All the Hip Crap Starbucks Is Trying to Push on a Reluctant Fishtown

The coffee chain wants to bring an ultra-artsy location to Frankford Avenue — but residents really aren’t having it.

starbucks fishtown frankford avenue

Photo by Michaela Althouse

Yarn-bombing. A fish mural. “Raw,” industrial materials.

These are just some of the “unique” touches Starbucks says it would use to personalize the location it desperately hopes to open along Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, despite (or because of?) the fact that neighbors really, really don’t want it.

The coffee company is eyeing a potential store on the ground floor of an apartment building currently under construction at 1405-21 Frankford Avenue, near Fishtown’s Cheu Noodle Bar, the highly stylized izayaka bar Nunu, and the Philly-born City Fitness. It’s also around the corner from Wm. Mulherin’s Son, the decidedly hip restaurant housed in a restored century-old former whiskey facility, as well as Philly’s most infamous democratic socialist hangout, El Bar, and small businesses like Good Spoon Soupery and tattoo shop Art Machine Productions. And of course, most important, it’s just a few steps from the headquarters of our city’s most famous coffee shop: La Colombe.

Notably lacking on Fishtown’s hip- and local-loving corridor are other global corporate giants — and especially corporations with as sensitive and touchy a relationship to Philly as Starbucks. Because as everyone knows, and as community members have pointed out, the company hasn’t been the same since that fateful day in April 2018 when Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two black men, were arrested in the coffee chain’s Rittenhouse location after a white manager called the police on them for not buying anything.

That incident and more were surely on residents’ minds during a community zoning meeting in Fishtown last week, during which Starbucks presented plans for its Frankford Avenue location. The Star, a hyperlocal news organization covering the city’s River Wards, reported that during the meeting, company representatives stressed that they wanted the feel of the location to match that of the neighborhood — artistic, creative, locally focused.

Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment from Philadelphia magazine. According to members of the Fishtown Neighbors Association who attended last week’s meeting, the company said the potential Fishtown location would feature those yarn-bombing installations and a fish mural by local artists, as well as industrial materials crafted by local makers. FNA said it appeared that Starbucks presenters were “trying to make this feel like a space that is owned and used by Fishtown.”

starbucks fishtown frankford avenue

Starbucks wants to open a location on the ground floor of a building located at 1405-21 Frankford Avenue. | Photo by Michaela Althouse

The problem? Many people in Fishtown simply don’t want the store built in the first place. The purpose of last week’s meeting was for residents to discuss and vote on Starbucks’ potential use of the space along Frankford Avenue, as required by a 10-year-old zoning restriction ordinance first introduced by former City Council member Frank DiCicco (who’s now chair of the city’s Zoning Board) in 2009. A community referendum at the end of the meaning garnered 50 votes against the location and just 12 votes in favor.

“The vibe in the room really was … ‘Another coffee shop?,’” FNA president Joe Kain said.

Kain pointed out that there are already roughly a dozen coffee shops within a short walking distance of Starbucks’ desired site (and many of them are locally owned), as well as a Starbucks in a nearby Acme at Second Street and Girard Avenue.

“The reaction therefore was very negative to the site being used as a Starbucks or a coffee shop in general,” Kain said. “There are other kinds of retail or services that could be put in there.”

Other community members maintained that Frankford Avenue was “made for mom and pop stores, not conglomerates,” and expressed concern over how the store would give “back to our community” according to FNA.

It’s important to point out that Starbucks isn’t the first big business on the block: Lululemon stands out as the corridor’s existing international corporation. The high-end athletic apparel retailer’s Frankford Avenue location is one of its few “concept” stores, known for its emphasis on the “local.” Its store sells regular Lululemon apparel as well as collaborations with Philly-based and independent designers, while doubling as a hub for the fitness community by hosting pop-up yoga and meditation workshops and markets with local vendors. All of which seems great for business, of course.

starbucks lululemon

Lululemon on Frankford Avenue | Photo by Michaela Althouse

Lululemon’s “local” model aligns closely with Starbucks’ plans to open a so-called “community store” in West Philadelphia’s ParkWest Town Center, located at 52nd and Jefferson streets. That location (one of about a dozen of the company’s “community” models around the country) will serve as a typical Starbucks, but it will also offer a space for community groups to hold meetings, as well as hire young people who were previously unemployed, dropped out of school, or both, according to WHYY.

Starbucks’ community store was announced after the Rittenhouse incident last year, but West Philly native Rodney Hines, the leader of the community store program and Starbucks’ director of social impact for U.S. operations, has maintained that plans for the location were in the works about a year before the public relations crisis unfolded, according to Billy Penn. And many West Philly community members welcome the location, per WHYY.

But no matter how the brand attempts to rework its image, some Fishtowners still see it as the globally dominating chain that it is. Kain noted that many residents don’t see the corporation as fitting with the “characterization” of Frankford Avenue.

“Between another coffee shop and a national chain, there was blowback” at the meeting, Kain said.

Community disapproval won’t guarantee a Starbucks-less Frankford Avenue, though — it will only help advise the city’s Zoning Board during its scheduled April 17th appeals meeting, when members will weigh in on the company’s plans for the location.

“[FNA] will give our input,” Kain said. “It’s a guessing game as to which way the [zoning board] will go.”