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Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Ethiopians get a taste of Starbucks -- almost


It looks like a Starbucks. It smells and tastes like one too. Settle into one of the comfortable Starbucks-like armchairs and it certainly feels like the real thing.

But the hottest cafe in the Ethiopian capital is not a Starbucks at all but a knockoff, the creation of a Starbucks devotee who tried to bring the real thing to Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, by many accounts. But she had to settle for a look-alike after the Seattle coffee giant rebuffed her partnership request.

Kaldi's has a Starbucks-like logo and Starbucks-like decor, and its workers wear Starbucks-like green aprons. At the bar, there are Starbucks-like "short" and "tall" coffee options, although Kaldi's sticks exclusively to Ethiopia's coffee varieties, while the real Starbucks includes Ethiopia's premium beans among many other offerings.

"I've always loved Starbucks, the ambiance of it," said Tseday Asrat, the proprietor of Kaldi's, fessing up to the obvious inspiration behind her year-old business. "So we created our own version of it here."

Kaldi's is by no means the only pretender around here. The latest hotel to go up near the airport is a "Marriot," another knockoff that uses only one "t" but has the exact same typeface in its sign as the JW Marriott hotel chain. There is a 7-11 convenience store here, as well, which has no connection to the 7-Elevens on so many corners back in the US.

Officials at the Starbucks Coffee Co were not thrilled when they learned of the knockoff.

"Even where it may seem playful, this type of misappropriation of a company's name (and reputation) is both derivative and dilutive of their trademark rights," a company spokeswoman, Lara Wyss, said in an e-mail message, adding that the company prefers to resolve such conflicts amicably.

The copycat cafe is not exactly cutting into the profits of the real Starbucks, though Kaldi's is popular enough that it will soon open its second cafe. And Asrat has no fear of competition from the chain, which has watched many rivals sadly hang up "out of business" signs.

"They can't compete with me," she said bluntly.

She allowed that a large company like Starbucks could theoretically try to undercut her business with lower prices. But prices here are already quite low. A Kaldi's short macchiato with a Starbucks-like chocolate muffin costs just 6.50 birr, which is under US$1 and pricey by Ethiopian standards. A similar pick-me-up at a Starbucks in the US would cost more than five times as much.

When it comes to knowing the ways of Ethiopia's finicky coffee consumers, Asrat clearly has a leg up on her rival. She points out that Ethiopians do not like to order their coffee from the counter, Starbucks style. She has a counter, complete with a Starbucks-like glass case for her baked goods, but her clients by and large sit down in their Starbucks-like chairs and issue orders to workers.

"Ethiopians like to be treated like a king when they come to a place like this," she explained. "They like to say, `Waiter, a macchiato. Waiter, come back, warm this up. Waiter, how about a muffin now?'"

They also expect parking-lot service, something not found in the business plan of a typical Starbucks. Many Ethiopians, especially young hip ones, enjoy pulling up to a cafe and ordering directly from their car windows. At a rival cafe there was far more car service than actual cafe service on a recent afternoon.

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