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Why Starbucks is expanding rapidly in Columbia and how that could hit local coffee shops

COLUMBIA — In 2011, Sean McCrossin opened his now-popular coffee shop Drip in Columbia’s Five Points neighborhood. It was only around the corner from the city’s first Starbucks, which opened in 2003.

McCrossin liked the area for many reasons, but among them was taking advantage of the research the coffee chain’s had done when opening in that area.

“If I could just tap into a small percentage that they believe will go to their coffee shop, plus there’s a whole sector of customers who would go to independents,” McCrossin said.

Now a decade later, the opposite is happening.

With a new focus on drive-thru and off-premise sales — aided recently by the COVID-19 pandemic, new free-standing Starbucks locations are emerging in Columbia at a blistering pace, growing by more than one third in the past year to 19 with more to come. 

John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier  

A Starbucks barista hands an order to a customer at a drive-thru outside a recently opened location on Lake Murray Boulevard near Irmo. The spot is one of six to open around Columbia since March 2020. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier 

It would seemingly create a conundrum for independent coffee shops, but local owners see the emergence of more coffee as a potential benefit. Local shops have had their own rise recently as well, with at least five opening since 2019.

“It’s a rising tide, the more people that drink coffee the better off more coffee shops are and I think it ultimately kind of helps ... put specialty shops a little more into the limelight,” McCrossin said.

Starbucks seems to have decided Columbia is a major growth market, but the company does not discuss its regional strategy. It did not respond to a request for comment.

Since March 2020, Starbucks has opened at least six new locations in the Midlands, according to a listing kept by the website Starbucks Everywhere, which is not affiliated with the company.

During that same time, Greenville added three Starbucks locations and the Charleston market added one, according to the website.

In the Columbia area, all these new cafes feature drive-thru lanes. That includes prominent commuter corridors such as the BullStreet District and Millwood Avenue near downtown, and Lake Murray Boulevard in Irmo.

At least three more locations in Columbia are under construction on Forest Drive close to downtown Columbia, Piney Grove Road near Harbison and Spears Creek Church Road in the Northeast.

John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier  

Construction is well under way at the Starbucks location on Piney Grove Road near Harbison. The store is one of three under construction around Columbia. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier 

Another Starbucks with drive-thru is planned as part of the Cason Group's project to bring apartments and retail space to the former Rosewood Church on Rosewood Drive.

The project is expected to break ground in the next two to three months, with the Starbucks expected to open early in 2022, developer Frank Cason said.

The presence of a Starbucks should be attractive to potential retail tenants as a traffic draw, Cason said. Starbucks is the coffee company that will invest in a new building, while local cafes look for existing spaces to renovate, he said.

All told, it’s a major investment by Starbucks here at a time when other fast-food or counter-service chain restaurants are growing more slowly.

This growth would likely hurt independent shops but will be far from enough to close any, said University of South Carolina professor Robin DiPietro, who formerly worked for Burger King as its director of training and operations.

She estimated there’s room for one to three more Starbucks in the Columbia area and cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as a primary reason they’ve had success in opening locations.

“There’s a pent-up demand for treats and special activities during the past year that I think Starbucks is capturing with bringing these locations to more areas,” DiPietro said.

In particular, the new Starbucks in Columbia have done well at emphasizing easy access in various ways.

In addition to the drive-thrus, there’s also the ease of entrance into their parking lots by being close to stop lights, for example at new locations on Bull Street in Columbia and Knox Abbott Drive in Cayce, DiPietro said.

“You don’t want a curb to be in the way of turning. Some places like fine dining restaurants I don’t mind, but if it's a quick $5 cup of coffee, I’m not going to go around the block to get to that location,” said DiPietro, who is also the director for the university’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management.

Starbucks growth locally mirrors a plan company wide, with an announced goal of expanding from 33,000 to 55,000 locations worldwide by 2030. The emphasis in many newer locations is a quick stop that fits into the scramble of busy schedules.

“The drive-thrus are positioned as a growth engine for Starbucks,” Patrick Grismer, the company's chief financial officer, told analysts in June 2020, according to a report in the trade journal Restaurant Business.

The turn toward more locations and more drive-thrus makes good economic sense for Starbucks, according to Howland Blackiston. He’s a principal at the restaurant consulting group King-Casey, which has worked on projects with many restaurant chains including Starbucks.

Even in pre-COVID times, a Starbucks location with a drive-thru would generate 50 percent more revenue than one without, Blackiston said.

Starbucks uses different restaurant designs in different locations based on how they expect consumers there to use them, making stores that emphasize drive-thru and carryout options more popular choices on suburban commuter routes.

Delivery also is likely becoming a bigger part of their business.

In the wake of the pandemic, some consumers could be more eager for a drive-thru purchase with built-in social distance, he said. 

“It’s very clear that they made a strategic effort to grow off-premises business, especially drive-thru,” Blackiston said.

While growth from a chain like Starbucks can hit the registers of independent shops, DiPietro said the mom-and-pops have their own advantages as well.

They can quickly change their menus to adapt to emerging trends, while chains like Starbucks are driven by corporate leadership that can take much longer to adapt to new trends.

