Starbucks: leave cà phê sữa alone

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Why, in God's name, would anyone want to go to a Starbucks?
The first thing I did when I arrived in Vietnam (after dropping off my bags) was sit down on the sidewalk for a coffee.
I remember my legs creaking as I descended toward the plastic stool in the intense afternoon heat.
I played with the little metal kettle filled with free tea and the sharp spoon stamped out of tin, before taking a sip of what tasted like cool, distilled chocolate milk.
I drank it up in less than a minute and sat for a long time, watching the city go by on motorbikes. I felt like I had had finally escaped America.
But America never lets you escape for long. Soon, very soon, Starbucks will open its first branch here in Ho Chi Minh City with plans to fan out throughout the country.
It will be the final foe in Vietnam's long fight to have its own drink.
The French first brought coffee over when they turned huge swaths of the country into plantations. Their employees, virtual slaves, initially made a tea of the plant leaves. By 1888, however, a French colonial governor reported that every street corner in Saigon had a woman selling cà phê sữa - taking the worst of colonial junk (condensed milk, cheap filters) and creating something divine.
Since then, there's been plenty more junk. Vietnam is now home to a galaxy of mediocre Western chains that serve the same thin coffee soup (The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Gloria Jean's, Angel in Us). The only people I know who drink this swill are US Consular employees.
The rest of the city is coffee chaos, mostly supplied by Dang Le Nguyen Vu, the owner of the Trung Nguyen coffee company, who dresses like a monk and is rarely photographed without a cigar.
Vu famously dropped out of med school to start a small roasting and delivery operation out of his family's house in Buon Ma Thuot.
Vu, like many, benefitted enormously when Vietnam leap-frogged to the second-largest coffee producer behind Brazil"”a country 26 times its size"”during the boom in the 90s.
Today, his estimated worth hovers somewhere around US$100 million.
For years, he has walked an odd line with Starbucks, claiming at different times to be mimicking and outcompeting the global monolith.
"They are not selling coffee, they are selling coffee-flavored water with sugar in it," he once told a Reuters reporter.
While pledging to build Trung Nguyen into a Starbucks-like brand with its own stores and products, Vu has dismissed Starbucks' claims to corporate responsibility as mere branding.
"They don't grow the coffee, do they? We do."
Vu's claims are hard to verify. For all of his meteoric success in the global coffee market, it's unclear how much he's improved the life of the average farmer.
There's still a lot to do.
A joint report authored by researchers from Columbia and Vietnam for the UN in 2010 noted that long-term contracts for farmers here were rare, child labor was "evident" as were farmers frequently working without safety equipment or even shoes.
One of the study's authors, a professor at Hanoi's Foreign Trade University, said that Trung Nguyen has done a lot for Vietnamese farmers"”it's bought coffee from poor ethnic tribal communities, installed irrigation systems from Israel and fertilizer from Norway.
But when asked what, specifically, the company has done for local farmers in terms of paying fair prices, she demurred. "I don't know," she wrote and then added that Starbucks might be good for competition.
Professor Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez suggested that while some researchers have demonstrated that closing the proximity between growers, roasters and consumers does improve the lives of farmers, she also suggested that the entrance of a multi-national could force local companies like Trung Nguyen "to increase their social, economic and environmental responsibilities and practices to be recognized domestically as a truly committed company with the improvement of the well-being farmers and producers in the coffee producing regions in Vietnam."
Prof. Gonzalez-Perez, who teaches at the Universidad EAFIT in Medellin Colombia, further recommended "a nationalistic campaign to support Vietnamese coffee."
Vu is way ahead of her on that.
A recent quote of his, "if you want to show you love your country, drink Trung Nguyen" was widely reposted on Facebook, drawing equal parts derision and astonishment.
But he's not all bluster.
Last month, Global Coffee Review carried his "Seven Initiatives for the Global Coffee Industry," the third of which envisioned a new coffee bloc. "Roasted coffee brands from Europe and America cannot be the only ones to dominate the market, but brands from coffee-growing countries must be encouraged," he wrote. "Only when the distribution of brands is diversified across the globe can we ensure a truly global coffee culture."
Meanwhile, Starbucks suits are promising, publicly, to "respect Vietnam's coffee culture."
When I sent them an email asking what the hell that means, no one answered. But, in other pieces about the issue, they've promised to buy local beans and introduce products oriented toward Vietnamese consumer tastes.
Vu has a point... about the culture thing, not the turtle-dragon thing.
Starbucks so dominates the American landscape that its stores have taken on the drab feel of a public utility"”a place to go to the bathroom, check your email or reluctantly purchase something that has become so ubiquitous it seems beside the point whether you like it or not.
In Saigon, there's a coffee for every mood and mental problem. I can get almost anything I want here, from a big, frothy café au lait (L'usine) that will mellow me out to a tiny cup of sweetened robusta that will give my adrenal gland such a jolt, I'll feel like I can run through a brick wall (Vy Café).
People here are excited as hell about Starbucks and I can't say they shouldn't be.
However large companies like Starbucks and Trung Nguyen are driven by branding"”that is, turning coffee into a singularly identifiable product that is the same everywhere you drink it.
That's something no one should be excited about.
Let's hope we don't wake up one day in a town where coffee is something you regrettably buy because you have to use someone's bathroom.


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