Starbucks is The Man, keeps local java joints down

A war between independent and corporate coffeehouses has been raging on Chapel Street ever since international java conglomerate Starbucks first set up shop at the corner of High and Elm Streets in 2001, challenging the locally-owned, three-decade-old Atticus Bookstore Cafe just down the block. When Cafe Bottega marked its own territory across from the touristy New Haven Green in 2004, Starbucks responded by opening another location in the same complex on Church Street three years later.

But now, with the unveiling of a second location of his own coffeehouse — strategically placed between Chapel’s intersections with Church Street and the busy Highway 5 — Woodland Coffee & Tea owner Nebyat Shewaye plans to offer another salvo against the faceless national chain’s encroachment into the Elm City.

“We’re not targeting competition with local coffee shops,” he said, speaking of over a dozen other independent operations run in New Haven, including the Book Trader Cafe on Whitney Avenue and The Publick Cup on York Street. “We are competing with Starbucks.”

Considering that the first and currently only location of Woodland Coffee & Tea is just one block removed from the Green, it is true that the two coffeehouses have been in competition ever since Starbucks opened its second Chapel Street location last spring. But being tucked away behind the bus stop on tiny Orange Street keeps Woodland out of sight and out of mind for many tourists and locals alike, something that Shewaye hopes the opening of the new location at 744 Chapel will change.

“One of the first things you see [by the Green] is Starbucks,” he said, with a hint of disdain. “It would be good to have another locally owned and operated alternative nearby.”

Shewaye is still uncertain of when the new Woodland will open, but employee Derek Bennett expects that it will make its debut within the next week or two.

The current location of Woodland Coffee & Tea sets a high standard for its successor. Gentle jazz instrumentals lower heart rates and unbend furrowed brows as they waft from the ceiling, and the lightly worn tiled floors and open seating areas make for an atmosphere that is not exactly cozy, but inviting and homelike just the same. Of course, free Wi-Fi, clean bathrooms and complimentary local newspapers always help set the right mood.

Colorful mugs and jars decorate the walls behind the counter, accounting for the couple dozens of original coffee blends that have earned the friendly staff at Woodland Coffee & Tea some local cachet. A quick sampling of what they have to offer proves the reputation is not unmerited, as the rich and earthy brews of flavors like the Ethiopian, Peruvian and Somalian cups can attest.

And while the quality coffee and fast service lines attract much of Woodland’s renown, their repertoire includes over 100 different kinds of loose leaf teas and even a select few flavors of Ethiopian chocolate. Inventive variations like the smooth and subtle Snicker latte and the refreshing cool of the peanut butter mocha frappe are winners as well, providing the menu a pleasing diversity of choice alongside energy smoothies and spiced hot chocolate. For the hunger-stricken, Woodland also offers a wide variety of paninis, wraps, light sandwiches, fresh fruit and pastries courtesy of local bakery Chabaso on James Street. Frequent customer Susan Harper suggested the black bean soup, a “rare but delicious” treat.

“I love working here,” Bennett said. “It’s so relaxed. Being in the Sherman Alley neighborhood with the new location will be pretty exciting.” Shewaye expects the layout, atmosphere and menu of the new location to follow the model of the first.

But some locals, like Yale’s own Zachary Fuhrer ’11, question the need for yet another coffee shop in New Haven.

“It feels kind of unnecessary,” he said. “I mean, there are already two cafes on the same block, within a couple hundred feet of each other, and now there’s going to be a third?”

As Shewaye himself noted earlier, there is indeed no shortage of coffeehouses at hand: Including other corporate chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Au Bon Pain, a rough count estimates upwards of 30 java outlets in the downtown New Haven area. Given that, opening yet another version of the Woodland Coffee & Teas within a city block of the original might seem redundant.

Shewaye believes that he is not impinging on his independent colleagues’ business, however, noting that both Woodland’s first and second locations are “quite a distance away from most other locally-owned coffeehouses.” And even though they will be within a casual stroll of one another, he expects the two Woodlands to attract their own distinct and unique customer bases. His new chain’s proximity to Cafe Bottega might also prove to be a non-issue, as that cafe doubles as both a restaurant and live venue, and is more synonymous with its conjoined Bottega Giuliana fashion shop and subsequent hipster following. And if nothing else, the Bubonic spread of Starbucks locations that began in the 1990s — and has now reached over 15,000 stores in 44 countries — proves that there is no such thing as too many coffee shops.

But despite the territorial struggles of New Haven’s dense coffee shop population, Shewaye’s main goal is less based on pride and politics than one might expect.

“When you reach a certain level of success, you always have to expand,” he said. “If our new location can better serve the community around us, we are pleased.”

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