There’s differences in customer bases too, DiPietro said.

Starbucks is a hip choice among commuters and college students, while independents might only gather that crowd on the weekends. Otherwise, they’re relying on neighborhood residents and retirees to frequent them during the weekdays.

“The small mom-and-pop coffee shops may be full on the weekend mornings but may not be full on the weekday mornings," DiPietro said. "I have a lot of college kids who go to Starbucks and find that to be a hip and trendy thing to do."

Drip’s McCrossin doesn’t view the chain as direct competitors, believing that they aren’t after the same customer bases. He acknowledged there’s likely some overlap, but he described Drip as experiential, with its individually made cups of coffee and porcelain cups.

At Drip's two locations, its other is on Main Street, they specialize in making coffee through the pour over method. That's a smaller quantity method that's meant to draw out more of the coffee's natural flavor, while minimizing acidity and oils. Plus, the shop offers made-on-the-spot paninis and biscuit sandwiches, along with other artisan style goods like house-made olives. 

“(Starbucks) is doing all the demographics, they see a thriving growing city that happening here,” McCrossin said.

In a juxtaposition from independent shop against a corporate chain, the coffee shop Azalea Coffee Bar opened on Devine Street on April 12. Just a block away is independent shop, Blum Coffee, seemingly in direct competition.

John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier  

Azalea Coffee Bar opened on Devine Street on April 12, with a focus on offering and highlighting women producer’s coffee and other goods. Azalea is one of five independent shops to open around Columbia in the past two years. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Free Times

Yet, Azalea’s owner Brittany Koester doesn’t view them as having to compete with one another. She viewed independent shops in Columbia as all filling specific niches.

For instance, Azalea Coffee Bar is focused on highlighting inclusivity and women coffee producers in its offerings. That runs through its entire shop’s identity, with specialty lattes it designates as inspired by women. Options include Orange You Glaad and Queen Bee.

“It's different from Blum, they carry Counter Culture Coffee (a popular high-end Southeastern roaster), we’re sourcing coffee from different places, tell the story behind it,” Koester explained.

Independent shops like Azalea bring their own unique atmosphere as well. Drip's Five Point's location has music records for sale and captures a bohemian-like vibe with its art and worn wood tables. Azalea is decidedly modern, as is its neighbor Blum. The former offers a unique mural in the shop and a minimalistic, white toned interior, with splashes of pink adoring the walls. 

Starbucks has attempted to capture it's own modern aesthetic worthy of hanging out, but the uniformity across its locations lacks much of the charm and individuality offered by mom-and-pop shops. 

Starbucks's growth in the Columbia area was surprising to Koester.

“There’s definitely a market for supporting local,” Koester said. “The people who go to Starbucks, nothing against them, but I think they still go to Starbucks.”

The ArtFields competition in Lake City returns this week after canceling due to COVID-19 in 2020. Provided

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How USC is stumbling in handling sexual harassment and assault cases like other colleges

COLUMBIA — A barrage of lawsuits from women who say the University of South Carolina mishandled their reports of sexual assault and harassment against professors and employees has elicited a series of promised reviews by the administration and provoked a level of student activism not seen on campus in recent years.

Issues with colleges not doing enough to respond to and curb sexual assault and harassment is a decadeslong, pervasive issue, according to federal policy experts.

USC has convened groups to review procedures and has said it will hire outside consultants to make recommendations. This is all while federal guidance changes with shifts from one presidential administration to the next.

But critics say planned new reviews are vague and question whether they will bring real change, as students march to cries of “fire all abusers” and call for widespread improvements to a system they say shielded assailants.

“I think that what we see here is similar to what we see elsewhere,” said Sage Carson, manager of Know Your IX, a Washington, D.C., activist organization focused on students and Title IX advocacy. “It’s easy to blame things on policy. But the violation is we’re not enforcing the policies we already have and taking this seriously.”

The allegations at USC, first reported by The State, include a tenured art professor sued in by several women who said he inappropriately touched students and faculty, and a tenured theater professor accused of sending lewd text messages.

There was an information technology administrator, who was said in a lawsuit to have impregnated an employee and then threatened to fire her if she didn’t have an abortion. Most recently, a history professor was sued by a student who said he lured her into a sexual relationship, while a university counselor failed to provide information how to report the abuse to the school.

As reports on lawsuits have brought several cases into the public eye, USC President Bob Caslen has suspended those facing claims.

"Hopefully (students) know I take it seriously. This type of behavior is just unacceptable," he said. "We’re going to do what we can do in accordance with the law."

But, ultimately, these men remain on the payroll as the legal challenges mount.

Lawyers for the women argue in legal documents all the accused are in violation of a federal statute called Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in education.

None of the professors or employees named in the complaints returned messages left by The Post and Courier requesting comment.

Policy questioned

USC Board Chairman Dorn Smith asked the university’s compliance office review the four publicized cases. Yet the review is not about the findings, Caslen said, ”but to ensure that the case followed proper rules, policies, regulations and procedures.”

“What is important is, if the policy at the time was bad, it might not meet the actual goal of Title IX,” Carson, of Know Your IX, argues. “If the policy was flawed, did you actually solve anything?”

