In 2012, drinking a cup of coffee in downtown Napa became a political act.
As soon as word spread in late 2011 that Starbucks might set up shop at the corner of First and Main streets, coffee aficionados and non–coffee drinkers alike took sides that only grew stronger this year.
On one side were those who said the coffee giant had every right to open in the heart of downtown and would attract other businesses to an area with a 20 percent retail vacancy rate. They touted free choice and free enterprise.
On the other side were those who said Starbucks was playing dirty by trying to open within a stone’s throw of a veteran downtown coffee shop, Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company. They wanted downtown Napa to be home to one-of-a-kind, locally owned businesses attracting both locals and visitors.
A grassroots group named Napa Local sprang up and began petitioning the City Council to adopt an ordinance that would strictly regulate which businesses could open in downtown, making it particularly difficult for chain stores to operate there.
In January, the group made its first appearance before the council during the public comment segment of the meeting. Representatives from the downtown business community also turned out, speaking against an ordinance regulating chain stores, saying it would hurt the district and pointing out that a number of chains were already represented in downtown Napa.
The council chose not to schedule a future discussion.
As rumors of a future downtown Starbucks became actual plans, with Eye Works Optometry moving out to create a space, Napa Local continued to work on a formula business ordinance. Its members met with small business owners, city leaders and residents trying to gain support for their cause.
In March, about 15 members of Napa Local asked the council to consider their request, but city leaders demurred. Now was no time to curb business development while downtown had so many commercial vacancies, councilmembers said.
The local-versus-national debate kept raging even as several small, family-owned shops opened near the proposed Starbucks, including Molinari Caffe, a block away from the Roasting Company.
The continued polarizing debate did not scare away Starbucks, which submitted an application to make design changes to the corner space in May.
Around the time the chain filed its application, the Coffee Roasting Company extended its hours, set up two bistro tables and chairs on the sidewalk and, in summer, released its “Slingshot Blend — A David vs. Goliath Story.”
By early June, Starbucks got staff approval to begin renovating the space for a late-September opening. No member of Napa Local appealed this decision.
Instead, members continued to post small signs in downtown windows identifying locally owned businesses in hopes they would attract like-minded shoppers.
On Sept. 27, Starbucks opened its doors and quickly built a clientele.
Many Coffee Roasting customers, meanwhile, vowed to stay loyal to their hub, saying they would never enter the wine-country-themed Starbucks.
The coffee house war has apparently ended with a truce. What’s certain is that more coffee is being drunk at Main and First than ever before.