Joburg Expat: Is There a Starbucks in South Africa?

August 2, 2010

Is There a Starbucks in South Africa?

…And the answer is: YES (with the tiny disclaimer that the "a" needs to be left out - there is not "a" Starbucks, but Starbucks is being served here)! 


I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and until yesterday I would have told you NO, there isn’t. I would have gone on to lament this sad fact, and I would have described in detail all the other options for coffee and cappuccino I’ve been researching, and their benefits and shortcomings. But yesterday, Jabulani mentioned to me, almost in passing, that his teacher – his TEACHER – had told him there was a Starbucks at Montecasino (a sort of replica Tuscan village with restaurants, shops, hotels, cinemas, a casino, and a comedy club, most of it indoors but with trees and painted-sky ceilings that look very real-life).


As you can imagine, I dropped all my other projects and googled it right away. It turns out it’s not quite that you will find Starbucks outlets sprinkled throughout Johannesburg, but that, at the start of the World Cup, Starbucks has launched “proudly serving Starbucks” bars in just a few exclusive South African hotels. The Sunsquare at Montecasino is one of them, and there are two others in Sandton. I cannot BELIEVE that it took me 6 weeks to get any wind of this, but it is a very well-kept secret. You don’t just stumble into the Sunsquare Hotel when strolling through Montecasino.

Of course I had to conduct first-hand research of the situation, so I set out to Montecasino today, dragging Impatience along because she was bored. And indeed, we struck coffee gold. It took us an hour altogether – driving there, parking in the garage, walking through Montecasino, finding the hotel, waiting for our coffees (in true African fashion, there were about 4 people supervising the brewing while one did the actual work), walking back to the garage and then racing back home (I came across a police check minutes from home and remember thinking “I’ll puke if they pull me over and my coffees get cold” but luckily I was waved through – but what a glorious feeling to return home to Noisette and press a still-hot Starbucks cup to his lips! Not to mention that tongue-scalding first sip I gulped after a 6-months sabbatical from Starbucks!

I should mention that it was different from the U.S. experience in a few ways. First, no Frappuccinos, which had my kids very disappointed. They offered a similar concoction but not quite the same. “It’s coming,” I was promised. Second, it is impossible to get anything skim here. What they have is “Skinny Cappuccinos” but at most they use 2% milk, not fat-free, which after years of fat-free you can totally taste. So I won’t be having Starbucks every day from now on, which, considering it will take an hour every time, isn’t practical anyway. Of course one can hope Starbucks will consider this experiment a success and launch regular cafes soon. Right here in Dainfern, at the junction of several upscale security estates and a top-notch private school, would be THE South African prime location for a hopping Starbucks, I can tell you that!

I would do South Africa a disservice, however, if I left it at that. I’ve survived without Starbucks for six months, quite happily, and I also suspect it is more the IDEA of Starbucks I’ve missed rather than the actual taste. There are plenty of other coffee options. The only thing you will not find is anything FAST or drive-through:

  1. Mugg & Bean: Probably the best-known chain of coffee shops in Gauteng (and beyond), actually more a full-fledged restaurant with great lunch food as well; their Muggaccinos and American Iced Coffees are quite good, and the Cappuccinos are simply excellent; you’ll find them everywhere – Broadacres, Montecasino, Fourways Mall – quite big and in the nicest locations, very crowded especially on weekends.
  2. Seattle Coffee Company: These are the closest in appearance to Starbucks, but not quite in taste; there is one in Montecasino as well.
  3. vida e caffé: I think of Portuguese or Brazilian origin, I’ve found two of these, one at Design Quarter and one at Broadacres; their lattes, I was promised by the girls’ tennis coach, who’d been to the U.S., were the closest to Starbucks in South Africa, and he was quite right; this is also where I’ve received the fastest service.
  4. Fournos Bakery: Not so much known for its coffee but its extensive and excellent baked goods, which go very well with a nice cup of coffee.
  5. Cafe Frappe: This is just our little neighborhood coffee shop in Valley Shopping Centre, where I can ride with my bike, but after having sampled the rest, I have to say their cappuccinos (and Frappes, a Greek thing, more of an acquired taste) are amongst the best.

And for the best cappuccino with a view: Maropeng Visitor Centre in the Cradle of Humankind, about an hour from Johannesburg.

I’m sure there are plenty more, but these are the ones that stood out for me. In reality you can get very nice cappuccinos pretty much anywhere in South Africa, as if you were right in Italy, much better than I’ve had in most U.S. restaurants. The only requirement is that you sit down for a leisurely hour of coffee-sipping, with some good company. Since we’re starting to become used to the concept of African Time, I have to say this is actually a quite enjoyable thing. I don’t feel nearly as rushed as I did in my American life. The only added-value Starbucks can possibly offer in this country is the everywhere-ness of it, and fast service. In fact, if they erected a stall right on the Fourways intersection of William Nicol Dr, they could serve lattes in the time it takes to get through the light!


For further reading on the topic of South Africa's coffee culture I recommend the article "Coffee Break - South Africa's Developing Taste" by Ron Irwin. 

