Saturday, March 27, 2010

Four Worlds Bakery and the Proposed 42nd and Woodland Starbucks at USP

Summary: Four Worlds Bakery is opposed to the proposed Starbucks at University of the Sciences (USP) on 42nd and Woodland. Although the direct economic impact on Four Worlds is unknown, the presence of the Starbucks alone will likely have a minimal impact on the financial success of the new bakery location 4634 Woodland. As part of the exploding local food scene, Four Worlds would rather see a locally owned and operated business in that space. Four Worlds Bakery encourages residents to attend the upcoming community meeting at Spruce Hill Community Association to be heard on the subject. But to be fair, we don't think USP should be denied a zoning variance; we just think it's a bad idea to put a Starbucks on 42nd and Woodland and hope USP officials will change their minds after they hear community feedback. Four Worlds Bakery remains an ally with USP regarding the development of the Woodland retail corridor irrespective of the proposed Starbucks plan.

The following is our detailed response to the proposed Starbucks at University of the Sciences at 42nd and Woodland.


Four Worlds Bakery is moving to 4634 Woodland; probably by June 1. These plans have been in the works for awhile and we are at the tail end of the necessary renovations; about ready to start moving in equipment.

The plans are a realized dream for most any baker. We will have 1000 square feet of kitchen space, including a retail storefront; a bakery counter where customer can walk in and buy morning croissant, baguettes, bagels, loaves of bread, freshly roasted and brewed coffee and espresso, cupcakes, granola, canela, and other made from scratch products. Everything is take out, we don’t have the space for seating.

Multiple businesses will be run in the bakery space including a coffee roaster (we are installing a new $25,000 coffee roaster), cupcake baker, and canela baker; all established vendors. All the individuals working in this space share a common story: we all have climbed over many obstacles to do the work we love. Many of our products will be sold to area retailers and some will be sold by us in the store.

While exciting, the venture is full of challenges. Our mission is to bring back the neighborhood scratch bakery, make a positive impact on our community, and make a decent living doing the work we love. The economics are tight; the profit potential extremely limited. This is not a bakery that will be fully stocked with hundreds of different bakery products all day long. We will bake to sell out; and likely offer fresh products early in the morning and later in the afternoon; but probably won’t be open all day long.

We chose Woodland Avenue for many reasons. This corridor, between 43rd (Clark Park & the University of the Sciences) and 49th, is screaming potential. A local investor, Guy Laren, has been buying decaying building and renovating them in an effort to rehab the neighborhood. Bottom line is that we got a mostly renovated space for half the rent of a comparable space on Baltimore Avenue. With a relatively low (but still six digits) start up cost and low monthly overhead, the neighborhood bakery is feasible. Also, a new Mexican food restaurant is
slated to open in June a block away at 46th & Woodland.

Of course, we need to attract our customers to the area; Woodland Ave does not have established retail traffic to accommodate Four Worlds. And we hope to attract students from University of the Sciences (USP).

USP has been amazingly hospitable. Early in the project, USP contacted me and expressed overwhelming excitement and support. USP officials helped me plan a way to safely secure the building and offered to promote Four Worlds to faculty, staff and students. And plans are in the works to offer students subsidized coupons for neighboring businesses and other incentives to patronize Four Worlds Bakery.

Enter Starbucks Plan

Through a benign administrative oversight, USP did not inform Four Worlds Bakery about the proposed Starbucks. We happened to get an email by an area activist last week, the night before a Spruce Hill community zoning meeting on the subject. We didn’t know any specifics about the plans, but felt extremely threatened by the prospects. Generating storefront traffic is challenging enough; but a Starbucks on campus would make it even more difficult to attract students and USP staff 3 blocks away to the bakery. Without time to gather information, we sent out some emails to gather support in opposing the Starbucks plans.

Through lightning speed social media outlets, our message quickly went viral and USP was flooded by emails and calls regarding the proposal; completely overwhelming at least one office at the University. Community list servers and comment boards hosted many debates on the subject, some in support of Starbucks and some passionately opposed. In conversations, Four Worlds supporters cited the bakery as one of the most likely victims of the USP plans.

Many residents changed their plans for the evening to attend the community zoning meeting. The meeting is ostensibly a community forum where residents are given a voice in how the City zoning officials will rule on the necessary zoning variances USP needs to build the Starbucks. Starbucks officials will not be at the meeting; this is USP requested a zoning variance for their building, to put in the Starbucks café.

USP contacted us and sincerely apologized for not informing us of the plans and extended a formal invitation to come to the community meeting. A few hours later, they called back to inform us the community meeting was postponed due to the unexpected response from the community.

USP officials quickly set up a meeting with us to discuss the plans to give us an opportunity to formulate our own opinions about the project. This meeting was very cordial and informative and helped us formulate our opinions which appear below.

The Plans

USP entered a contract with Sodexo, their corporate food service provider, to put in a Starbucks at the university. This is not a franchise Starbucks; but a license to use the Starbucks image and products…all the employees will be working for the food service company. The Starbucks café is part of their Barnes & Noble text-book-only bookstore. The plans include sidewalk seating along both 42nd Street and Woodland Ave.

I spent time listening to USP officials, trying to understand why they wanted a Starbucks on campus. USP is making great efforts to connect with and move toward integrating with the neighborhood; a mission that is sincere and incredibly challenging. So I was confused as to why they would want to put a Starbucks on campus; a brand and image with the potential to further alienate USP from the West Philly community. And USP wants to develop the Woodland corridor; so why attract more traffic to center campus? Wouldn’t it be better to attract retail traffic to the area around campus instead? And why not put in a business that would attract neighbors and residents?

