How long should customers be able to stay at a McDonald’s?

McDonald’s has been part of some recent controversy over how long customers should be able to stay:

In the past month, those tensions came to a boil in New York City. When management at a McDonald’s in Flushing, Queens, called the police on a group of older Koreans, prompting outrage at the company’s perceived rudeness, calls for a worldwide boycott and a truce mediated by a local politician, it became a famous case of a struggle that happens daily at McDonald’s outlets in the city and beyond…

McDonald’s is not alone in navigating this tricky territory. Last year, a group of deaf patrons sued Starbucks after a store on Astor Place in Lower Manhattan forbade their meet-up group to convene there, complaining they did not buy enough coffee. Spending the day nursing a latte is behavior reinforced by franchises like Starbucks and others that seem to actively cultivate it, offering free Wi-Fi that encourages customers to park themselves and their laptops for hours…

“As long as there have been cities, these are the kind of places people have met in,” said Don Mitchell, a professor of urban geography at Syracuse University and the author of “The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space.”…

But the leisurely cafe culture and the business plan behind fast food are in opposition. Although signs hang in many McDonald’s stores instructing customers to spend half an hour or less at the tables, Ms. McComb said there was no national policy about discouraging longtime sitting. “The individual franchisees do what they feel is best for their community businesses,” she said. “In the case of Flushing, that franchisee welcomed those guests for years, and it was only when other customers felt they were no longer welcome that he attempted to adjust the visit time with the customers.”

Are these businesses solely for profit or do they also function as social spaces? Clearly the latter is true to some degree, particularly in a country that tends to lack many public spaces or a culture of cafes and pubs. When there are few other places to go, particularly for the economically disadvantaged who have less ability to carve out private spaces (whether big houses or their own cars), why not make a McDonald’s or a Starbucks into a third place between home and work? Going even further, could it be that McDonald’s is one of the few public places that will take you in if you have little?

Starbucks looking to have more stores that match local design

Starbucks is a global brand but the company is looking to have more stores that line up with local style after moving designers out of Seattle:

As the designers became more familiar with their surroundings, they began to incorporate the communities’ stories into the designs. There are thoughtful touches like furniture made from reclaimed basketball court wood at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. And a brass-instrument chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the new Canal Street location in New Orleans. But even more interesting than that was the cultural observations the designers were able to make.

With more people on the ground, they began noticing things that might make a difference in not just the aesthetics, but how a particular customer might want to experience the shop. In metropolitan U.S. cities, for example, people tend to come in pairs or alone. They’ll saddle up to a long community table next to a stranger without giving it a second thought. In more urban settings, people will just sit right next to each other, alone but collectively together,” he explains.

While in places like China or Mexico City, the Starbucks experience is much more group-oriented. “People are in bigger groups, so you have think differently about the seating there.” he says. “They won’t crowd together in a banquet like they would in New York City.” This drove the designers to place more individual stools in the shops, so people could drag them around, creating impromptu group seating areas. The design in the Kerry Center location in Beijing, feels like a lounge, with a “coffee workshop” on the second level meant to teach a predominantly tea-focused culture about coffee…

Much of the mass customization comes in the form of colors and materials. For example, in Miami and Los Angeles, the design team is more likely to use a lighter palette of colors to reflect the abundance of sunlight. Southern cities need furniture that is cool to sit on, and beachy locations need durable furniture to account for the sand that gets tracked in. “We were looking at how the floor had worn over 10 years because people were walking in with sand on their feet,” Sleeth says about a store in Miami.

And for local design for all those Starbucks on the similar stroads of suburban America? The examples in the article are primarily from urban neighborhoods that have definable aesthetics.

Starbucks has long claimed to desire to be a “third place” between home and work. How much does local design help the company meet such goals? Do customers feel more at home (and happier and spend more money) in such stores?

Finally, does this sort of local design help people forget the fact that Starbucks is a major multinational corporation? Does it relieve guilt about patronizing Starbucks compared to a local establishment?

Urban quiz: identify the city solely by its Starbucks locations

See the Starbucks locations and identify the major city.

The quiz suggests you can see the rough outline of the city but this isn’t quite the case. It is probably more accurate to say that you can name the city from the higher-income neighborhoods where Starbucks are located (or not seeing the lower-income neighborhoods on the map). For example, look at the map of Chicago and the relative lack of locations on the west and south sides:


In other words, Starbucks acts as a proxy for other important factors in cities.

Residents in Chicago suburb of Palatine oppose proposed Starbucks

For suburban communities, the arrival of a Starbucks can be seen as a sign that the suburb has the ability to attract national stores. But some residents in suburban Palatine are opposed to a proposed Starbucks:

The Palatine village council Monday referred the proposal back to the Zoning Board of Appeals on the village attorney’s advice so that it can review the results of a traffic study despite its earlier unanimous vote to recommend the project. The postponement also grants a request by McDonald’s Corp., which operates an adjacent restaurant, the opportunity to look the study over.

The Starbucks would make up one of three tenant spaces to be built on a vacant lot between the fast-food restaurant and Harris Bank on Northwest Highway near Smith Road. Charley’s Grilled Subs would fill the second space with the third still undetermined.

A couple dozen residents attended the council meeting to oppose the national coffee chain, which they believe will ultimately force nearby Norma’s Coffee Corner to close.

