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Palm Beach thinks Starbucks is a cafe without any cachet

They actually can afford a $4 cup of coffee, but residents don't want the chain moving in.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published October 1, 2006


PALM BEACH - In many neighborhoods, the opening of a new Starbucks is a badge of distinction, signifying residents are sophisticated enough - and rich enough - to to pay $4 for a cup of coffee.

But here on the uber-wealthy island of Palm Beach, residents have launched an all-out war against the chain. It's become a debate over nothing less than the future and soul of the community, chock full of nasty remarks and class antagonism. Residents haven't been this upset since 1993, when Donald Trump decided to turn his historic Mar-a-Lago estate into a private club.

The letter that resident Gordon Peter Reed wrote to the Town Council on Sept. 7 pretty much sums up the feelings of many:

"I find it inconceivable that you think an influx of T-shirted coffee-drinkers, slopping down the Avenue, dropping their paper cups who-knows-where would be a panacea - or even a help - for any Palm Beach store or resident."

Here's how the whole tempest in a latte cup began:

In August, the owner of a building on Worth Avenue the town's main shopping street, featuring stores such as Gucci, Tiffany and Louis Vuitton asked the Town Council to approve a permit for a Starbucks inside his building. The proposed cafe would have 25 seats and be tucked among a cluster of stores, not even visible from the street. The nearest Starbucks is about 3 miles - and several tax brackets - away, over a bridge in downtown West Palm Beach.

The council approved the proposal, 3-2. But in the days after the vote, word of the new Starbucks spread throughout the village and to the residents who summer in cooler states north of Florida.

Letters, e-mails and phone calls poured in to Town Hall. Some called Starbucks' customers "transients," while others said that people would just hang around and surf the Internet, possibly barefoot after coming from the beach.

Still others bemoaned the possibility that Palm Beach might get its first chain food establishment; currently the only coffee shops on the island are small, locally owned diners or bakeries.

"My wife and I were in a state of shock recently to learn that the Town Council had granted a special exemption to Starbucks," wrote Clinton Wyckoff. "Never, to my knowledge, has a fast-food organization been permitted to operate on our island."

Residents like Wyckoff urged the council not to allow Starbucks to do business on the 16-mile long island. To do so, they said, would mean that Palm Beach would look like Anywhere, USA. Many said that only boutique stores and family owned restaurants should operate in the historic Mediterranean-style downtown.

"Is McDonald's next?" wrote Carlota Busch Webster.

When the council met in early September, it rescinded the vote, saying that it wanted to take a closer look at parking, seating and the hours. A re-vote is set for October.

The idea of preserving a community's character and fighting against sprawl and chain stores is nothing new in Florida. Folks in Tarpon Springs and Lutz fought Wal-Mart. People in Coconut Grove in Miami-Dade County are trying to keep a Home Depot out of their neighborhood. They all say the same thing: A chain store will change the ambiance of their community.

Palm Beach residents are no different, says Henry "Rip" McIntosh, one of the people leading the charge against the coffee shop.

"Starbucks is a terrific company, they are very environmentally aware, community oriented, and in the U.K., they support the African Wildlife Fund," McIntosh said. "But if a fast-food chain or convenience store is given permission to open in Palm Beach, that opens the door for all such stores to open here. That will change the character of Palm Beach.

"Right now, Palm Beach is historical and charming."

Some whisper that this debate over Starbucks is merely a clash between old and new money on the island, between the older residents who drive the staid Bentleys and the younger crowd who drive Ferraris.

"The old guard likes the quaintness and the new guard likes the slick," says Town Council member Susan Markin, one of the two who originally voted against the Starbucks. "There's always a battle between the quaint and the slick."

For those who were wondering, Palm Beach is the third-richest community in the United States, according to the 2000 census, with a per-capita income of $109,219 - possibly one of the only communities whose residents can actually afford a $4 venti soy-chai-latte without seriously compromising, say, their retirement savings.

Some in Palm Beach want the Starbucks, but won't say so publicly.

"Some people feel kind of intimidated," said Sherri Frankel, a business owner on Worth Avenue. "Some don't want to alienate friends or customers."

Frankel, who has been to Starbucks once in her life, says she doesn't think the cafe will have much of an impact on the area. All it will do, she contends, is keep shoppers in the area a bit longer - and allow some employees a chance for a quick and less pricey meal.

Frankel also points out that many retail shops on Worth Avenue are chain stores - even Chanel is in many Florida malls, she says. Publix is also on the island, although it is unusual for having its own wine sommelier.

Still, there are no chain restaurants - technically. When Houston's tried to win approval to open one of their upscale restaurants a few years ago, the council asked it to change it's name. Houston's complied and called its restaurant the Palm Beach Grill - which has almost the same menu as Houston's.

Not suprisingly, the local association of business owners takes a more pragmatic view.

"There are increasing opportunities off the Island of Palm Beach and via the Internet to satisfy the retail needs of town residents," wrote Ed Kassatly, the president of the Worth Avenue Property Owners Association. "Consequently, it is extremely important for the Worth Avenue merchants to find ways to encourage more town residents to visit Worth Avenue and to do so more often."

Frankel says she is embarrassed that some of the residents have been "mean-spirited" about Starbucks' potential customers.

Sighed Frankel: "It's such a big fuss over a coffee shop."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at lush@sptimes.com or 727-893-8612.

Venti-sized outrage

Some excerpts from e-mails sent to the town of Palm Beach opposing a Starbucks coffee shop:

Clinton Wyckoff, resident: "Having a Starbucks will only invite and cater to transients."

Mary Webster, resident: "What's next, Ruby Tuesday's? Sbarros? How about a Burger King? I mean if we are catering to the people who work on the Avenue, why not go all out? ... How many of these folks that work on the island actually vote? You might want to consider that in your deliberations over whether nor not to introduce a Starbucks, with their mediocre coffee and ... pastries (check them out at the airport ... they are inedible!)"

Samantha Fairchild Storkerson, resident: "The Island has worked too hard to allow this anywhere-USA-retail image so please consider carefully the community's opposition to this venture as it is we who want to preserve this special place we call home."

From Jere Zenko, resident: "Those who, in general, partake of fast food operations do not then turn around and go to Tiffany, Cartier, Bulgari, Graff, etc. ... What keeps most of us off Worth Avenue in the first place (except for before November and after April) is the quality of the tourist which is no longer particularly attractive. ... Is Nike next? How about a Disney store?"

[Last modified October 1, 2006, 00:42:32]


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