Starbucks goes to Tijuana, finally

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By Josh Kun

A Starbucks opening abroad is usually a reliable cue to repeat the “globalization = Americanization” mantra. There are, after all, 12,000 of them, from Chonburi, Thailand, to Ankara, Turkey -- and that’s just as of this morning. Starbucks’ barista-speak -- you know the drill, “tall-grande-venti, skim-soy-whole” -- is on its way to being the latest Esperanto.

But the most recent latte-fication of the world unravels a more complicated story. On Friday, Starbucks opened the first of four planned stores in Tijuana, the sprawling border metropolis that is “abroad” only because of a line drawn in the California dirt at the end of the Mexican-American War. To bemoan the Starbucks invasion as more Yankee imperialism only goes so far in a city with Yankee imperialism in its DNA.

Tijuana grew up in the 1920s, just beyond the reach of U.S. Prohibition laws, and was rushed into modernization by the California “border barons” who bankrolled the city’s pleasure palaces -- booze and vice outposts like the Agua Caliente Casino, meant not for local Mexicans but for gringos who crossed the border to do all the naughty things they couldn’t do at home. The origin of Tijuana’s mala fama, its bad rep as a city of sin, has nothing to do with its Mexicanness and everything to do with its Americanness.


Unlike other Mexican cities where Starbucks has outposts (Puebla, Toluca and even Mexico City), the presence of U.S. culture in Tijuana is nothing new. TVs and radios pick up English-language broadcasts from San Diego, and it’s not tourists shopping at the local Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Indeed, the first Tijuana Starbucks is housed in a former Pizza Hut, right in front of a statue of beloved hero of Mexican independence, José María Morelos y Pavón. It’s a prime corner in the bustling Zona Rio commercial district, across the street from the massive luxury gym Sports World ($120 a month), where the coffee chain’s opening was the buzz of treadmills and Pilates classes all last week.

So why are so many Tijuana locals riled up about Starbucks? Because in typical Tijuana style, the city already beat Starbucks at its own game. D’Volada, founded by a Tijuana family in 2000, started as a direct copy of the Starbucks formula. It now has 64 stores in Mexico and, in a move of reverse globalization, two across the border in San Ysidro and Chula Vista. (An L.A. store is allegedly in the works.) Few thought Starbucks would bother with Tijuana because D’Volada was already, in essence, a Mexicanized Starbucks, serving $1 coffee and using milder beans.

So part of the sadness of Starbucks Tijuana is the threat it poses to D’Volada, a “glocal” success story now tightly woven into Tijuana’s urban fabric. Even worse, D’Volada shops are franchised by a family-run company; the Starbucks outlets in Mexico are part of the empire of Carlos Slim, the telecom tycoon and rival to Bill Gates for the “richest man in the world” crown.

But where D’Volada appealed to the average Tijuanense who was willing to spring for more than home-watered Nescafe, Starbucks -- with its slightly higher prices and its internationalist cache -- is already proving to be a magnet for the city’s blinged-out upper crust. Starbucks also arrives just as construction moves ahead on two expensive high-rise compounds, New City and Green View Tower, that promise security walls and tennis courts and, above all, social status -- projects that are attempting to redefine the city. On the new Tijuana Starbucks mug are artsy shots of the old Agua Caliente Casino tower, the huge spherical cultural center and the gleaming twin towers of the executive-class Grand Hotel. The city should hire Starbucks to do its marketing: “Tijuana: home to a glamorous Hollywood past, a trendy cultural present and a future of global finance.”

This virtual Tijuana was in full effect at Starbucks’ VIP opening party on Thursday. Servers offered up coffee cake on trays as if it were an amuse bouche; perfume-soaked society ladies gripped Frappuccino shots flavored with Mexican cajeta; and diplomats from the French consulate nibbled chipotle-tinged paninis. Even the outgoing mayor made his way through the klieg lights for a photo-op and some chai de canela.

As the night ended, the fleet of valet parking attendants emptied a tray of iced vanilla lattes. One of them quipped, “Que D’Volada ni que nada, no?” “Forget about D’Volada, right?” And just like that, an inevitable coffee future arrived where nobody ever thought it would.


Josh Kun is a professor in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.