From Little Coffee Beans…

Posted by in May's Magazine

A few weeks ago, the splendid Broughton Spurtle spotted a planning application from Starbucks to move its now ubiquitous green and white empire into a new unit at 45 Leith Street, perfectly placed to soak up some bleary-eyed commuters on their way down to Waverley.

Now Leith Street, you may be remarking, is certainly not Leith. But, if the application is successful, could it herald the arrival of more chains of shop, cafe and restaurant, gradually spreading their way down the walk and posing a threat to some of our favourite independents?



My relationship with Starbucks is not entirely straightforward. In polite company I very much err on the side of “eurgh, bad coffee, homogenous decor, and awful soulless place.” I’m also suspicious of the ethical credentials of a global company that can buy a vital trade commodity such as coffee in the quantities Starbucks must be able to.

But sometimes (shhhh), I go there. I take my lukewarm and insipidly weak latte, in its chunky homestyle mug, sit myself down at a dubiously clean formica table, use my Starbucks card (yes, I even have a card) to log in to the free Wi-Fi connection and lose myself in a world of uniform beige and brown mediocrity.

And I’m not the only one. Sit in a city centre Starbucks for an hour of an afternoon and you’ll find a whole wealth of social groups very much represented: business meetings, mothers and babies, pensioners sharing coffee and cake, students, tourists and hoards of teenagers batting their eyelids at one another over grande frappucinos.

Visit one of Edinburgh’s many, varied and often brilliant independent cafes, however, and it might not feel so ‘everyman’. Finding a spot with good coffee and an ambience suited to your particular tastes may not be immediately successful – for you, screaming babies and mushed up banana may not marry well with the perfect espresso, or the jargon-filled mobile phone speak of a businessman grabbing a take-away may ruin the velvety smoothness of your flat white.

Identikit copies
A trip to Starbucks is a little bit like a ‘where everybody knows your name moment’, but the comfort comes not from genuine recognition or human interaction, rather from the heady mix of total familiarity in your surroundings with total anonymity. Have a coffee at any Starbucks in the country and in plenty of locations all over the world, and you’ll receive that warm reassuring hug of knowing exactly what to expect.

But we don’t like to admit it. If someone asked if I wanted to meet for coffee there is absolutely no way in the world I would suggest we met in Starbucks. Love it or loathe it, you’d be hard pushed not to notice the social stigma the brand carries. Yet somehow the chain manages to grow and grow, ignoring protests from local communities who see their independent businesses as threatened and fear their local shopping streets becoming identikit copies of any other high street in the UK. And it’s probably secret Starbucks card-wielding people like me that make it so – everyone’s in their customer demographic.

Assuming another Starbucks is arriving on our doorstep, what does it mean for the independent cafes and coffee shops that occupy many of the shop fronts of Broughton Street, Elm Row and the top of Leith Walk? With the proposed new unit’s prime position at the top of Calton Road, en route to Waverley, it is probably inevitable that those cafes that open early enough to catch it will take a hit in their pre-work take-away trade, and tourists may also prefer the familiar mermaid logo to some of our smaller and quirkier independent offerings.

However, we can be cheered by local examples. Take Kilimanjaro Coffee, on Nicolson Street, who moved to a larger premises a few years ago despite the arrival of a Starbucks a few doors down. Both are now busy. Not content with one success in the face of Starbucks, the same company owns Wellington on the corner of George Street and Hanover Street. It may be situated directly opposite its rival, but it is renowned for amazing flat whites and delicious homemade scones. On Broughton Street, a wealth of independent cafes, delis and bistros already compete for business, but all seem successful and established cafes at the top of Leith Walk show no sign of waning.

Maybe we should count ourselves lucky. The density of independent cafes and restaurants in Edinburgh make Starbucks domination a less likely proposition here than in other towns and cities. My guess is this area can weather it, but if it gets worse, I’ll cut up my Starbucks card, I promise.

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