Starbucks Vs Local Independents

Disclaimer: We own a coffee roastery and café in Letchworth town centre called Level Ground Co.; however, we have tried to be as unbiased as possible and highlight the positives of Starbucks where possible.

With Starbucks opening in Letchworth town centre and the commotion that arose, we thought it would be a good time to write a blog about Starbucks vs. your favourite local independent. Some of the points are from us as a roastery, so they won’t apply directly to your favourite local independent; however, if your favourite independent uses a local roastery, they most likely will.

Some love it, some hate it, but it certainly has its place and isn’t all bad!

We have broken down this post into 7 points. Apologies in advance, we got carried away and this is a long one.

  • Ethos and Philosophy
  • Coffee Sourcing
  • Roasting
  • Variety
  • Environment
  • Community Engagement
  • Price Point

Ethos and Philosophy

Starbucks is a global corporate giant with a focus on consistency and standardisation. They annually purchase around 3% of the total coffee supply, equivalent to over 5 million 60-kg bags of green coffee. The emphasis is on creating the third-place experience, providing an alternative to home and work by offering a unique and recognisable atmosphere. The great thing about Starbucks is the consistency and familiar atmosphere across all of its stores. Not only is this designed for efficiency, but you, as the customer, know where to stand, what to ask for, and where to wait. There are no awkward interactions when trying to catch the eye of the barista and ask how it works here. Do we sit down first and then order? Do we wait for our coffees, or do you bring them over? You also always know when they will be open, 7 days a week, consistently.

Local independent coffee shops, such as ours, don't wield the same purchasing power as Starbucks. However, we pride ourselves on a local, community-driven approach, placing a premium on a unique specialty coffee experience. Our commitment extends to supporting small-scale farmers who employ sustainable methods, thereby ensuring a higher-quality product. Your local independent is the exact opposite of Starbucks; they are unique, quirky, intimate, and often a reflection of the owners and their local communities. They endeavour to create a relaxed atmosphere and showcase great coffee as well as the great food they produce fresh each day. The downside is that your local independent often takes days off, opens later on certain days, or shuts early. For many consumers, they don’t want to have to think about this and waste time out of their day finding out if their local independent is open.

So if uniformity, global reach, and a standardised experience are what you are after, Starbucks is for you. In contrast, your local independent often serves a higher-quality product, paying higher prices, ensuring everyone down the supply chain gets a better deal and you, as the consumer, can feel good about your choices. You can also do this in a unique, community-focused environment. However, they might have sporadic opening hours at times because life can often throw a curve ball!

Coffee Sourcing

As stated above, Starbucks sources 3% of the global coffee supply, aiming for consistency in their flavour profile. When buying a Starbucks anywhere in the world, you want it to taste the same. They emphasise fair trade and ethical sourcing practices.

Your local coffee shop will often use an independent roastery that uses a green coffee importer, enabling them to build direct relationships with farmers, placing traceability at the forefront, and in some cases, can even tell you the person that picked the coffee.

We only roast specialty-grade coffee, which means it scores 80 points or more out of 100, ensuring quality. This is also the reason you won’t see a Fair Trade sticker on our bags, as we pay a premium far higher for our coffee based on quality. Although Starbucks serves Arabica coffee, it isn’t a specialty and could score anywhere from 0-100 on the quality scale.

We believe that the absence of a Fair Trade sticker on our bags signifies our commitment to quality beyond the minimum standards. By paying a premium for specialty-grade coffee, we prioritise a superior quality and tasting experience. While Starbucks focuses on consistency globally, our emphasis is on the diverse and ever-changing menu that showcases the potential of coffee from different regions. If Fair Trade is all your coffee can shout about, then it probably isn’t that special.

When sourcing our coffees, we aim for consistency in our house espresso while offering an ever-changing menu of coffees from around the world. With over 1000 flavour compounds in coffee (four times that of wine), the tasting experience can be truly diverse and isn’t just a cup of dark, bitter liquid. Choosing coffee from an independent roastery means embracing the richness and complexity that coffee can offer, going beyond a standardised taste to explore the vast spectrum of flavours inherent in high-quality, specialty-grade beans.


Starbucks roasts on an industrial scale; their York roastery produces over 3 million pounds of coffee a week. Consistency is key, and to achieve this, they roast the coffee darker to mask imperfections and variations in the coffee, helping them achieve the signature Starbucks flavour. The darker roast also ensures that the coffee can cut through a 16-ounce milk latte with syrups and not get lost in the milkiness.

In comparison, our roaster can handle 10kg of coffee in a batch every 10 minutes or so. We create a roasting profile for each coffee and endeavour to match the roast with every batch. In contrast, we don’t roast our coffee darkly. Because we buy based on quality, we are trying to showcase the nuances between each coffee we buy and pull out different flavour notes. This does mean that our coffee won’t stand up well in a 16-ounce latte with syrup, as the coffee will be lost. This is why we don’t sell them.

So if you enjoy a large milk-based coffee with syrup, Starbucks definitely caters for you, and roasting it darker can ensure a consistent global flavour. There is nothing wrong with this. The great thing about coffee is that it is subjective, and a large, sweet coffee certainly is delicious at times.

If, however, you want to experience the diverse flavour notes inherent in high-quality coffee, then seeking out your local coffee shop that uses an independent roastery ill, nine ttimes out of 10, give you a better coffee experience and hopefully open up a world of nuanced flavours from carefully sourced beans.


Starbucks, as a global coffee giant, has a substantial environmental footprint. The mass production and distribution of their products contribute to significant carbon emissions. Additionally, the use of disposable cups and packaging in Starbucks stores globally has been a point of environmental concern; the chain uses over 6 billion disposable cups a year! As well as the emissions and disposable packaging, low-quality coffee is one of the most heavily chemically sprayed crops in the world. This is bad not only for the consumer but also for the farmers that have to use the chemicals day to day.

