Thursday, July 21, 2005

In Legendary Birthplace of Coffee, an Un-Starbucks

International Herald Tribune -- It looks like a Starbucks. It smells and tastes like one too. Settle into one of the comfortable Starbucks-like armchairs and it certainly feels like the real thing.

But the hottest café in the Ethiopian capital is not a Starbucks at all but a knockoff, the creation of a Starbucks devotee who tried to bring the real thing to Ethiopia, which is by many accounts the birthplace of coffee. But she had to settle for a look-alike after the Seattle coffee giant rebuffed her partnership request.

Kaldi's has a Starbucks-like logo and Starbucks-like décor, and its workers wear Starbucks-like green aprons. At the bar, a large coffee is called a "tall" one as at Starbucks, although Kaldi's sticks exclusively to Ethiopia's coffee varieties, while the real Starbucks includes Ethiopia's premium beans among many other offerings.

"I've always loved Starbucks - the ambience of it," said Tseday Asrat, the proprietor of Kaldi's, confessing the obvious inspiration behind her year-old business. "So we created our own version of it here."

Kaldi's is by no means the only pretender around Addis Ababa. The latest hotel to go up near the airport is a "Marriot," another knockoff: It uses only one "t" but it has the exact same typeface in its sign as the J.W. Marriott hotel chain. There is a 7-11 convenience store as well, which has no connection with the 7-Eleven stores on so many corners in America. The copycats are evidence of the financial success that many Ethiopians are attaining abroad and of the desire of many of them to invest some of their wealth back home.

Officials at the Starbucks Coffee Company were not thrilled when they learned about Kaldi's. "Even where it may seem playful, this type of misappropriation of a company's name (and reputation) is both derivative and dilutive of their trademark rights," a company spokeswoman, Lara Wyss, said in an e-mail, adding that the company preferred to resolve such conflicts amicably.

The copycat café is not exactly cutting into the real Starbucks's profits, though Kaldi's is popular enough that it will soon open its second café. And Asrat has no fear of competition from the chain, which has left many "Out of Business" signs in its wake.

"They can't compete with me," she said bluntly.

She acknowledged that a large company like Starbucks could theoretically try to undercut her business with lower prices. But prices in Addis Ababa are already quite low. A Kaldi's short macchiato with a Starbucks-like chocolate muffin costs just 6.50 birr, which is less than a dollar and pricey by Ethiopian standards. A similar pick-me-up at a Starbucks in the United States or Europe would cost more than five times as much.

When it comes to knowing the ways of Ethiopia's finicky coffee consumers, Asrat clearly has a leg up on her rival. She points out that Ethiopians do not like to order their coffee from the counter, Starbucks style. She has a counter, complete with a Starbucks-like glass case for her baked goods, but her clients, by and large, sit down in their Starbucks-like chairs and issue orders to workers.

"Ethiopians like to be treated like a king when they come to a place like this," she explained. "They like to say, 'Waiter, a macchiato. Waiter, come back, warm this up. Waiter, how about a muffin now?"'

They also expect parking, something that is not to be found in the business plan of a typical Starbucks. Many Ethiopians, especially young hip ones, enjoy pulling up to a café and ordering directly from their car windows. At a Kaldi's rival called Le Parisienne there was far more car service than actual café service on a recent afternoon.

To prove her point about the importance of ample parking, Asrat motioned toward a cozy but nearly abandoned café across the street from Kaldi's. "They have good coffee but look at them," she said with pity in her voice. "There's no place to park." Her lot was full, with cars and waiters balancing trays of coffee and pastries. At the new store that she will open next month, there will be room for 200 cars, she said.

Traditionally, Ethiopians have taken their coffee at home, drinking slowly, with close friends and family. They have roasted the beans on the spot, part of an elaborate coffee ceremony that remains an important part of the culture, but that is not always practical for those on the move.

"Coffee is part of every Ethiopian's life," Asrat said. "We discuss life over coffee. We talk about our marriages. We have coffee ceremonies that go on and on."

Though she is busily injecting Ethiopian culture with a bit of America, Asrat has not lived in the United States. But her husband, a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines, has made regular trips there, frequently with her in tow.

She said she did not feel the least bit guilty about her imitation café. After all, legend has it that coffee itself originated in Ethiopia long ago when a goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats prancing around with glee after eating some strange red berries. Yemen, just across the Red Sea, makes its own claim as the birthplace of coffee.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear: Coffee did not originate in Seattle, the birthplace of Starbucks.

Asrat has the history of Kaldi printed on the wall of her café, proudly touting the Ethiopian roots of her product. But even there Starbucks was the inspiration. Asrat acknowledges that she knew nothing about the legend of Kaldi until she read about him on the Starbucks Web site.

1 comment:

tsegasaurus said...

make way for canada eh! the place across the street from kaldis (the cozy one) is my version of tim hortons. friendly service, good cake, and waaaay cheaper.
if only they had tim bits...mmm...timbits