photos by Brand X Pictures and Zhang Peng via getty images

The story behind the to-go cup battle in Elk Grove, California

Mike Pomranz
February 05, 2018

Starbucks became a global powerhouse by taking the idea of the neighborhood coffeehouse and putting it in pretty much every neighborhood on the planet. But as the Elk Grove, California’s Nubo and Moo Moo recently found out, the world’s largest coffee chain doesn’t always act so neighborly. Starbucks lawyers recently told the Asian fusion eatery to put the kibosh on its to-go boba teas because the tapioca ball-laden drinks were encroaching on the the company's biz.

To be fair, Starbucks does have what sounds like legitimate legal standing. The two stores share space in the same Calvine Crossings shopping center, and to protect its interests, the Starbucks location has a clause in its lease stipulating that it will be the only business allowed to sell coffee, tea, and other drinks in to-go cups. Still, the underlying intention of this kind of exclusivity clause is to prevent another coffee shop from opening up next door, not necessarily to prevent an Asian fusion restaurant from offering carryout bubble tea—a drink Starbucks doesn’t sell—and Nubo and Moo Moo’s owner Andy Ha thinks Starbucks went a bit too far.

“The lawyer called us and said that any tea or tea-based drink you can't take to-go,” he told the local news station ABC10. “We're the little mom and pop shop, we don't have the big lawyer to represent us.” Ever since Starbucks intervened, Ha says he’s seen a 40 percent drop in business. “People often come in here and then when we tell them you can't take a tea-based drink to go they get angry and just walk out,” he was quoted as saying.

For its part, Starbucks essentially told ABC10 that business is business. “Starbucks has been a proud member of Calvine Crossing at our 8240 Calvine Road location for more than fifteen years,” a spokesperson told the station via email. “As with all of our locations, we continually work with our landlords to determine what makes the most sense for our stores, as is the case here.”

However, the “its only business” approach can sometimes be bad for business, and once Nubo and Moo Moo’s story started to spread, the local community took to the Starbuck location’s Yelp page to voice their discontent. Dozens of one-star reviews have sunk the store's rating with most people lodging the same basic complaint. “Nubo's tea drinks have nothing in common with Starbucks offerings other than they're served in a cup,” wrote one unhappy reviewer.

Ha voiced a similar sentiment. “If people want Starbucks, they go to Starbucks,” he said. “If they want Moo Moo, they go to Moo Moo.”

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