The Boston Phoenix
June 24 - July 1, 1999

[Features]

Brewhaha

Somerville's Davis Square is home to a burgeoning coffeehouse district and a soon-to-be Starbucks. Why is this caffeine rush giving some people the jitters?

by Jason Gay

coffee cup So this is a story about coffee.

Well, sort of. It's also a story about a neighborhood, and what happens when a neighborhood suddenly becomes very, very popular. And it's a story about business, and what happens when small businesses are so successful that they attract corporate giants.

But, yes, this is mostly a story about coffee.

Where's it set?

Davis Square, Somerville. A neighborhood encircled by North Cambridge, Tufts University, and Porter Square. An eight-minute pedal from Harvard University. Home to an interesting amalgam of eateries, retail establishments, discount shops, and one kick-ass theater that shows art-house films, late runs of blockbusters like The Matrix, and occasional evening concerts by the folk/roots rocker-of-the-moment.

But we're here because Davis Square consumes what seems to be a disproportionate amount of coffee for a relatively small urban environment. On Elm Street, its main thoroughfare, there are three excellent and independently owned coffeehouses: the Someday Café, the Diesel Café, and Carberry's Bakery and Coffee House. There is also a Dunkin' Donuts and, up the street on Holland Avenue, an Au Bon Pain. And there are at least a dozen more restaurants and markets where you can buy a cup of coffee.

And also . . .

Starbucks. The Seattle-based coffee kingpin announced last week that it plans to take over a space on Elm Street formerly occupied by Papa Gino's. Said space is directly across from the Diesel Café, which opened barely three weeks ago.

So Davis Square is becoming, like, the coffee capital of the Boston area.

Yup. And at least some of the ongoing coffee explosion in Davis can be linked to the fact that the square is blossoming into one of Boston's most up-and-coming neighborhoods. Davis used to be a mixture of working-class families, Tufts students, and random slacker types killing time in rock bands and MFA programs. But the death of rent control in Cambridge and the bustling economy increasingly has made it a home to well-scrubbed twenty- and thirty-something professionals and affluent young couples with children.

This demographic change, of course, has given rise to accompanying concerns about high rents (a decent Davis three-bedroom that went for $1000 a month four years ago can now fetch twice that), the displacement of long-time residents, and the decline of small businesses. This, of course, leads to a predictable and warranted fear: gentrification.

And, to an extent, the emerging Davis Square coffee district mirrors this change and makes some people queasy. And no, it's not one of those knee-jerk-whiny-ass-all-chains-are-evil-so-Starbucks-must-be-evil kind of reaction. Essentially, it's queasiness based on the theory that quirky, independent coffee shops are cool, but that quirky, independent coffee shops beget fancy, corporate coffee shops, which in turn beget trendy restaurants, which in turn beget Pottery Barns, which in turn beget condos, cell phones, SUVs, and articles in Town & Country.

Slow down, Fidel. Isn't a little competition good for everyone -- especially the customer?

Someday Cafe Well, sure. And among the coffee-shop owners, there's strong, businesslike faith that the rising Davis tide is enough to lift all boats, or at least lift all lattes. No one's disputing anyone else's American right to sling joe to the masses. "The US, thank God, is built on a free market," says Matt Carberry, the 34-year-old co-owner of Carberry's, which also operates establishments in Cambridge's Central Square and in Arlington.

And these coffeehouses are, in many ways, different from each other. The Someday Café, which opened in 1993, is the Davis coffee district's twisted older brother. Its perpetually darkened interior, mismatched furniture, and well-amped soundtrack of alterna-rock make it feel more like an undergraduate dorm room than a dining establishment, but the Someday's coffee is as good as anyone's. Graffiti is left unwashed (and unedited) in the bathrooms, and a back wall bathed in colored fliers acts as a matching service for the underground hipster set. (VEGAN MUSICIAN SEEKS SUNNY ROOM IN HOME WITH VEGAN/MACRO KITCHEN, a recent posting read.)

The Someday comes the closest to replicating the counterculture aesthetic of the original coffeehouses: this is where the bike couriers and used-record-store clerks and socialist revolutionaries and drummers with pierced chins are still welcome to park their messenger bags and wander outside to smoke unfiltered Drum. Customers rankled by the café's grunginess and chronic employee aloofness -- management, in fact, instructs staff not to go out of their way to kiss anyone's ass -- simply don't get it.

Steve Stevens, 32, who started the Someday with fellow Pacific Northwest refugees Jeff Hale and Glen Wallace, seems mostly unconcerned about Davis Square's recent burst of caffeinated activity. After all, he points out, the Someday's success has been something of a lark. "We were three kids who didn't have their shit together, and we totally just lucked into this location," Stevens says.

