Gigantic, controversial corporations like McDonald’s and Starbucks are forever tweaking themselves to try to appeal to a younger, hipper audience. Usually their attempts are pretty lame. But last Sunday’s New York Times mgaazine article about three new Starbucks in Seattle struck uncomfortably close to home.

One of the new Starbucks is all eco-chic with recycled redwood and “a prominent community table (of rough-cut ash) that extends outdoors.” Another looks like a cross between two of San Francisco’s most popular coffee geek hangs: Four Barrel Coffee, and Ritual (and no doubt a bunch of similarly groovy places in Seattle.) In the Times‘ photo of the latter, a line of porcelain single-serve drip coffee makers are set on a groovy, industrial-looking rack, with some kind of neo-hippy bird nest art in the background. Apparently this joint doesn’t even have a Starbucks sign out front, but rather one that reads “15th Ave. Coffee & Tea” and then in smaller letters, “Inspired by Starbucks.” Right.

The funny thing is that this isn’t the first time Starbucks tried to go undercover and unStarbucksify itself. Back in the late 1990s, the chain launched a few pilot versions of a kind of coffeehouse lounge thing called Circadia. There was one in San Francisco. It had no mention of Starbucks in any of its signage, had a full bar (?!) and was sort of trying to be a singles meet-up spot for dot-commers in a warehousey part of the Mission that was crawling with them. Check out this hilarious blast-from-the-past article about it from Fortune. (I had to google “Tiazzi Juice” too, WTF?) You ask: What happened to Circadia? Well, word got out immediately that it was actually Starbucks, nobody went there because of that, and then it seemed like in a matter of months it just morphed into a normal Starbucks, which is how it remains today. It’s right by my apartment, and I can attest that it’s quite popular now. Probably because people know what they’re getting with Starbucks. If they want “interesting” or “innovative” or “fashionable” they can walk one more block to the independent Coffee Bar.

The mastermind of these new Starbucks, according to the Times, is president of global development Arthur Rubinfeld, who was at the helm on the Circadia project too. I wonder what he learned? Obviously not that you can’t fake real style or a cultural movement from the bowels of the boardroom. People can smell that as sure as a freshly-ground cup of Yirgacheffe.

Image source: Flickr member D3 San Francisco under Creative Commons

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