Part 2 to this story coming tomorrow.

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avatar ObJamie March 25, 2014 at 6:21 pm

I don’t shop at Starbux…I would in the past doing travel because they were the only available source. One of the managers, about two years or maybe more ago, was fired for allowing “traveler” types bathroom access.

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avatar mjt March 25, 2014 at 12:41 pm

From day one I hated Starsucks, I guess my instincts prove right once again.

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avatar OBlurker March 25, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Thirteen years ago today – March 25th, 2011 – the first No Starbucks in OB protest took place.

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avatar Marc S March 25, 2014 at 3:08 pm

2014 – 13 = 2001. That one is on the OB Rag editor dude.

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avatar Frank Gormlie March 26, 2014 at 9:09 am

I’ll tell him and apologize for him at the same time.

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avatar miklo velka March 25, 2014 at 1:22 pm

I like to give starbucks $5 gift cards to the most pig-pen looking transients i can find on Newport. Good thing they often hang out right outside.

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avatar Marc S March 25, 2014 at 1:35 pm

They have $5 Starbucks cards… what can you even buy with that? One coffee, that entitles you to ten minutes of wife and if you’re lucky enough change to pay for their restroom?

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avatar Marc S March 25, 2014 at 1:37 pm

I typed wifi… damned auto-correct making me sound like Rodney Dangerfield… DON’T take my wife please.

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avatar Goatskull March 25, 2014 at 2:46 pm

I was gonna say. I LIKE spending every eveing with my wife.

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avatar miklo velka March 25, 2014 at 2:22 pm

You can buy a fun people watching experience.

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avatar RB March 25, 2014 at 2:07 pm

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Yogi in OB

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avatar Marc S March 25, 2014 at 3:06 pm

So everybody used to go there when it wasn’t crowded? Interesting logic :)

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avatar RB March 26, 2014 at 2:21 pm

This is a famous quote by Yogi Berra.
One of the often quoted, logically questionable, folksy statement by the Yankee catcher. Don’t over think it…….for amusement only.

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avatar Goatskull March 26, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Yogi Barra is famous for this quote and many others. If you’ve never heard this you haven’t been around much. http://www.baseball-almanac.com/quotes/quoberra.shtml

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avatar Goatskull March 26, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Berra, not Barra.

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avatar Marc S March 27, 2014 at 10:44 am

I think you are missing the humor here.

Maybe you think this quote applies to you:
“I’m smarter than the average bear.”

Yogi Bear is famous for this quote as well. :)

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avatar Goatskull March 27, 2014 at 11:01 am

I’m slow sometimes;)

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avatar Goatskull March 25, 2014 at 2:49 pm

” two UCSD students stand accused of arson and ‘eco-terorism’ for lighting fires in Price Center restrooms to prevent the opening.”

Uhh well if they DID actually start fires in there, the nobleness and righteousness of the cause is not a valid excuse. IF they are guilty I hope they get kicked out of UCSD.

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avatar Marc S March 25, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Of course they are getting kicked out of school, that’s a given.

With the trumped up eco-terrorism charges the DA can threaten them with what? A 30-year mandatory minimum sentence?

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avatar DonCharly March 26, 2014 at 5:27 am

There are lots of people with toooo much time on their hands !
Also; Why side with anything, simply because they are Mom and Pop stores ?
In our walks we visited every Coffee shop there are in OB Centre, OB East, OB South, and OB West, and We have tried them all. We just pick one shop where the best tasting coffee is, and for us is in “Java Jungle”, and as a bonus they have the best pastries.

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avatar John Filthy March 27, 2014 at 10:30 am

Why side with anything? Good question.

Why take sides and complain other people have “too much time on their hands” instead of doing something yourself?

Why take sides and level “eco-terrorism” charges against two people who allegedly light fires in a bathroom?

But since we are taking sides how about eco-terrorism charges for the PB oil spill in the gulf of Mexico, or mountain-top removal in Appalachia, or Tar Sands devastation in Alberta?

As for why to support mom and pops, that should be obvious… maybe the second half of this article will give you some idea: http://obrag.org/?p=82050

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avatar DavidK March 27, 2014 at 7:38 am

To DonCharly,
I’m the organizer mentioned in the article above. Your trite cliche
About people having too much time on their hands is a remarkably
shallow claim. At the time of the organization of those protests, I was
working three jobs and writing a Master’s Thesis; helping to organize
That movement required a significant sacrifice of time and energy, but
To me and other OBceand, it was not just about Starbucks–it was an effort
To fortify and preserve the character of this community. We saw the looming
invasion of a Starbucks as part of the crushing corporate sameness that has
transformed the physical and cultural landscape of this nation into a bland, beige
massive shopping mall of uniform, drab experience.

While I’m happy to hear that you found a locally owned coffee shop to patronize,
your argument that a business shouldn’t be supported merely
because it’s a mom & pop misses the point. It’s not about supporting any specific business–it’s about supporting a business model that most people in OB prefer.
Keep in mind that if Newport Ave was filled with the same corporate storefronts
as every other place (McDonalds, JambaJuice, Urban Outfitters, Dave & Busters, SuperCuts, PetSmart, etc etc), it would no longer be any different from any where else.
We already have Rite-Aid, Subway, Starbucks and soon a giant unnecessary CVS.

The fact that you can’t see how Starbucks is not here to sell coffee but rather to use its ubiquity as a form of promotion and cultural vampirism, while helping pave the way for further erosion of the specificity of OB’s charm, is a shame.
Fortunately, there is still a majority of OBceans who believe in peacefully
fighting to preserve whatever integrity is left of this unique place, and certainly
Frank Gormlie deserves praise for maintaining this site as part of that effort.

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avatar Marc S March 27, 2014 at 1:43 pm

As a former (priced out) OBcean I thank David for everything he did. OB’s history of conscientious actions are what has made it OB.

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avatar newbecean March 27, 2014 at 4:59 pm

My biggest question about all this is… how can we get “Ocean Beach, a Sense of Place” on youtube so we can all enjoy it??? Please make this happen for us, OB Rag!

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