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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Lessons of Stumptown

Sunday evening, Willamette Week broke the news that Stumptown Coffee had been sold to a New York investment firm. (Stumptown denies it, but WW's further reporting confirmed the story.) I had what I assume was a pretty standard reaction across the Rose City: that sucks. Yet predictably, we get this kind of reporting on the story:
Many of the Stumptown's fans in Portland fell in love with its indie and irreverent roots as much as its flavor. For them, turning to an investment banker -- one with ties to now collapsed Bear Stearns, notes one local blogger -- flies in the face of its underground underdog image....

"Any kind of growth like that will benefit them on the national level," Milletto said. "A lot of companies grow, I just think that the reaction in Portland will be a little different... Here, everyone loves their local brand."
This story is about a coffee roaster--but it might well be about a brewery. In fact, two months ago, Goose Island sold out to Anheuser-Busch in the first of what I assume will be a steady trickle of similar acquisitions. I think there's a lesson here, but the analysis by Laura Gunderson (a great reporter) is off the mark.

First of all, let's identify the transgression. It's not that Stumptown is trying to grow big--if Stumptown maintained its commitment to great coffee and continued to spread across the country, that would be one thing. In the beer world, this is like Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, or Widmer getting big. So long as they give the same attention to the beer, who cares whether they're selling in Arkansas? No, the problem is that the new parent company has a tendency of making companies generic and mall-ready:
Stumptown and TSG also may have partnered in such a way that the New York firm, which has invested in VitaminWater, Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie Corp., and Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Co., takes on a certain market. For instance, Sorenson could remain in charge of roasting operations and certain locations in Portland, while TSG owns new stores and ventures.
The examples above are akin to Blue Moon, a somewhat distinctive beer made generic so it would appeal (or more accurately, not offend) a broad audience. Selling-out isn't the same as growing; selling out means sacrificing an ethos of serving a particular clientele for one of serving everyone. That's why I find Gunderson's framing a little condescending. She makes it seem like an issue of appearance: hipsters who feel jilted because their cool indie thing is going national. In fact, Gunderson reports on real changes Stumptown has in mind, and it's a lot more than appearance:
Finance experts say it's probably a good thing that Stumptown is able to attract an investor, especially if it has big hopes for the future. Which indeed it does. Lounsbury last week rattled off Sorenson's wish list, which include growing Stumptown's store base in existing markets, blazing new ground in markets such as Chicago and San Francisco, and creating a line of chilled coffee in stubby bottles.
To the extent people feel jilted, they do so not because they're lovelorn, wounded locals who have had the image of their beloved coffeeshop shattered; it's an actual case of how Stumptown will have to change if it wants to become national. It's quite reasonable that locals would lament the lost of a business with products they like for a business with products they don't. (And all of that leaves aside the obvious fact that Stumptown--Stumptown--has branded itself as a hyper-local, hipster coffee shop. Who's changing the rules here?)

All of which is to say what? With Stumptown, my concern is that a NY investment firm isn't going to pay the kind of incredible detail to coffee that the founding Stumptown owners did. This isn't a matter of attitude or "irreverence," it's a matter of coffee. I'd say the same is roughly true for good beer and brewing, too.

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PHOTO: 80s BABY

2 comments:

Big Jimmy said...

"Stumptown--has branded itself as a hyper-local, hipster coffee shop. Who's changing the rules here?"

No one is changing the rules, but will the quality remain? I remember when Starbucks concentrated on quality coffee over quality service orientation. That's joke, I've had horrible service at Stabucks too. Every generation sells out eventually. Wonder what wealthy Corporate Hipsters will be like? I have a good idea.

Flagon of Ale said...

All well said. I was disappointed to see this. I used to order coffee from Stumptown from time to time.

The problem isn't just that people want to keep businesses small just so they can feel some sense of hip inclusion, it's a simple fact that quality decreases with size. Always.

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