What happens when a Starbucks shutters? An independent coffee shop might move in.
In the East Bay, local business owners are giving new life to storefronts abandoned by the ubiquitous corporate coffee chain.
Story and design by Bri James
Grace Shen never intended to transition her boba delivery business into a brick-and-mortar tea shop. But then she saw 4098 Piedmont Avenue. The corner storefront had sat empty for three years after being vacated by Starbucks. She phoned the landlord.
“It’s literally because of this space, I decided to open this shop,” she says.
Since 2020, 18 East Bay Starbucks locations have closed, and Shen is among a small cadre of new business owners that have visualized opening independent cafés in them.
When asked if the failure of such a well-recognized brand gave her pause, Shen laughs. “People here don’t want Starbucks.” She notes the thriving presence one block away of Bay Area homegrown coffee behemoth Peet’s Coffee, a company that boasted over $983 million in revenue in 2022. The Piedmont Avenue Peet’s is one of the brand’s earliest outposts, Shen says. “It’s been there for years. Peet’s people are loyal.”
And so are Shen’s at Tea on Piedmont. Only a year and a half into business, the tea café boasts a roster of regulars, many of whom store their personal mugs behind the counter. “They tell us when they’re going on vacation and we won’t see them for a while, or if they’re graduating college and moving away,” says Shen. “That kind of culture and that kindness—that friendliness—you don’t always get that.”
Tea on Piedmont opened in the thick of the pandemic, a period when independent shops were faced with incredible challenges: supply chain kinks caused by manufacturing shutdowns and product shortages, higher costs that priced out smaller buyers struggling to keep shelves stocked, and difficulties hiring and retaining workers.
At the same time, the pandemic shifted how we live. For some, that meant working closer to home, seeking out more leisurely experiences, or finding ways to reconnect with community.
Oakland’s Delah Coffee, which replaced Starbucks at Broadway and Grand, leans into all three sentiments. Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao marked the opening of Delah Coffee as an opportunity to “recapture the soul of Oakland.” The café, which highlights Yemeni coffees and teas, has become a place where people settle in. To encourage coffee culture as a shared experience, all of Delah’s specialty drinks are offered in larger pots for sharing.
Starbucks was founded in 1971 as a one-off at Pike Place Market in Seattle. Its worldwide expansion began in the late 1980s, and within a decade, the company had gained a positive reputation for taking over empty storefronts and bringing new life into neighborhoods.
The 1996 opening of a new Starbucks at 3347 Lakeshore in Oakland drew a Chronicle headline: “Noah’s-Starbucks Pairing May Hit the Spot in Oakland,” as East Bay Bureau writer Lori Olszewski described the success of the Greater Mandana Action Committee in rallying neighbors to convince the coffee company to take up residence on a part of Lakeshore that was plagued by store closures. The neighborhood boomed, but 17 years later, that storefront is vacant again.
Mini-chains Highwire, Teazentea, and Forest & Flour now occupy former Starbucks locations in Oakland and Fremont, but properties at 801 Broadway and 315½ 20th Street in Oakland, 1500 Newell Avenue in Walnut Creek, and 2128 Oxford Street in Berkeley remain vacant, and some former Starbucks properties have exited food service altogether. The Starbucks at 3001 Telegraph in Berkeley is now a Bank of America. ♦
Bri James is an illustrator who writes food stories and children’s literature. When she’s not filling up a notebook, you can find her in the garden or doing (sometimes unintentional) science experiments with her toddler. Drop Bri a line at brijames.com.