Is France Ready For Starbucks?

Man reading newspaper outside cafe, Paris, France, 4-17-00
Could French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre have found inspiration sipping from a paper cup of steaming Starbucks java?

After much thought, the U.S. coffee empire said Thursday it will open its first store in France, a country where family-run cafes are the standard hang out for everyone from truck drivers to philosophers.

"It is with the utmost respect and admiration for the cafe society in France that we announce our entry into the market," Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz said in a statement.

Authors, philosophers and artists have made French coffeehouse culture distinctive, he said, adding that he believed Starbucks "will fit well into the French cafe tradition."

The first French Starbucks is to open early next year, most likely in a high-tourist area of central Paris near the Opera Garnier, the company said.

Coffee is a centuries-old experience in France, and many traditions - like kaffeeklatsch in smoky bistros with grumpy service from bow-tied garcons - die hard.

Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, was known for engaging in high-minded discourse in the smoky rooms of Les Deux Magots, a Left Bank cafe.

But would the late thinker, a frequent cafe-goer, have enjoyed the experience if he weren't able to light up his trademark pipe? Starbucks in Paris will be smoke-free.

"It's something we debated for a long time," said Franck Esquerre, managing director of Starbucks France. "In the stores, we're going to be nonsmoking to preserve the quality of the coffee. But in some cases, if we have outside seating, people can smoke."

The company may also have to face up to a hard-edged French slur against watered-down coffee like the kind found in many American diners: It's called "jus de chaussettes," or juice wrung from soggy socks.

The takeout concept is not new to France. The homegrown espresso bar chain Columbus Coffee, which started in 1994, has more than 20 locations in the capital. But harried commuters toting paper cups of coffee are nonetheless a rare sight.

Starbucks entered Europe in Britain in 1998, and now has locations in countries like Austria, Germany, Greece, Spain and Switzerland. Its joint venture partner in Spain, Grupo Vips, will help Starbucks in its effort to crack France.

Starbucks, whose green-and-white logo is instantly familiar in the United States, is barely known in France.

The Seattle-based chain, which has more than 7,000 retail locations around the world, is likely to cause a stir here, where U.S. restaurant chains like McDonald's have drawn fire in many tradition-bound circles.

Some Paris cafe owners say they're not concerned about the behemoth of the bean entering France, and even think Starbucks will revive interest in coffee.

Christopher Drescher, co-owner of Olives Cafe and Restaurant, not far from the Champs-Elysees, points to a shelf full of bottles of flavored syrups that he had tried to sell to customers for their coffees, but few want more than the standard espresso or cappuccino.

With its marketing muscle, he says, Starbucks could help drum up interest in products like iced or flavored coffee.

"If more people knew what products were out there, it might help us to sell them," said Drescher, a native of Staten Island, New York, who owns the bistro with his Czech-born wife, Egona.

He says he's not worried that Starbucks' arrival might be the beginning of the end of the corner bistro.

"Sadly, the world is going toward Starbucks"' style of marketing, said Drescher. "But in Paris and other places, there'll always be a place for the corner cafe."

By Jamey Keaten