There probably has never been a rougher time to be an independent coffee brand. The competitive threats are relentless--and most of them are coming from one huge brand in particular. That would be Starbucks.

First the coffee giant put a Starbucks on nearly every corner (and still continues to add more than 1,500 stores a year). Then came the Starbucks drive-thrus. More recently the company announced plans to deploy coffee trucks on college campuses and go high-brow with a rare bean tasting room.

Wherever you look, that green mermaid is there. It's enough to make you think the indie coffee shop is dead.

But it's not, thanks to the determination and creativity of some startup coffee brands. For some that means partnering with local roasters on mobile apps; for others, using data to personalize subscription plans.

"Their whole idea is that they're doing things the way Starbucks used to do things and should have done it," says David Sax, who wrote the book "Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed up With Fondue." "There's a market for more down-market places or Keurig cups, and there's a whole market above, saying 'we can provide a scalable experience that's better than Starbucks.'" 

Not that these upstarts are taking on Starbucks, exactly. On a price basis alone, they can't; Starbucks is a $60 billion a year business and accounted for most of the country's coffee sales in 2013 alone. They can compete on experience and data, however, and if they're savvy, expansion. Here's how. 

An Obsession With Quality  

In the last five years, consumers have become more keenly interested in better quality food and beverages, reports Darren Tristano, executive vice president at the food industry research firm Technomic. And it's a trend that's "pretty hard to ignore," says Matt Lounsbury, vice president of the indie coffee brand Stumptown Coffee

Portland-based Stumptown, best known for advocating regional growers, has always put a premium on quality. Not only does it take time to educate specialty grocers on the difference between organic beans and McCafe, it's called for premium prices so farmers receive better pay. Now, says Lounsbury, the McDonald's of the world are catching up. He's seeing "the 'premiumization' of coffee, which comes on the heels of what's happening with food." 

For its part, Stumptown is banking on distinguishing itself through wholesale distribution and by supporting other small businesses. Stumptown has nine of its own cafes but the brand goes out of its way to support other retailers who sell the coffee--even going so far as flying a Stumptown rep in to train baristas or bringing them into its own training lab where they learn how to craft an espresso and other techniques. 

And unlike Starbucks, whose products are normally spotted in their natural habitat, Stumptown has made creative forays into San Francisco's Workshop Cafe (which has a bitcoin teller machine, by the way), Las Vegas grocer Fremont Street, and Portland's ultra-chic Ace Hotel. Stumptown isn't afraid to let baristas experiment with its coffee, either. Alfred Coffee & Kitchen in Los Angeles has concocted an edible coffee cup brewed with Stumptown coffee. And it will be there in October and January, when Alfred opens two more stores.

A 'Pandora for Coffee' 

Michael Horn, who founded Craft Coffee, isn't afraid to give credit to Starbucks. "They have a really great read on the market," he says, and when they start throwing around capital into changing the market, "that's a really great thing" for everyone. It proves there's demand for good coffee and "it's a clear recognition the market is changing," he adds. 

He's right on both counts: Young millennials are storming the market, and global demand for coffee is surging, with prices pushing $2 a pound. Some even predict the market could finish 2014 with its first supply deficit in three years--and remain that way through 2017. But Horn believes the Internet can bypass these issues by personalizing the shopping experience. "Our play is definitely different [from Starbucks]--it's kind of like Pandora for coffee."

Craft, which is based in New York and has raised an undisclosed amount of capital from leading internet investors Y Combinator and 500 Startups, hopes to differentiate itself through personalization. It matches customers to coffee beans via an algorithm and lets them choose their delivery preference (7 oz. for $12, or 11 oz. for $16). 

"We analyze coffee beans, normalize that data, and put all this ... into a database," he explains. "We add all the relevant information, such as where the coffee is from, and then we ask you questions about what you drank today and correlate five or six key data points to try to put you into one of four categories that we think fits your profile as as coffee drinker. We continue to refine that as you rate more coffees." 

A data-driven, personalized subscription service is certainly a step up from Starbucks, but can the numbers really discern a customer's tastes from month-to-month? E-commerce lingerie startups have certainly tried it, but the model has yet to be proven and scale is an issue. To that point, Horn is reluctant to disclose how many users he has and will only state that "the business is growing a lot--in August, we grew almost 25 percent week-over-week and 40 percent in September." It's also worth noting Craft isn't the only coffee brand trying out a subscription model: Driftaway Coffee and Blue Bottle have jumped on that bandwagon.

The App to Help Indie Shops Unite 

Gilad Rotem is chief executive of CUPS, a coffee subscription app that lets you pre-pay for your cup of joe at an array of independent shops in New York City. The plans range from $16 for five cups to $120 for unlimited coffee for a month. In a way it's like the Starbucks app, "only for other shops," he jokes. The whole idea is that CUPS helps the discerning customer discover cool, local joints. Rotem is sweetening the deal for the shops, too, offering basic business intelligence in return for participating.

Still, it will be a while before the four-month-old Tel Aviv startup expands throughout the U.S. For CUPS to succeed, growth is key and not every shop may want to sign up. Also critical is "offering customers a different experience than Starbucks," which not every indie can do. "We're saying let's all unite to compete with them," but what separates one shop from another? Personality, and namely, experience. 

Quentin Flemming, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, says this is precisely the way to survive. "If Starbucks is going to become like McDonald's, [these indie shops] are going to have to retrench," he says. "Yes, there's a similarity between these chains, but they try to have a different feel or personality. That may be their only hope." 

What will success look like? "Hopefully people will be having a better cup of coffee than they did last year," says Lounsbury, "and a better experience all around." And hopefully that's enough to make consumers look beyond that green mermaid.

Published on: Sep 22, 2014