I’ve been going weekly to a Starbucks in Pretoria to sit and work on my laptop for over a year now.
I mostly go to the Starbucks in Brooklyn Square, which in my opinion has the best co-working vibe out of all of the stores in the city.
Truthfully, I didn’t actually ever think I would become such a regular patron, but in spite of my initial big-corporate brand aversion, I’ve come to really enjoy my time there, for various reasons.
To give you an idea, here are some of the things I’ve learnt from over a year of drinking matcha lattes and using Starbuck’s well-known free WiFi.
5 Things I’ve Learnt from Sitting at Starbucks in Pretoria
Big name brands have their benefits
Big corporate brands don’t have a great reputation, especially when it comes to sustainability and overtaking smaller, independent stores, and coffee shops. at least according to the media and popular opinion.
So when Starbucks originally came to South Africa, I wasn’t particularly thrilled. I think I was scared that soon, there would be one on every corner, like I remember seeing in the States.
But the reality is that South Africa is a different market, so while the company definitely has a solid presence in the city, I really don’t feel like it is going to take over anymore (for various additional reasons, which I’ll explain further on).
Therefore, to my advantage, I feel like Starbucks has very much become the best free working space in the suburbs. While I’m sure there are people who actually come especially to drink the coffee (who are you?), I’m pretty convinced that most people come there to use the internet, and to be surrounded by other people while they work (or read, or watch series).
Starbucks offers a unparalleled social space
I haven’t really heard anyone talk about this, and maybe it’s just me, but I find going to Starbucks such an inspiring experience on a social level.
In a city with such an entrenched history of segregation, I find the diversity of Starbucks extremely encouraging and comforting, and not just on a local scale.
I’ve heard French, American accents, and Afrikaans. Often, I’ve seen all kinds of people interacting. Regularly, I’ve seen an old man walking with a Zimmer frame, a man who very inspiringly makes a point of coming to enjoy his daily coffee, even though he clearly struggles with mobility.
So even though an international brand like Starbucks might pose a threat to local coffee businesses, I feel like in South Africa, while people might know the brand from travelling or the media, it’s a totally neutral space. Which I like.
International business is a tough game
While I’m continuously inspired by the diversity of the crowd inside a Starbucks in Pretoria, and the friendly baristas (especially Sam), I do worry about the logistical efficacy of the brand here.
I have to laugh, because I don’t think anyone sitting in Seattle (or wherever the head offices are) foresaw the logistical difficult of getting branded products into a country with such prohibitive customs regulations.
For example, there hasn’t been matcha on the menu for months, just a “Sorry, we’re out for now” sign over the name on the menu board, which has been there for a while. And there are more signs every time I look at the menu.
Another barista told me, when I asked, that it’s because they’ve changed logistics companies. Another barista mentioned something about a container being stuck at customs.
This reminded me of the fact that a year ago, the baristas were getting so much flak about the fact that the prices kept changing, due to the fluctuating exchange rate. Thankfully, they’ve since put in some kind of pricing margin, because it hasn’t happened since.
So overall, while I do really hope that they can sort their shit out (so I can drink a matcha latte again), it’s also encouraging as an entrepreneur to know that even the corporate giants haven’t got it all figured out.
Working is easier when you’re surrounded by people
It’s quite entertaining to take a moment to look around at everyone sitting at Starbucks on an average day. If you go there early, it’s quiet, and easy to get a seat, but if you head there towards midday and you’re probably going to have to get up close next to someone at the shared tables in the middle.
I find it fascinating to look at everyone, so engrossed in their screens, yet in such close proximity to one another, which by normal social standards, might be a little too close.
There’s a lot of talk online about how the the closer we get through internet connectivity, the further we become from each other physically. But judging from this particular Starbucks, I don’t think this is really the case.
Or maybe it is actually uncomfortable, and in typical South African polite fashion, no one is not saying anything. Or it actually feels good, or they’re just used to it. If it’s the latter, I guess you do need to make sacrifices to work in the cheapest co-working space in the city.
(Even though Starbucks in Pretoria has obviously cottoned on to the rampant WiFi abuse, and have now capped the WiFi unless you’re a gold member. Which I am, even if my app doesn’t say so yet.)
Most people are friendly and considerate
The one problem I have with Starbucks in Brooklyn is that you have to leave the store to go to the bathroom. I have to give the Starbucks in Rosebank credit for this, because as we all know, caffeine promotes peristalsis and coffee is a diuretic. I don’t think I need to say anything more.
Also, in South Africa, people are terrified of getting their stuff stolen, because it does happen. And, if you happen to be in the tiny percentile of the population that owns a personal computer, so you’re definitely not going to leave your expensive laptop behind while you go wee (or whatever). It’s too much of a risk.
However, at Starbucks in Brooklyn, and others I’ve been too, it’s totally acceptable to ask the stranger next to you to watch your stuff while you go to the bathroom, even if you haven’t said a word to him/her before.
I find that sense of trust so ironic, and heartwarming, even though I’ve honestly been too scared to take advantage of it, even though I always happily do it for other people if they ask me.
So far, I’ve only felt comfortable enough to leave my stuff if my friend Melina is also working there, or one of my other Starbucks buddies like Fidel, but I think it’s something I could definitely try, and get used to.
Just the fact that it happens so often makes me hopeful that one day I’ll be able to do it without even thinking about it.
Do you also go to work/not work at a nearby Starbucks in Pretoria, or somewhere else? I’d love to hear what your thoughts in the comments below.