Starbucks is Closing Cafes to Expand Takeout Options

Goodbye to the coffee shop as a place to work or relax; hello to piles of trash.

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patrons leave Starbucks in NYC during coronavirus
A Starbucks remains open for takeout during the coronavirus pandemic on April 14, 2020 in New York City.

Rob Kim / Getty Images

Coffee giant Starbucks announced earlier this month that it would be closing numerous locations across North America – 200 in the United States and 200 in Canada. The reason? It wants to cater to "on-the-go" customers, also known as people ordering takeout, while limiting large groups of people in its stores. Some stores will be reconfigured to accommodate drive-through-only or quick pick-ups, without the tables and seating that Starbucks has traditionally offered.

As one spokesperson told CNN, this has been the company's goal for a while, based on evolving consumer demands; but the coronavirus pandemic has merely sped up the process.

"We were already thinking about what does that future state look like in those metro areas? COVID-19 has actually allowed us to accelerate the plans we already had on the books... Our vision is that each large city in the U.S. will ultimately have a mix of traditional Starbucks cafés and Starbucks Pickup locations."

Eighty percent of Starbucks' business is currently conducted with these "on-the-go" customers, who may order their drinks digitally ahead of time and/or opt for the drive-thru. These people are not using Starbucks as its longtime CEO Howard Schulz wanted them to, as a "third place" that fills a void and offers social connection outside of the two traditional environments where people spend most of their time, work and home. Fast Company quoted a Starbucks manager way back in 2008 as saying,

"We want to provide all the comforts of your home and office. You can sit in a nice chair, talk on your phone, look out the window, surf the web ... oh, and drink coffee too."

Back then, the priority clearly wasn't the coffee; it was the big comfy chairs, the fast and free WiFi, the great smells, the smiling people. But as this new announcement shows, times have changed – and not necessarily for the better. 

No one talks on their phone anymore, let alone looks out a window when they have said phone in their hands, and clearly people are moving at too fast a pace to sit and enjoy a coffee if so much of the company's business is takeout. Now COVID-19 has got everyone worked up about crowds, and understandably so; the idea of sitting in a communal chair, touching unfamiliar surfaces, and waiting in a line with someone breathing down your back is simply abhorrent. It doesn't matter how cozy the space may be; many would prefer to sip their latte in the safety of their car.

It's incredibly sad. From a sustainability perspective, the move spells disaster. Starbucks is responsible for generating literal tons of trash on an annual basis. According to Stand.Earth, an estimated 4 billion cups are handed out every year by Starbucks alone, requiring one million trees in their making, and all lined with a thin polyethylene layer that prevents coffee from leaking through – and making them impossible to recycle. If we ever had any hope of reducing those numbers, Starbucks' decision to do away with much of its in-house seating has just made that far more difficult. Unless there's widespread adoption of reusable cups all of a sudden, it's next to impossible.

Here at Treehugger we've tried for so long to convince people to change their coffee drinking habits, to remember their reusable cups, to ask for a ceramic mug in-house, to take a few extra minutes to drink an espresso standing at the bar so they don't have to take it to go. "Drink coffee like Italians!" I've said. But at times like these, it is immensely discouraging and frustrating to see that the general public appears to be moving in the opposite direction, enabled by brands that make decisions based on those wasteful lifestyle habits (and their own bottom line), rather than any sense of responsibility toward the environment. A mere 1.4 percent of Starbucks' drinks are served in reusable cups.

Starbucks has promised over and over again that it will invent a fully biodegradable coffee cup, but we're still waiting on that. (And even if they did, that doesn't address the vast resources consumed to produce the paper cups, all of which serve their purpose for a few fleeting minutes.) We've heard Starbucks preach about environmental strategies that will move them "toward a resource-positive future." Meanwhile, they're pouring money into refurbishing or building drive-throughs that, as my colleague Lloyd Alter wrote, are "just another cog in the sprawl-automobile-energy industrial complex that we have to change if we are going to survive and prosper." 

Sit-down cafés were exactly what we needed – and still do, once the pandemic settles down. They counteract the insidious car culture that erodes cities and towns. Starbucks was on the right track toward building community, enhancing communication between neighbors, and serving up decent enough drinks to keep people happily caffeinated. COVID-19 may be credited in part for the change in business tactics, but really, this is about us, the customers, who didn't care enough about the "third place" or the ceramic mugs or the sit-down coffee break to embrace this business model and show HQ that it deserved to stay.