By Doug Gray, Contributing Report

Starbucks in Leblon, Photo by Doug Gray
Starbucks in Leblon, Photo by Doug Gray

RIO DE JANEIRO – Coffee has long held a precious place in the heart of Brazilians, but the country itself has an awkward history with the bean known as ‘black gold’. Having sliced down large swathes of Atlantic Rainforest to cultivate more of the profitable crop in the 19th century, that trend was mercifully reversed over a century ago, the forest replanted, and the industry moved to the more fertile lands of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais.

Today the argument runs that Brazil exports all of its best beans, leaving the locals with second rate options in supermarkets as well as the much loved ‘cafezinho’, the poor cousin of the espresso but nonetheless a welcome and often free way of rounding off a typically oversized Brazilian lunch.

Enter Starbucks. Around the same time they announced the closure of 600 stores across America in the summer of 2008, a press release was issued stating that the company would be aggressively pursuing the Latin American market, expanding on its first Brazilian outlet with a handful of new bars in Sao Paulo to join the city’s 2006 flagship, and also introducing the first Starbucks to Rio De Janeiro.

When Leblon’s most modern of malls, Leblon Shopping, announced it would open the city’s first Starbucks in time for Christmas 2008, the gentle ripple of excitement of getting the Frapuccinos or Skinny Lattes that have been ubiquitous in US film and television for years was tangible and as the queues that snake around the cavernous main hall attest, it still is.

Certainly that line has something to do with the local’s inimitable take on the traditional Starbucks service technique, and the free for all that goes with grabbing your drink at the end of the conveyor belt of ‘baristas’ is quintessentially carioca, but the locals wouldn’t have it any other way and you certainly won’t find another country in the world where you can get pao de queijo with your cappuccino.

Besides which, Starbucks Brazil is a national company, majority-owned by the Rodenbeck family (responsible for bringing to Brazil both McDonalds in the 80s and Outback Steakhouse in the 90s) who saw the opportunity of the chain working in a prosperous and increasingly global-savvy Brazil, an idea that would have died on its feet five years ago.

In keeping with local demands the beans are almost all national too, and of course, you can ask for an extra dark/extra strong blend that may be a step closer to the never-forgotten cafezinho. With further stores planned in malls and high streets in Zona Sul and Barra before the end of 2009, it looks like Rio will become yet another city that could not resist the charge of the world’s largest coffee brand for long.


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