Although we cannot perfect ourselves, in contrast, independent coffee shops and roasteries often strive for more sustainable practices. Many independents actively promote the use of reusable cups, implement recycling initiatives, and source their coffee beans through ethical and environmentally friendly channels. By using specialty-grade coffee in our roastery and cafés, we significantly reduce the amount of chemicals used in the farming process. By focusing on quality, importers are able to encourage farmers to use more sustainable practices and use fewer chemicals to ensure a better product and a higher premium for green coffee.

Starbucks' environmental impact, driven by its scale, highlights the challenges faced by large corporations in mitigating their carbon footprint. Choosing to support independent coffee shops becomes a conscious decision to align with more sustainable practices. Independents' emphasis on ethical and sustainable sourcing offers environmentally conscious consumers an opportunity to contribute to a smaller ecological footprint, promoting a greener and more sustainable coffee culture. By supporting local businesses, customers actively participate in fostering environmentally responsible practices within their communities. something we feel Letchworth is all about.

Community Engagement

Being a global chain Starbucks has several corporate social responsibility initiatives on a global scale and allows each of its stores to get involved in local causes.

Independents are often better placed to get involved in local community initiatives as their owners and employees often live in those communities. For me personally, getting involved in local community initiatives with our business has been the best part of our business. Seeing how coffee and food can have a positive impact on a community is so rewarding and helps give us the drive to keep finding new ways to help. At Level Ground Co., we will shortly be opening our community café with the local charity Create Community, where we will be giving barista work experience to members of the community who have been long-term unemployed. The café hopes to build their confidence and help get them back into the workplace in the local community in a relaxed environment.

While Starbucks' global initiatives make a significant impact, the local focus of independent coffee shops often allows for more direct and immediate engagement with community needs. Choosing to support independent coffee shops becomes a decision to contribute to local initiatives that directly benefit the community. By choosing independent coffee shops with strong community ties, consumers actively participate in supporting and strengthening the social fabric of their local neighbourhoods.

Price Point

For a brand of their size, you would think their pricing would be cheaper; however, they are on the moderate to higher price scale. The brand is well positioned to be able to demand a higher price point for coffee that isn’t reflective of the price. With their buying power, their margins will be significantly higher than those of your local independent. The higher price point often makes consumers think they are drinking a premium product and feel less bad about spending the money on a small luxury.

Most local independents, including ourselves, fall into the trap of trying to compete on price with the likes of Starbucks and Costa. With many feeling that the price of coffee is too expensive as it is, your local independent often can’t demand a higher price. This is where we rely on demand driving volume higher so we can continue to flourish. Most of the time, your local independent will be serving a higher-quality product at a comparable, if not cheaper, price. Fair Trade green coffee can be up to five times cheaper than specialty green coffee. So if your independent is slightly more expensive, you can rest assured that everyone down the supply chain is getting a better deal.

While Starbucks commands a higher price due to its brand and positioning, choosing a local independent offers an opportunity to support businesses striving for quality over mass production. The perception of a premium product at a higher price from larger brands can be misleading, as local independents often provide a higher-quality product at a comparable or even more affordable price. Understanding the pricing dynamics highlights the commitment of local independents to fair compensation throughout the supply chain, ensuring a better deal for everyone involved. By supporting local independents, consumers actively contribute to a fairer and more sustainable coffee industry.


The decision between industry giant Starbucks and local independent coffee shops transcends a mere choice of morning brew; it embodies a reflection of values, community, and the true essence of a coffee experience.

Starbucks, with its global presence, undoubtedly offers a consistent and reliable coffee experience. The convenience and familiarity it provides are undeniable advantages. However, the very scale enabling this uniformity also diminishes the uniqueness and community integration sought by many in their daily coffee consumption.

Conversely, local independent coffee shops epitomise a dedication to community, quality, and sustainability. Direct relationships with farmers, tailored roasting profiles, and engagement in local initiatives demonstrate a commitment that extends beyond profit margins. The personalised service and distinct flavour profiles offer an authentic, unadulterated coffee experience.

Ultimately, the choice between Starbucks and local independent coffee shops is a choice between global uniformity and local authenticity, between standardisation and uniqueness. While Starbucks serves a purpose in providing a consistent experience globally, the local independent coffee shop, with its community focus, ethical sourcing, and dedication to quality, emerges as the champion for those seeking more than just a cup of coffee. It signifies a conscious decision to support a business that values the intricacies of the coffee-making process, respects the environment, and actively contributes to the well-being of the local community.

In our interconnected world, where the decisions we make carry far-reaching consequences, supporting local independent coffee shops becomes a vote for diversity, sustainability, and a richer, more meaningful coffee culture. It's not merely about the coffee; it's about nurturing a connection, one cup at a time.

With all that said, at the end of the day, coffee is subjective, and if you love a Starbucks, who are we to say you’re wrong? (Even if I would like to.)

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Very clear and concise explanation of the differences between small local businesses corporate worldwide organisations. Fair and unbiased. Useful information for people to make informed choices. Well done Harry!

Chris Rees

I have twice used Starbucks during the last few years & both I didn’t enjoy the coffee. We always go to dog friendly coffee places. Our favourites are the fox in Willian & the embankment in Bedford. The coffee is smooth & flavoursome. Recently we went to a coffee cafe in Offley, the coffee was delicious even the de cafe. We have tried your cafe yet, where about sis it?


Well said Harry ! A fair, balanced observation of the pros and cons of chain coffee shops. We will continue to support our independent coffee shops over chains as we prefer not only the taste of their coffee, but also the standard of their service, and the ‘buzz’ they have brought back to the town centre.

Ro Richards

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