man with 'Roy Street Coffee' in background (l) man with Starbucks logo (c) man with 'Save Roy St Coffee & Tea' petition' (r)


‘They removed all the branding, all the Starbucks decoration’: TikToker reveals the history of ‘stealth Starbucks’ outlets

These 'stealth' Starbucks stores were frequently mistaken for independent coffee shops.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 21, 2022   Updated on Jul 21, 2022, 8:42 am CDT

From 2009 to 2019, Starbucks operated several “stealth” outlets, essentially disguised as independent coffee shops with no obvious Starbucks branding.

This scheme attracted some press attention at the time, but the stealth Starbucks phenomenon isn’t widespread knowledge—which is why so many people are intrigued by this TikTok about the history of a stealth Starbucks branch in Seattle.

Posted by TikToker @danecoli, the TikTok introduces Roy Street Coffee & Tea, which Starbucks launched in 2009. @danecoli says he used to study there, without ever realizing that it belonged to Starbucks. “In 2019 they ended the experiment, but a lot of people never found out that it was a Starbucks all along,” he explains. “Someone even made a petition to try to get it to reopen, claiming that this coffee shop is a pillar of the community.”

@danecoli Why starbucks closed a beloved neighborhood cafe: it was a corporate experiment. In 2009, long after Starbucks being founded, they saw a declining popularity in their stores and decided to try something new. Heres to knowing a piece of how starbucks started their stealth cafes #ShowUrGrillSkillz #FilmTeyvatIsland #starbucks ♬ Hotel – Lawsy

Technically speaking, these stealth branches weren’t completely Starbucks-free. They featured unobtrusive signs that read “Inspired by Starbucks,” but, otherwise, it was pretty easy to mistake them for independent businesses.

The concept inevitably faced criticism for misleading customers, although Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz claimed in 2010 that the company wasn’t trying to “hide” its affiliation with these coffee shops—the stealth outlets were just being used as “a laboratory” to test new ideas such as serving alcohol.

The replies to this TikTok make it clear many people were unaware of this piece of Starbucks history, with one commenter remarking that it sounded like the “starbucks equivalent to delivery app ghost kitchens.” Another joked, “Industry Plant Coffee.”

Some commenters also remembered going to the Roy Street coffee shop themselves—and a few of them did actually realize it was a Starbucks at the time.

It’s no surprise the whole stealth Starbucks concept was controversial. Many people feel strongly about supporting small businesses. And this TikTok arrived at just the right time to reawaken this debate, as more and more people raise criticisms about Starbucks’ corporate decisions—particularly its treatment of workers attempting to unionize.

The Daily Dot has reached out to @danecoli via TikTok comment.

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*First Published: Jul 21, 2022, 8:15 am CDT