Starbucks Finds Central Square a Tough Blend

There's a new blend in town, and the locals are restless.

On Dec. 2, the Starbucks Coffee Co. opened its fifth store in Cambridge since its omnipresent shops first arrived in October 1994. But unlike the previous four, which are scattered around Harvard Square, this new branch is breaking new ground in the heart of Central Square.

"Starbucks is excited to become part of the Central Square community," said Moira Murphy, district manager.

But some Central Square residents are less excited, and fear that what McDonald's did to the family diner, Starbucks may do to the traditional coffee shops that line Central Square.

Some have even taken to the streets to protest the new coffeeshop.

Jeff Duritz, a Pearl Street resident and substance-abuse counselor at a Cambridge homeless shelter, has lived in Central Square for two years. He said he did not mind the presence of the four Starbucks stores in Harvard Square, but when a new Starbucks opened at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Prospect Street, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Duritz started the "Local Flavor League," enlisted 50 volunteers into his cause and braved the cold weather on Saturday morning to hand out leaflets encouraging consumers to "Boycott Starbucks" outside the front door of the new shop.

"I've traveled on three different continents, and I can easily say that Central Square is a unique place," he said. "It's diverse, it's affordable, it's got character. Starbucks represents the opposite of that."

Duritz said he feared the coming of Starbucks would usher in the demise of Central Square's local flair and homegrown businesses. The square has recently been the site of controversy between developers seeking to erect new office complexes, and merchants and activists who fear the flurry of activity will lead to rising rents.

"When Starbucks comes in, property prices go up, and all of a sudden we're like everyone else--we'd be like Harvard Square," Duritz said. "We're distinctive-- we're Central Square.

Officials at Bishoff Solomon, the communications firm that has handled public relations in New England for Starbucks for the past three years, said they were surprised by the public outcry.

"It's very unusual," said Jane Bishoff, a principal and co-owner of the firm. "Starbucks has been welcomed into the New England area [in the past]."

With the addition of the Central Square branch, Starbucks now operates 55 coffee shops in the greater Boston area, with 15 in Boston itself and five in Cambridge.

The other four Starbucks coffeeshops in Cambridge are located near Harvard Square.

The oldest, at the Broadway Marketplace, was built in October 1994. The most recent, on Church Street, opened this February. The other two locations are in The Garage, on Mt. Auburn Street, and at 1662 Mass. Ave., between Harvard and Porter squares.

Pamela Miller, the manager of the new Starbucks, defended the store's ties to Central Square, nothing that 16 of the store's 18 employees--including herself-- live in the Square.

She added that the Central Square Business Association, which represents local shops, was "helpful" and "supportive" of establishing a new Starbucks location.

Keith Brown, a shift supervisor at the new coffee shop, said the Starbucks management team had taken pains to make the new branch blend into its multicultural environment.

"It's a little more artistic in the decor," Brown said, "to fit in with the funky vibe of Central Square.

Brown said the quality of coffee would make Starbucks distinctive in Central Square.

"We have the best coffee that we can get," Brown said. "We only brew coffee for an hour--as soon as that hour is over, we don't serve it."

In addition to its rigid quality controls, Starbucks has a solid track record for philanthropy. Since 1994, its Boston-area branches have supported the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Head of the Charles Regatta and the Boston Public Library.

On Saturday, the company held a "Holiday Party" for the public at its new Central Square location in support of the Cambridge Public Library's Illiteracy Prevention Program.

The store gave a cup of free coffee to anyone who donated a children's book to the program. According to Brown, customers donated about 40 books. A guitar player and photographer were on hand to add to the revelry.

"I think it's important to get involved in the community," said Lynn Schulte, the regional marketing director for Starbucks, adding that such community-oriented events were "typically" planned for launching new Starbucks coffeeshops.

But Duritz said he wasn't impressed.

"All corporations do public relations charity work, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that they're doing this to look good," he said.

Managers at the other coffee shops in Central Square, however, painted a different picture. Some, however, were optimistic that the arrival of Starbucks would be good for business.

"We're hoping our business will increase," said John Berosh, a manager at the 1369 Coffeehouse, just up Mass. Ave. from the new Starbucks.

"We have a very faithful clientelle, and they're becoming even more faithful in their opposition to Starbucks," he added.

Berosh added that some Central Square residents had contemplated vandalizing the new store to protest its arrival.

"A few people would have a clean conscience if they egged Starbucks--I'm actually one of them," he said, adding that any organized vandalism would have to be "unannounced."

But Tania Godbout, a manager at Carberry's Bakery and Coffeehouse in Central Square, said she had "no problem with the Starbucks."

"This is America, people can set up a business wherever they want," she said.

Other residents said they liked the new kid on the block.

"I like the atmosphere," said Ann Urich, a Cambridge resident who stopped by during the holiday party on Saturday morning for a cup of coffee.

She said she planned to return to the coffeeshop in the future, and criticized the tactics of the Local Flavour League.

"I certainly don't think it's good pusiness to protest like the way they're doing," she said, adding that the tactics of the League were "poor for the other coffee shops" in Central Square.

The new Starbucks will offer 30 blends of coffee throughout the year, Miller said, with 15 to 20 beans available on a certain day.

The most popular coffees at this time of year are the regular "House" blend of Central American beans, and the seasonal "Christmas" blend, Miller said.

It will be open on weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., on Saturday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sunday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m