Dining With Denise Neil

Local coffee purveyor questions wisdom of Starbucks at WSU

Nitro Joe’s owner Dan McDonald recently launched a Facebook debate about the wisdom of choosing a national coffee chain like Starbucks rather than a local purveyor to open on Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus.
Nitro Joe’s owner Dan McDonald recently launched a Facebook debate about the wisdom of choosing a national coffee chain like Starbucks rather than a local purveyor to open on Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus. Courtesy photo

When Dan McDonald heard that Starbucks would open a new full-service store at Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus, he was confused.

Then he was angry.

McDonald, who owns cold-brew coffee business Nitro Joe’s, wondered why the university, which promotes entrepreneurship and innovation, would award such a prime piece of real estate to a national chain instead of to a local business.

He took his grievances to Facebook, where a debate about whether the university should be expected to keep it local when choosing its retailers broke out in the comments section. “Buying local” has been a growing mantra among businesses and young people in Wichita who are promoting a resurgence of local pride, and much has been made of Harvard-trained analyst James Chung’s reports to the city that Wichita needs to build an “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

“They’re trying to inspire and teach their students to go take chances and to look at all these opportunities out there,” McDonald said. “But you’re not going to get any opportunities from us, because we’re going to use a big chain. That totally goes against the grain, in my opinion.”

Lou Heldman, Wichita State University’s vice president for strategic communications, said that people shouldn’t assume the impending arrival of Starbucks, set to open in March, means local businesses will be left out of the equation.

There’s going to be plenty of room for all types of businesses, he said.

“Starbucks is the first of what we anticipate will be a collection of food and drink places on Innovation Campus,” Heldman said in an e-mail. “The development group creating the retail portion of Innovation Campus known as Braeburn Square is talking with local, regional and national companies. Starbucks is a good place to start because its commitment signals to prospective students and their parents that one of the world’s best known brands sees the value of operating at Wichita State.”

In his Facebook post, which he published over the weekend, McDonald included a photo of the under-construction campus, over which he superimposed the words “Support local?”

“Really Wichita State University, a huge entrepreneurial community driver and you have Starbucks open?” he wrote. “Any local coffee groups approached? Reverie Coffee Roasters, R Coffee House, Mead’s Corner, Twisted Java Coffee Bar, Vagabond Cafe, Nitro Joe’s. Kick in the face to all above that volunteer time and resources getting involved to support and build collaborative community. Such a failure. I thought we were supporting local.”

Several people chimed in, including Kate Clause, the owner of local coffee truck Sunflower Espresso.

“It did give me a start when I heard the news, as I take my coffee bus to WSU not a half-mile away at the food truck plaza two times a week,” she said.

McDonald said he understands that opening a large coffee shop on the Innovation Campus might not have fit into the plans of many local coffee purveyors. In fact, it’s not something he could have taken on with his Nitro Joe’s, which provides nitrogen-infused cold brew to many local coffee shops and restaurants.

But locals should have at least been asked, he said.

“To me, this past year, I’ve gotten so excited about the community, and so have a lot of people,” he said. “We want to keep that up. They are paying people to come from outside the city to consult with us and to say, ‘Here’s what we need to do to retain talent. Here’s what we need to do to have a flourishing entrepreneurial network in the city.’ And then they go and bring a Starbucks in, and that’s the exact opposite of what the city is paying to tell us.”

Heldman said a deal has already been made to sell local coffee on the Innovation Campus. He revealed that a new convenience store called Mega-Bytes was scheduled to open in February in the lobby of WSU’s new Experiential Engineering Buliding. WSU chose Reverie Coffee Roasters, a local shop and roaster owned by Andrew Gough, to supply the coffee to Mega-Bytes. It should be ready in February.

WSU also has been supporting local food trucks, Heldman said. A food truck plaza opened in the summer on the edge of the Innovation Campus development, at Wheatshocker Drive and Perimeter Road, and several local food trucks set up shop there each school day.

“Today we had Sunflower Espresso, Charlie’s Pizza Taco and Uno Mas ICT. In the last few weeks, awnings were installed over the tables on the food truck plaza, which should make hot days more tolerable,” he said.

Gough, the owner of Reverie Coffee Roasters, who said he’s excited about his deal with Mega-Bytes, said he understands McDonald’s concerns. But he urged people to take a wait-and-see approach.

“I think it’s awesome that people care enough to want to fight for the local guy,” he said. “That means our community is pointed in the right direction. But I also say that there’s more to the story. There’s always more to the story. We shouldn’t discount the entire project just yet. WSU has been been incredibly generous to us.”

McDonald said he does understand that putting a Starbucks on Wichita State’s campus will have its upsides. But they don’t justify the message the decision sends.

“I understand that regardless of whether it’s a local thing or not, it’s employing local people,” he said. “But at the end of the day, that profit isn’t staying here. It’s going back to Seattle.”