Philosophically speaking, Stevens may not have much in common with Davis's increasingly yupped-out crowd. But one afternoon, as he bounces his infant daughter, Blaze, on his lap, Stevens professes his support for the emerging competition. "For the past five years, we've had more people than we've had space for," he says. "Growth is good, as long as it's sustainable. Compared to when we first got here -- and I believed in the square the whole time -- it's definitely gotten better."

As for Starbucks, Stevens says, "Frankly, I'm surprised it took them this long."

Wait a sec. Didn't the Someday do some sort of elaborate April Fool's prank involving Starbucks?

Yes. Last April 1, Someday staffers hung signs on the café walls featuring the green Starbucks logo and the message COMING SOON. Except, upon closer inspection, the signs actually read STARSUCKS, and the real logo's mermaid was replaced by a graphic of Kiss lead singer Gene Simmons sticking his tongue out.

What about Carberry's? They're a different deal than the Someday.

Indeed, it's fair to say that the cheery, immaculate Carberry's -- which sits at the east end of Elm Street in a lot formerly occupied by a gas station and a Steve's ice-cream shop -- could be the Someday's polar opposite, or the Someday on Prozac, or something like that. Its high ceilings and large steel-rimmed windows give the café an airy, sunlit feel, and staffers don't see much wrong in occasionally smiling from behind the wood-paneled bakery displays.

Carberry's Though it gets the students, too, Carberry's tends to cater to the square's burgeoning older, NPR-listening, Sunday-Times-read-the-Book-Review-first-kind of crowd. On a recent Saturday morning, as the line nearly trickled out the door, a trio of thirtyish mothers pushing baby strollers kibitzed while an employee politely tried to interrupt and take their orders. (A childless man behind me grumbled: "They're too busy talking about their babies to order.") Carberry's is so popular among young parents, in fact, that Matt Carberry says the café's tables are arranged in order to accommodate a handful of strollers at any given time.

Carberry, whom the city lent $100,000 to build his three-year-old Davis Square location, is adamant about allowing for competition. He's already faced up against Starbucks once: a branch came to Central Square a little more than a year ago, located just a few blocks from the original Carberry's, which opened in December 1993. And in Arlington, where a new store just debuted, it's Carberry who's invading -- a Mass Ave Starbucks was already there when he arrived.

"I just don't think I'm comfortable calling for the overthrow of Starbucks," Carberry says. "A customer decides where to spend his or her dollar. And your bar has to be higher than [the competition's]."

That said, when Carberry is asked what the biggest reason is for Davis Square's success, he says "owner-operators," and you can be pretty sure Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz isn't going to be pouring chai lattes in Davis anytime soon.

Carberry, it should be noted, considers his establishments to be more bakeries than coffee shops, so he doesn't really think he's in direct competition with anyone. In fact, the soft-spoken Carberry (who's originally from Washington, DC) is so generally laid-back about the whole thing that he even talked with the owners of the Diesel before they opened to recommend some builders and vendors. Can you imagine Howard Schultz doing that?

What about the Diesel? The owners must be freaking out. Starbucks is going to be right across the street. They'll be able to smell the Frappuccinos from inside the Diesel.

Well, this is what Diesel co-owner Jenn Poole says: "Starbucks makes me nervous."

Diesel Cafe That's about it. And that's probably all you'd say, too, if you'd just invested your savings and soul in the café of your dreams, only to find out two weeks after the opening (where Somerville mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay cut the ribbon) that one of the most successful, cash-saturated corporations in the country is moving in across the street to sell virtually the same product as you. And sure, you can console yourself by saying you're different (you sell more food, you have pool tables, you have independent owners who are there, not trapped in an office), but yeah, you, too would probably be nervous, plus a whole lot of other unprintables that you wouldn't tell a reporter.

But Poole, who is 27, takes it in stride. "Well, I think bringing more attention to the fact that there's coffee in Davis is a positive thing," she says. "It brings more people."

Ironically, the Diesel itself is sometimes (wrongly) accused of being a chain. The café shares a name with the overpriced line of club-kid clothing, and, says Poole, "a lot of people ask if we're part of the Diesel clothing line."