I discovered a very carefully balancing act by USP officials. As any business, USP must make income; and attracting qualified students is paramount to their success. Apparently, having a Starbucks on campus is good for business; part of an overall mix in attracting the kind of students they want. And while the Starbucks might incite and alienate many area residents, officials decided the Starbucks was a significant enough boost to their overall business strategy that they are willing to accept the negative impact on their community relations. And while they were hoping, I think, for a smooth and relatively quiet zoning process, the community response has been vigorous and loud.

Our Perspective

So now our community has the opportunity to have a very healthy debate. And to help clarify and focus the debate, I offer my perspective to clarify the likely impact on Four Worlds and the community.

1) Business impact on Four Worlds Bakery. The economic impact on the bakery cannot be known; but the impact is limited to only the retail storefront potential of the business which is part of the overall revenue mix. Online retail sales and wholesale sales will likely not be affected. We are hoping to attract students and staff to the bakery early in the morning, and the Starbucks will make that more difficult. If there is a negative impact, the likely outcome will be a more limited retail storefront presence, ie less hours, or worst case, no storefront at all. But the presence of the Starbucks will not alone cause us go out of business. Ironically, the community debate might actually help business within the West Philly community given the highly visible publicity and favorable comments from existing customers. But to use potential benefits like this as a justification for the project doesn’t sit well with us. With so many variables and risks involved in a business venture, and lack of reliable (and easily manipulated) statistical evidence, there is no reliable way to predict or even determine in the future the effect of the Starbucks on our bottom line.

2) The decision to build or not build the Starbucks rests with USP and Sodexo. The debate is muddied since this is not a Starbucks franchise project; the primary venture is a USP venture in association with their corporate food service company Sodexo; the Starbucks was a requirement to get the Sodexo contract to supply food service. As a neighbor to USP, Four Worlds Bakery depends on the success of USP; a successful university is symbiotic to a successful neighborhood bakery. Our overall community strategy should be to help USP, Four Worlds Bakery, and other local businesses to flourish. So USP is not the big bad corporation here; and USP will be the presenters at the planned Spruce Hill Community Association meeting. But we should tell USP that who they associate with has consequences to their community relations and the economic health of our community; and we should invite them to favor associations to local businesses.

3) Starbucks’/USP Business Practices & the Local Food Community. We leave it to others to inform the community on specific Starbucks business practices that are adverse or beneficial to the local community. I like that locally owned businesses care about the community. When the going gets rough, we can’t just pack up and leave; we live here and so do our families; decision making is made more by human beings who must consider the community interests, not removed board of directors making decisions in a multi-national context that can impact our local community. Many of the local food businesses do business with each other: like we sell croissant to Green Line, Milk & Honey, Cream&Sugar and many other businesses. Starbucks is not likely to sell our products since they distribute their own baked goods that arrive frozen.

4) This is a zoning variance process. USP is voluntarily seeking community response as part of the process of seeking a variance for use of their building at 42nd and Woodland. After they get a response from Spruce Hill, they take their case to the City Zoning Board for an official decision. Residents thus have an opportunity to be heard on the issue, which is an important part of the process of changing a zoning regulation.

Our Official Position. Four Worlds Bakery opposes the building of a Starbucks at 42nd and Woodland because there are other, more beneficial alternatives for the local community. Four Worlds Bakery is part of an exploding local foods movement, and we would much prefer to see a locally owned business go in that space that supports and nourishes the local foods movement and business community. We don’t oppose putting a café in that space; just the Starbucks brand and image which we see as polarizing to the West Philly community and misses out on potential benefits to the local community. While we think Starbucks is a bad idea here, we don't oppose the granting of a zoning variance since we support USP use of the space as a retail cafe. Our hope is that USP will change their mind and decide not to put a Starbucks there.

Four Worlds encourages resident participation at the planned (date/time/place TBA) Spruce Hill Community Association meeting when the zoning debate will take place. West Philly should tell USP, Starbucks and Sodexo what they think about the plans after they hear the full proposal by USP; and we should use the debate to further solidify the already thriving locally owned business community that is flourishing in West Philly. This is a great opportunity to raise awareness about the benefits of locally owned businesses; and we should seize on that opportunity. Four Words Bakery, however, does not see itself as a victim nor do we feel threatened from a business perspective.

We are excited for the prospects of the Woodland retail corridor between 43rd and 50th Street and Four Worlds Bakery is heavily invested in its success. New businesses are coming there and so will our residents; and Four Worlds will be an integral part of the change that is coming. USP has expressed its commitment to foster the success of Four Worlds Bakery and the Woodland retail corridor regardless of the outcome of the Starbucks project. Four Worlds views USP as an integral ally in these efforts and looks forward to working with USP officials; pooling all our resources together for the benefit of our local community.

Now, if it is OK with you, we will go back to doing what we do best. Baking bread and roasting coffee.

We invite your comments below.


Dan O said...

Thanks Michael!

Anonymous said...

has the USP considered doing business directly with you? i was thinking of 1 of 2 ways, or both.

1. usp make a concerted effort to buy baked goods from you on a regular monthly basis for their events, seminars, conferences etc.

2. usp encourage their students to visit your bakery by offering their students coupons for your bakery?

Anonymous said...

Any updates? I'm rooting for you, FWB!

Jennifer said...

I understand why the school wants a Starbucks. There's a lot of brand power/name recognition there and they can capitalize on it. But frankly, that sucks. The world will live if there's 1 fewer SBs. Hope this works out for the best for you.