Government is not in the business of subsidizing dreams.

I went to an independent coffee shop this afternoon, excited to re-read Road to Serfdom. I glanced across the street at a bustling Starbuck’s. The coffee shop I was in had nobody in it.

I love small coffee shops compared to Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, or any other lame generic chain store. In fact, I worked at one last summer called the Unicorn Cafe. It served only organic food, had great customer service, had a superb atmosphere, and was the perfect chilled-out place that I like to go to for coffee or coffee-like beverages. But why do small coffee shops struggle while there seems to be a Starbucks on every corner?

The popular response is that Starbucks cheats or has an unfair advantage. They sell their coffee for cheap because their enormous size makes it possible to do so. Or, their brand name gives them a leg up because people recognize that most Starbuck’s are essentially the same quality and price, whereas an independent coffee shop can be hit or miss. Most people just like an assurance of some level of coffee, one might say.

I think these arguments are pretty weak. First of all, Starbuck’s isn’t that cheap. In fact, quite frankly, I think it’s a ripoff. I can’t give any hard data, but I feel like it really doesn’t undercut competitor’s.

Second of all, the fact that Starbuck’s gives some sort of brand assurance should not be seen as something detrimental or unfair. In fact, I think it’s an often overlooked positive characteristic of chain stores. Starbuck’s (apparently) has built up a good enough reputation for their coffee in terms of quantity and quality that people will choose it over smaller coffee shops. Unfair? Maybe. But it’s definitely good for consumers.

Also, the brand-assurance argument only applies when people are traveling or in unfamiliar territory. Otherwise, they have just as much freedom to try small coffee shops and make their judgment. In the long run, the coffee shops that please the most customers stay in business. When it comes to downtown Wilmette, I’m going to presume that the vast majority of customers there are local, unless the Bahaii Temple has dramatically increased Wilmette tourism this summer.

I remember a high school english teacher of mine complained that when she wanted a cup of coffee she didn’t have many choices. She said she could really only choose between a few chains because small coffee shops were few and far between, alluding to some sort of corporate predatory actions. But if people don’t patronize small coffee shops enough to keep them afloat, why should they stay in business? Before people assume that the corporations are taking over due to unfair advantages, try to think why they might be succeeding.

Since Starbuck’s is flourishing in Wilmette while small coffee shops aren’t doing as hot, I have to think that Starbuck’s is doing something right. I’ll continue to patronize small coffee shops as long as they exist in my town (if they’re good). My business is like a “vote” in the marketplace. And if enough people don’t vote with me, my candidate (that small coffee shop) goes out of business.

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