A few years back, I found myself on the phone, trying to direct a friend who'd got herself terribly lost in central London. "I can see some buses, a couple of pubs, and, oooh, a Starbucks,” she told me. “Which way should I go?" This description did not narrow things down in quite the way she imagined.
In London, the old adage goes, you are never more than 20 feet from a rat, and never more than 50 from a decaf soy latte. Actually, that's an exaggeration, on both counts, but it's certainly true that London has a lot of Starbucks. There are, according to the company's own website, 246 Starbucks cafes in Greater London: nearly half of these (119) are in the central Zone One.
If you’ve lived in London for any length of time, you might start to think this is normal: okay, wandering round certain parts of town might be like being in one of those cartoons where the background periodically repeats, but this is just what the world is like these days, isn’t it?
Actually, it isn’t – or at least, not all of it. Starbucks’ occupation of London is far more extensive than its presence in any other British or European city. That tiny sliver of central London contains more branches of the franchise than any other European country except Germany; the city as a whole contains more even than that. If London was a country, it'd be the company's eighth largest market by number of stores.
To prove the point, here’s a chart, showing the number of Starbucks in various geographical regions:
Australia is a slightly unfair comparison, as the company has always struggled there (it's now in the process of pulling out). And this comparison is, anyway, a little silly because those areas have radically different population sizes. So here's another chart, showing branches of Starbucks per million people in various regions:
In other words, as far as the corporation is concerned, London looks less like a European city than an American one.
At this point, it's worth reminding ourselves of Starbucks' claim that its British business isn’t actually profitable.
So how did everyone's favourite coffee shop-cum-cultural virus come to dominate London in a way it dominates no other European city? One explanation may lie in the fact, since the 20th century at least, Britain has lacked its own cafe culture: just as we've imported foreign cuisines, so we've imported that.
This would certainly be consistent with the fact more coffee-conscious nations are not generally big business for the chain. But this doesn't explain why London has so many more of the things than the rest of the UK: the capital contains in one in eight of the national population, but nearly one in three of its branches of Starbucks.
So here are two other possibilities. One is that global brands like Starbucks thrive when they have a lot of global customers to sell to. London gets a disproportionate share of the international visitors; ergo, it gets a disproportionate share of the Starbucks.
The other explanation for why the franchise should have such a heavy presence in London is that it's, well, rich – and Starbucks has a clear preference for rich places.
This would not only explain why London (246 branches) gets more Starbucks per head than, say, Bradford (1 branch). It would also explain why those cafes are not spread evenly around the capital. Look at this map of London, on which we’ve marked each of the city’s 246 Starbucks cafes. (We've done this using postcodes which, on very rare occasions, Google Maps locates in entirely the wrong place. We think we've caught those, but should you spot any Starbucks marked where you know for a fact no Starbucks exists, please do let us know and we'll amend.)
In the relatively affluent northern or south western suburbs, you're never that far from a Frappucino. In the east, though, it's a different story. There are a fair few branches in Canary Wharf, and in major town centres like Romford and Bromley. But there are huge swathes of suburbia without any, including the entire boroughs of Barking, Lewisham and Waltham Forest. What these places have in common is that they're neither employment districts nor plush suburbs.
There's one other gap in the map, for which there’s an entirely different explanation. Look to the immediate north east of the city centre, and you'll notice that you won't find any Starbucks-branded cafes anywhere in the London Borough of Hackney, either. This, though, this seems to be a matter of choice rather than one of economics: whenever the chain has threatened to set up in districts like Stoke Newington, residents have protested until it went away again.
But the corporation has found a toehold even in Hackney. Before it opened, rumours that the cafe in the new Dalston CLR James library was to be a Starbucks triggered bouts of mild hysteria. In the event, it wasn’t: the unbranded cafe operates under the milder, 'We Proudly Serve Starbucks' licence instead. Apparently hipsters will buy Starbucks coffee – as long as the shop's called something else.