As reliably as Triangle Coffee House’s drip brew flows, Victor Loperfido inhabits a cushy chair by the shop’s door. In the four months since he moved to Durham after his father’s death, he’s visited daily.
The people filling the bohemian joint draw in the soon-to-be 70-year-old: “golden” baristas, book-beguiled students, regulars with whom he swaps music. “All my friends that I know in Durham frequent this place,” Loperfido says.
But the Ninth Street coffee shop, essential to Loperfido, beloved by many, and a community unto itself, may soon cease to exist. A Starbucks is moving in two doors down. The new competitor could force Triangle out of business, threatening to wipe out much more than coffee.
“It would break my heart if this place closed,” the regular says.
Thin iced coffee
When COVID-19 first hit, Triangle closed for nearly three months. Now, pandemic capacity restrictions continue to hurt business.
“We’re barely [staying] afloat,” Triangle owner Jermaine Bantum says.
Triangle isn’t alone. The number of independently owned coffee shops in the U.S. shrunk in 2020 for the first time in a decade as the coronavirus made sipping and lounging dangerous.
Starbucks is pouring struggling cafés a double shot of disadvantage.
The company announced in June that it’s hastening the roll-out of “convenience-led” drive-throughs and new takeout-only locations. Bantum expects the unopened Ninth Street Starbucks to be a “pickup” shop, a prediction consistent with visible renovations. A green “Coming Soon” sign hangs on the storefront’s window. The iconic siren logo on it might as well be a pirate skull-and-bones. The 32,600-store chain has long been accused of pushing out small coffee shops.
“The track record speaks for itself,” Bantum says. “It’s usually predatory. They end up pushing out the local businesses when they open up. It’s hard to compete.”
Triangle opened in 2016, but the space it occupies has been home to a coffee shop for at least 20 years, he says. Bantum had plans to open a second Triangle location this summer, before the pandemic hit. That’s still the plan, but now he doesn’t know if he’ll have to close his original spot. “It’s definitely a possibility,” he says. A broader local ecosystem would be hurt if the café were to close, he added. Starbucks won’t get its pastries from Ninth Street Bakery like Triangle does.
Art of the café
Triangle looks like a mill-and-funk-themed fishbowl. On one side, the windows stretch from checkerboard floor to ceiling and look out onto Ninth Street. On the other, they peer into interior office space. Relentlessly colorful paintings from a local artist cover the back red brick wall.
There’s a black couch upstairs, and two more in the basement. It wouldn’t be weird to take a nap. In fact, it’d be easy to doze off if Evan Morgan, the shop’s regular barista, were playing his standard mix of melodic low-fi hip-hop.
Morgan has made coffee at Triangle for three years. He says his boss’s flexibility and the dependable community make it feel unlike work. He knows 30 customers’ orders by heart.
“You get to know their names, their faces, what they got going on in life,” Morgan says.
When he heard Starbucks would be moving into the empty storefront, he was surprised. Ninth Street was supposed to be local. “But the money talks at the end of the day,” he says.
The barista thinks his local shop has some edges on the mega-corporate caffeinator. For starters, “real coffee.” He believes Starbucks’s brew is often burnt and too sugary. “The art of coffee is just not there,” he says. His roast comes from fresh, organic, shade-grown, fair-trade beans, of course.
Morgan doesn’t think the feelings match, either. Starbucks has a “more sterile, corporate vibe that isn’t very comfortable,” he says.
Across the street and beyond a large parking lot, another Starbucks operates within a grocery store. Morgan says he doesn’t know how the new one will make money with another location so close. He says he’s personally not worried about losing business, and never has been—he’s hopeful that the incoming behemoth will bring new coffee drinkers by or shed overflow crowds. Plus, regulars might rally behind his little shop.
If the pot is empty
Hope aside, Morgan sees much to lose.
“If this place were to turn into a Starbucks or to a very corporate place, you wouldn’t have that same atmosphere and that same community,” Morgan says.
The song of Daniel McCray, who regularly busks outside Triangle, would likely also disappear. “If this place goes, I don’t know where I’ll be able to play,” McCray says, sitting at a grated patio table with Morgan and a guitar. “I don’t think Starbucks is going to be too friendly.”
“I’m hoping it’s not gonna be like all the mom-and-pop stores when Walmart came out,” McCray, who does a nice cover of Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose,” continues.
The gray-haired Loperfido says he’s seen this one before. When he lived in California, Starbucks smoked out a Kensington café when it moved in kitty-corner. He says he knew the owners.
“There’s nothing you can say to Starbucks,” Loperfido says. “You can’t stop their methodology.”
The Starbucks opening on Ninth Street will be a company-operated store, not a licensed or franchised location owned by local people. The owners won’t know the other restaurants on Ninth, won’t chat with their regulars, and won’t have heard buskers playing outside.
When the INDY inquired why the company chose a location so close to a pre-existing Starbucks and another café, and whether any considerations were made for the impact that opening on Ninth Street might have on local businesses, a company spokesperson gave little clarification.
“Starbucks is always looking for great locations to better meet the needs of our customers, and we are happy to confirm that we will be opening a new location in Durham, N.C. this summer,” the full statement said.
Bantum recalls big businesses kicking local ones from his native Brooklyn. “Once it gets commercialized, it kind of takes away the soul of the town,” he says.
A new Chase Bank just opened across the street from Triangle. Starbucks’s future storefront was formerly a dessert café called Francesca’s, which operated for three decades until soaring rent costs caused the owner to fold in 2017. Bantum wishes he could get a word in now.
“I would love to speak to somebody, some decision makers at Starbucks,” he says.“Did they consider, ‘This local coffee shop’s over here, why are we opening up next door?’ What was their thought process?”
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