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Starbucks Strikes Again

I’d barely brushed the dust off my boots following a visit to one of the thousands of small family-owned coffee farms in Colombia when I heard the news: Starbucks will open its first café in Colombia in 2014. The first Starbucks Café will be in the capital, Bogota, with 50 more cafes planned to roll out in the coming years. Debate started immediately in this country where identity, pride, and the nation’s number one export revolve around coffee.

Initial Facebook chatter was mostly anti-Starbucks, echoing the usual fears about American mega-brands taking over the world. The “It’s Colombia, NOT Columbia” social media campaign posted a timeline image that simply read “It’s Juan Valdez, NOT Starbucks.”

Colombia is the third largest coffee producing nation in the world, according to the International Coffee Organization, behind Brazil and Vietnam. And the country is one of the top producers of high-quality Arabica beans. According to the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (formed in 1927 to “guarantee the well being of Colombian coffee growers), Colombia produced 7.7 million 60 kilo bags of green coffee beans in 2012 and that was a bad year. The FNC expects 2013 yields to top 10 million 60 kilo bags and almost all of it was grown on small family-owned coffee farms. But what will happen when Starbucks becomes a fixture on the Colombian coffee landscape?

A Bitter Taste

Of the 7.7 million bags of coffee produced in Colombia last year, the FNC says 7.1 million were exported. As in most other coffee producing regions, this mass exodus of the good stuff has left the local population with a bitter taste in its mouth.

Most coffee drunk in Colombia is low quality or processed instant coffee served by roaming street vendors armed with plastic thermoses full of a weak brew. These cheap tintos (shots of sweet black coffee) are tossed down your gullet out of pint-sized plastic cups, preferably bypassing your tongue entirely. They’re a pick me up, not a premium coffee experience.  

In an attempt to foster a home-grown coffee culture and appreciation for the work its members do, the FNC created Juan Valdez Cafes. There are now 170 of them throughout Colombia (and a smattering more around the world) and they’re strikingly similar to Starbucks’ cafes. Though the FNC seems to have the most to lose following the entry of a rival like Starbucks, FNC spokespeople say the organization welcomes the competition.

Next, what will happen when Starbucks opens its doors?

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