14 comments :

Anonymous said...

Liebe Sine, das wäre doch eine Geschäftsidee, dass Du Dich um eine Starbucks-Lizenz in Dainfern bewirbst. Mit Dir als Antreiberin klappt es dann auch mit dem schnellen Service!

Sine said...

Haha! Barista Sine!

Stephanie said...

Yumm!!! So excited to hear this news! Can't wait to check out the Monte Casino setup!

We're from the states and missin it very much!

Stephanie

Sine said...

Stephanie, always nice to hear from other Americans! When you check out the Starbucks, park at the Sunsquare hotel and just walk through to the plaza, I'm sure that's quicker than the garage and trekking all though Montecasino. I checked out your blog and saw that you flew here from Kansas City - are you from there? We're from Overland Park...

Anonymous said...

Sine, great post! I am always struck by how few south african coffee joints know how to make a real cappuccino (espresso, milk, foam in equal proportions). Most places will give you a latte if you order a cappuccino - except Vida e Cafe which seems to have trained their barristas in the noble art of the properly proportioned capp.

Sine said...

Yes, Vida e Cafe is definitely the most Starbucks-like, though I've learned to love all the other South African cappuccinos. Except they are never truly "skinny" so I've tried to limit my intake!

2summers.net said...

Great post -- thanks for explaining the deal with Starbucks. I can't believe I didn't even mention the Mugg & Bean in my post -- major oversight. I've actually only been there once and wasn't a big fan. I haven't tried Seattle Coffee Company yet. Obviously I have more research to do.

Sine said...

I actually wrote this post early on and have to say by now I'm also not a big fan of Mugg & Bean, coffee or otherwise. I prefer the cappuccinos and food at Frappe, our little neighborhood cafe. I think what I initially missed most about Starbucks was the convenience of the drive-through coffee, but as you've said in your "cup of joe" post, the sit-down and linger kind of culture you find here in South Africa is the whole point. And the art! Okay, now back to my 7-links assignment:-)

Jessica Robertson said...

Howzit Sine :)

SA does actually have a Starbucks-like coffee shop, except the coffee is (in my opinion) waaaaay better. It's called The Seattle Coffee Company (Seattle for short:) and has an awesome (if not quite as Starbucks extensive) array of coffee options. Your drinks are made to your specifications, so you can have your coffee EXACTLY the way you like it (and they even have a Skinny option(for which they use fat free milk)). They are located throughout Joburg, and have shops set up in most major shopping centers (there's even one in Monte :)), and are designed for atrue Joburger- so you can either grab your tall skinny Capp to go, or sit and relax. The baristas are also super friendly, and go the extra mile to make your day just a little bit better- so, overall, Seattle is superb. Next time you visit SA (and especially Jozi) I would urge you to give them a try! :)

Sine said...

Thanks Jessica - I am aware of Seattle Coffee Company. For some reason I never really embraced them, I became more of a Mugg & Bean person, but you are right, they do have a similar setup as Starbucks. I also always liked Vida e Caffe, especially their chocolate croissants! And to tell you the truth, now that I can have Starbucks any time of day again, I don't love them as much anymore as I missed them when I couldn't have it. What I miss now are those endless coffee mornings when you sat down with friends and made a whole morning of it. No one here in the U.S. has that much time. I do like the drive-through Starbucks though, for a nice treat after a day of errands...

W. A. Jeffrey said...

The Seattle Coffee Co. sounds interesting. I figured that Starbucks owned them but apparently when they bought the UK branch of the company the SA branch stayed a separate entity. I think that is great. I have never been a big Starbucks fan anyway so when I move to SA that won't be such a loss. Doing without FreshRoastedCoffee.com unless I'm willing to wait forever and a day for shipping will be tough, though.

Don't get me wrong, I like the packaged coffee Starbucks sells I just don't like the way they prepare it to drink in store. So strong it ruins the flavor. It amazes me how people have become accustomed to overly strong coffee. They only do it that way so you will copy their methods, use too much coffee and then will come back to buy more sooner than normal. That way you end up using 2 to 3 times more coffee per year than was normal in the pre-Starbucks days.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Fun Fact: if you are in Maine and you as for a Frappe you will end up with a milk shake.

Sine said...

Hm - I agree with you on the fact that you won't miss Starbucks. I really didn't miss it all that much after the first few months, especially once adopting and embracing the lower-paced life and loving the long, sit-down coffee dates at the local coffee shops instead of the frantic drive-through lifestyle of the U.S.

I don't really consider Starbucks coffee to be all that strong the way it's prepared here. In fact, I rather like it because it's pretty mild. I guess I compare it to the coffee served in my youth in Germany - now Germans really make some strong coffee! And I guess I love cappuccinos more than straight-up coffee, and lattes, and the fact that they are always very consistent when you get them at Starbucks.

I must say I also expected more like a milk shake when seeing frappes on the menu, but sometimes they are more like iced coffees. Which makes no sense because frappe means something that's beaten until creamy.

Neil Berrow said...

I know Starbucks are getting super popular, in Cape Town I've seen 2.