For the record, the Diesel is not a couture/coffee hybrid, à la the Armani Café on Newbury Street. But for a place conceived, designed, and mostly constructed by a trio of twentysomethings, it does have a decidedly polished look. There are the high ceilings, the intricate lighting, and the walls that are painted subdued blues and greens; there are the barstool-lined countertops and the wide-plank wooden floors. And then, of course, there are the red-felt pool tables: two of them, waiting in the café's back room for anyone who's ever had a hankering to hustle nine ball for double cappuccinos. The whole atmosphere is so consciously and classically understated hip that the Diesel would fit in perfectly in Manhattan's East Village, though, Poole insists, "it's all done with Home Depot."

And, after all, it's not the East Village, it's Davis Square -- though on a recent afternoon, that geographic and cultural distance seemed blurred, as a woman seated with her child barked at her husband to use his cell phone to make a dinner reservation (it wasn't that obnoxious, actually; the reservation was for Bertucci's). Young couples munched on salad and meandered around the pool tables. The iced-coffee line grew. The neighborhood was acting as if the Diesel had been there for years.

And Jenn Poole seemed happy, if apprehensive. "The main thing about Davis Square, to me, was that it turned out to be a niche for small community businesspeople to find themselves," she said. "I don't want them to yuppify Davis Square."

She didn't say whom she meant by them, but you can guess.

But c'mon. It's not like Starbucks is the only competition in town.

Not at all. In fact, the Diesel's biggest competition may be its independently owned compatriots, Carberry's and the Someday. And don't forget Au Bon Pain (FY 1998 revenues: $250 million), which does a brisk business from its location next to the Holland Avenue T entrance. And, of course, there's the double-D, Dunkin' Donuts, which pulled in a whopping $1.4 billion in FY 1998, and generally views small-town coffee shops with approximately the same trepidation the New York Yankees would feel in a best-of-seven series with the Toledo Mud Hens.

So what about Starbucks? What do they have to say for themselves?

Starbucks logo Well, Donna Peterson, Starbucks's New England marketing manager, says the company has coveted a Davis Square location since 1994, when it began making its presence felt by converting the first of the former Coffee Connections into Starbucks.

More important, Donna Peterson insists that Starbucks's interest in Davis has nothing to do with the presence of existing coffeehouses in the area. In fact, Donna Peterson says it wasn't until after negotiations for the Papa Gino's location began that the company realized that newcomer Diesel would be setting up shop across the street. "It certainly wasn't us finding their location and going for a location after that," Donna Peterson says.

That said, Donna Peterson thinks there's plenty of business to go around for everyone, even once Starbucks sinks its corpo-claws into Davis Square. "It seems there are enough people who have enough different tastes that it will be able to support all the businesses that are there," she says.

Isn't that exactly what you'd expect Donna Peterson, Starbucks's New England marketing manager, to say?

Yeah.

Will there be protests outside Starbucks when it opens, as expected, in the fall?

Too soon to tell. The Central Square Starbucks saw a hearty dose of picketing when it first opened. But that round of protesting died off eventually, and, on any given day, you can now find former revolutionaries of the People's Republic recessed in Starbucks's easy chairs and sucking on mango-citrus Tiazzis.

Starbucks did luck out in one regard, however: earlier this year, the establishment-rattlin' kids at the Lucy Parsons radical bookstore packed up their Elm Street location and moved to the South End. Had the Lucy Parsons gang and their anarchist pals been around, things outside Starbucks could have gotten interesting.

When he was mayor, didn't Congressman Mike Capuano make a big deal about the fact that Davis Square didn't have a Starbucks? Wasn't he proud of that? What's Mike saying now?

Alison Mills, Capuano's press secretary, says: "Well, change is inevitable, and as long as Somerville continues to thrive, the congressman will be pleased."

Sounds like Mike's changed his tune a bit.

Uh-huh.

But Starbucks isn't the end of the world, is it? Aren't these people protesting a little too much?

Perhaps. There is a sort of cup-half-full quality to this discussion. Many city neighborhoods would be happy to have one coffee shop like the Someday, the Diesel, or Carberry's; most neighborhoods, in fact, would be happy to have a Starbucks. Lee Auspitz of the Davis Square Task Force, who remembers the days when no one wanted to come to his part of town, says that "Starbucks is welcome to try." But he does add one small caveat: "Davis Square tends to support the one-of-a-kind type business."

Let's break it down by lattes. How much does a large latte at these places cost?

A large latte at the Someday is $2.90. At Carberry's it's $3. At the Diesel it's $2.95. At Starbucks, a large (yeah, yeah, a venti, blah, blah, whatever) latte is $3.25. Ask for a latte at Dunkin' Donuts, and they'll chase you out with a broom.

Well, it will be interesting to see what happens. Who gets the last word?

How about Steve Stevens of the Someday? "It definitely means war," he says. "And we're going to have fun fighting it."

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay@phx.com.

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