“We as a town should embrace diversity, and I would hate to see Palatine become a national franchise town if there are no mom-and-pops around,” Roman Golash of Palatine said.

Four things strike me about this story:

1. Traffic is a common complaint in NIMBY cases. However, this Starbucks would be located near several other chain/strip mall type businesses on an already busy road. Is Starbucks the problem or the type of development that is already there?

2. The residents seem interested in buying local and Starbucks is one of those companies, perhaps along with Walmart, Walgreens, and others, that represent sprawl and big box stores. At the same time, as far as I can tell from Google Maps, Norma’s is also in a strip mall. So are these residents opposed to all national stores in town? Why is Starbucks singled out in particular? This isn’t quite the battle of a long-time downtown business versus the big national chain. While national stores may not be local businesses (unless they are franchises), they can still bring in tax revenue.

3. Diversity equals having a mix of national and local businesses? This doesn’t sound like the traditional definition of diversity which is typically associated with race and perhaps social class. I wonder if suburbanites use these altered definitions of diversity because they really think that racial or class diversity is not really desirable but they think people like to hear about diversity. (To be fair: Palatine is 76.9% white, 10.3% Asian, and 18% Latino.)

4. Some Chicago suburbs are interested in attracting Starbucks and similar businesses to their downtowns in order to bring in more people. For example, the Starbucks that opened in downtown Wheaton in the late 1990s was seen as a sign that Wheaton’s downtown was an important shopping area (and had a wealthy enough demographic to support such a business).

Third place lesson from Borders and Starbucks locations in NYC: they still need to bring in money

The story that Borders is closing many locations (see earlier posts here, here, and here) is related to news that some Starbucks locations in New York City are going to cover up their electrical outlets to discourage people from staying too long:

Well, now some Starbucks in New York City are reportedly pulling the plug on that idea, actually covering up their electrical outlets to discourage squatters.

“Customers are asking (for it). They just purchased a latte and a pastry and there is nowhere to sit down in some of these high-volume stores,” Starbucks spokesperson Alan Hilowitz said…

It is a move that has some Starbucks regulars saying … it’s about time.

Some, including Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, say these two businesses provide “third places” between home and work. Thus, if the companies do things that inhibit social behavior, such as close locations, the suggestion is that they weaken the social realm as people will then be more isolated. (See a recent example of this argument here.)

But these businesses are not just providing a public good and this is one lesson that joins these two stories: they need to make enough money to keep the third places open. At Starbucks, the people who sat too long and used the free Wi-Fi ended being a nuisance to customers who wanted to pay for coffee, sit down for a short while, and then leave. At Borders, the best way to make sure the locations would stay open was to purchase more. Sure, a book at Borders might cost more but the purchase helps subsidize the cafe and the social life that may come with it.

This leads to a bigger question: would Americans be willing to pay for third places with their consumer dollars? If given the choice between a cheaper book at or a book at the nearby Borders, which would most people choose?

This is also a reminder that these locations are not public spaces: they are privately owned and can set their own priorities and values for the space. There still are public spaces in the United States: public parks like Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia draw attention (in this book – though it also talks about shopping malls and markets, both privately owned). Instead of lamenting the loss of Borders or Starbucks, one could fight instead for taxpayer supported public spaces that should be open to all people.

San Fran “coffeehouse and tech incubator” inspired by idea of “third places”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said in recent years that the company seeks to become a “third place,” a space between work and home. This term was popularized by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place. But exactly how a coffee shop should operate in order to be a third place is up for debate. A new San Francisco firm, The Summit Cafe, envisions a coffeeshop plus a center for technological incubation:

With its copious power outlets, Gouda-wrapped meatballs, and a curated magazine rack featuring vintage Steve Jobs covers, the Summit café sits at the intersection of San Francisco’s three most conspicuous tribes: techies, foodies, and yuppies. Yet what separates the Summit from being just another Wi-Fi boîte is the dual-purpose nature of the 5,000-square-foot space. One floor above the Laptop Mafia, the café features a cluster of offices where groups of programmers and developers toil away in an effort to launch the next Twitter—or at least the next OkCupid. Created by i/o Ventures, a Bay Area startup accelerator comprising former executives from MySpace (NWS), Yahoo! (YHOO), and file-sharing site BitTorrent, the Summit is equal parts Bell Labs and Central Perk—and probably the country’s first official coffeehouse tech incubator. Every four months, i/o selects and funds a handful of small tech ventures to the tune of $25,000 each in return for 8 percent of common stock. In addition to the cash, each team gets four months of office space at the Summit, mentoring from Web gurus like Russel Simmons of Yelp, and discounts on all the Pickle & Cheese Plates or White Snow Peony Tea they could possibly need. Since the café opened on Valencia Street last fall, two companies have already been sold, including damntheradio, a Facebook fan management tool. To hedge against any potential risk, i/o also rents half of the Summit’s other desk space to independent contractors and fledgling Web entrepreneurs. It’s even experimenting with an arrangement in which customers can pay $500 for a dedicated desk—on top of a $250 membership fee.

Is this sort of thing only possible in San Francisco (high-tech culture) or perhaps just in major cities?

But this space does seem more like a work space than a true third place. Are there people who come here just to hang out? Do fledgling companies that come here mix with other fledgling companies to form new ideas and firms?