Take the case involving theater professor Robert Richmond, where those involved are questioning why text messages asking a student what she was wearing, telling her to “take it off!!!” and stating, “I wanted to sleep with you tonight,” were referred to as “witty banter” by Richmond, according to documents published by The State.

Even corroborating witness statements weren’t considered enough for an investigator to establish "preponderance of evidence," the legal standard, which only requires proof it is more likely than not that harassment occurred.

“What do you do if the people themselves enforcing it are biased and are coming out with bad decisions?” Carson asked.

But federal policy has been not to second guess schools' decisions as long as they follow their procedures, according to Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University in Florida. And different schools have different policies.

“The courts may jump in later and say we didn’t like what we saw here but that’s not terribly helpful to a (college) panel that has to make a decision now,” Lake said. “I call it being on Title IX island. There aren’t clear mandates on how to weigh evidence. Two panels can look at identical cases and come up with different results and that’s acceptable, which is a little spooky.”

2019 investigation underway

Despite federal Supreme Court rulings decades earlier, schools had really only begun to be held accountable by federal regulators for Title IX violations after 2011, following policy guidance by the Obama administration's Department of Education, experts say.

The number of universities under investigation for mishandling reports of assault soared to more than 300.

USC is among those with an active federal investigation, opened in 2019, related to sexual violence, as well as three others related to discrimination based on sex. Other South Carolina colleges under similar sexual violence related investigations include Coastal Carolina University, Francis Marion University and Wofford College, according to a federal database.

Under the Trump administration, those past guidelines were rescinded as Department of Education leadership felt the law had become skewed against alleged assailants. Now schools are adapting to new regulations finalized near the end of President Donald Trump's term.

“This confuses the heck out of most people on campus,” Lake said of the shifts that come with each new presidential policy. “People aren’t always sure what to do and that creates barriers of access to these systems.”

At USC prior to the summer of 2020, when allegations in all of these recent lawsuits took place, case outcomes were investigated and determined by one investigator, said Marc Shook, the university's Dean of Students and Interim Title IX Coordinator.

A second investigator would provide some oversight. Then, if a staff or faculty member was involved, the decision went to a panel made up of staff from the university provost's office, human resources department and the employee's department heads to determine sanctions.

Now, due to the regulatory changes, all results of investigations go to an external officer from a Columbia law firm, unnamed by the university, that hears the case and decides responsibility and sanctions, Shook said.

Critics claim vague response

Despite criticisms of a vague response, Caslen insists that will not be the case at USC once more details can be finalized.

He announced a committee that will view every case prior to a ruling being issued. But makeup of the committee is still being decided, and under federal regulation, it won’t be able to intervene, only make suggestions, Shook said.

Caslen also has said he will create a group to look at every case on the books every month.

The group will be made up of personnel from the school's Title IX office, legal team, Equal Opportunities Programs office and Student Affairs office, and will discuss training, status of investigations, support to victims and advising both sides of their rights to legal support.

Inadequate support for victims was a problem cited in the lawsuits of three women who say art professor, David Voros, sexually assaulted or harassed them.

In the first case, the woman said in court documents that Voros propositioned and touched her suggestively during a study abroad semester then kept her in her room and withheld food following a disagreement. When she filed a complaint upon her return, she said the school did not provide case records, failed to communicate with her and ultimately did not take her full allegations into account. Her suit was settled in federal court for $75,000.

In another case that involved a staff member, the woman, in court documents, reported Voros touched her in a closet while holding a plastic doll's head in front of her. She said the school then allowed her to be removed from a number of the classes she taught after her complaint was filed.

The school and Voros deny the allegations in court filings.

USC responds to Title IX athletics, sex assault FOIA query: No cases

The University of South Carolina, called out by a South Carolina Press Association attorney on Tuesday for failing to respond to The Post and Courier's Freedom of Information Act query about Title IX and sex assault violation information filed in March, responded Wednesday. There were no relevant cases, a USC spokesperson said.

Samantha Albrecht, a lawyer for these women, thinks the school needs to look at its Title IX process but also its rules for tenure, which often provides professors with extra contractual and legal protections, "so that it does not become a blanket rule for the freedom to do whatever you want."

Following the news of the lawsuits against Voros another USC student who had reported abuse at the hands of history professor David Snyder to a counselor filed suit, saying she was not informed about the school's complaint procedures as required by law.

Her lawyer, Randall Hood said his client was struck that this was not an isolated incident, saying in court documents that Snyder played on her insecurities as a caretaker for her sick mother before repeatedly suggesting they enter a sexual relationship despite the fact he was her instructor.

“This may be endemic to the university and she felt that something needed to be done,” Hood said.

Hood said he has since been contacted by one other alleged victim and is aware of another who shared her account on Twitter.

“I don’t expect a whole lot to be done except to curb the actions of this particular professor,” Hood said. “I’m hopeful, however, this and other lawsuits bring to light the imbalances of power that have existed for a long time and I’m hopeful it will cause the university to take actions to protect its students.”

Others, like Carson, think this is only the beginning of a new wave of lawsuits that are to come nationally and only enforcement by DOE will create progress.