It’s been a few months since we last checked in on the new flagship Starbucks going up in the Gold Coast, and guess what — it’s open!
The store at 1003 North Rush Street opened Tuesday, December 4th and brings the coffee chain’s latest design iteration to downtown Chicago. Like the Starbucks stores we’ve written about in Seattle, this one goes heavy on recycled, reclaimed, and reused. The walls are lined with salvaged local brick. Its distinctive Chicago yellow hue provides a warmth to the space that is complimented by the woodwork, like the bars, which are recognizable as once having been gnarled tree trunks.
Also worth noting are the flat expanses of wood, like the cabinets. Our untrained eyes only saw that they were full of holes. Dean Klein, Starbucks director of global development for the Midwest region gave us a mini-tour of the new coffeehouse. He showed us how all that wood used to be rail cars. The wood from disused boxcars actually makes a surprisingly nice, and visually compelling building material once it’s cleaned up.
In addition to being recycled and slightly historic, the walls of the store are also instructive. Downstairs, for example, is a floor-to-ceiling diagram of the world’s coffee-growing regions done by a local artist. A rolling panel allows the baristas to chalk the day’s specials on the wall and roll it to the right region.
As Jill Enomoto, one of Starbucks’ in-house designers from New York explained to us, the baristas can use the wall to teach customers more about their coffee and where it comes from. While that would be a bunch of PR hogwash in some coffee shops, it’s not all that unusual for a Starbucks fan and an employee to engage in lengthy discussions about coffee growing, harvesting, and marketing. WIth the casual, welcoming feel of this new store, don’t be surprised if it happens even more.
Enomoto added several other informational panels around the store. One is an illustration of a deconstructed French press. Another notes that the first Starbucks in Chicago opened in 1987. This store opening marks the 25th anniversary of Starbucks in Chicago.
The sad news is that the old “Rushbucks” are 932 North Rush Street is gone. It closed Sunday afternoon and will be reborn as a Madewell clothing store. Based on the seating challenges customers endured there for years, Starbucks could have kept both locations open and filled. But what we as customers see, and what the company counts internally are often very different things.
To our eyes, it appears the new Rush location has far less seating than the old one. But Klein insists the seating capacity has actually increased. However, much of it is of the highchair variety. On behalf of fat people everywhere, I whined about this to the Starbucks designer.
The reason for the seating illusion could be the way Enomoto laid out the upstairs furniture. It’s arranged in pods and nooks where groups of two or three or four can carve out an imagined intimate space for themselves amongst the crowd. A variety of different furniture styles helps keep everything straight. No more will some lout be able to drag a big squishy ottoman halfway across the store to build his own personal fort and pretend the piece “was there when I got here.”
If you still can’t find a place to be, you can take you chances on the balcony, where another row of highchairs along a bar faces over Rush Street. On a a warm summer day, this will be among the Gold Coast’s most prime see-and-be-seen locations. Perhaps even rivaling the coveted benches on the east side of Mariano Park, where 60-year-old millionaires with gold chains and cigars jockey to pick up 20-year-old social climbers with shiny hair, skin, and boob jobs.
More interesting than the upstairs seating is the upstairs bar. That’s right — unlike other two-story Stabrucks’ you’ve been to, you don’t have to risk getting a nasty caramel apple spice burn walking up the stairs with a fresh beverage, or drag your lazy butt back downstairs to get a refill.
This is especially useful, since this isn’t a power-Starbucks like you find in the Loop where coffees fly by in a frenzied assembly line for harried office workers. This is intended to be a place to come and sit, and relax — especially after work. That’s why starting tomorrow (December 6, 2012) the store will start selling wine, beer, and small plate meals. The plan was actually to serve booze from day one, but a paperwork holdup with the City of Chicago delayed things ever-so-slightly.
Customers we spoke with say the vibe is already different than the old store. It’s more “homey” and “downbeat.” The feeling is less generic and more special.
In all, this coffee shop is a very welcome addition to Viagra Triangle. It uses local materials to give the glass-and-wood Northwestern architectural aesthetic a Chicago flavor. At the same time it gives neighborhood residents, rich and formerly so, a “second place” to call their own.