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Starbucks Cafe Opens in Yosemite, to Delight and Dismay

To many, the cafe represents a trend of commercialism and 25,000 people petitioned to stop it from opening

By Gabrielle Canon

It looks and feels just like any of the other roughly 27,000 Starbucks locations that have opened around the world. The green apron-clad barista makes tall, grande and venti coffee concoctions that are handed over in familiar mermaid-endowed cups.

yosemite in winterPhoto by armboyted/Flickr A petition against the cafe states that with a Starbucks, Yosemite “will lose its essence, making it hardly distinguishable from a chaotic and bustling commercial city”.

But from the parking lot outside – where there is an intentional lack of Starbucks signage - the world-famous Yosemite falls can be heard through the patter of an early spring rainstorm.

The Starbucks is part of a major remodel inside the 128-year-old Yosemite national park. It was built to provide comfort, convenience and caffeine to the 4 to 5 million visitors who arrive each year. To many, however, the Starbucks represents a trend of encroaching commercialism inside one of the nation’s most beloved natural landmarks.

That’s why more than 25,000 people petitioned to stop it from opening last week.

“I understand that they are trying to improve the infrastructure and make it better than it used to be,” Freddy Brewster, a former Yosemite trail guide who started the petition, told the Guardian. “But it is representative of what our culture is becoming. The government is increasingly dependent on major corporations. Time and time again.”

His petition states that with a Starbucks, Yosemite “will lose its essence, making it hardly distinguishable from a chaotic and bustling commercial city”.

On a wet day in late March, visitors to the valley didn’t seem to mind. Tourists in plastic ponchos scurried off busses and inside the cluster of brown buildings housing the base camp eatery, with offerings including Starbucks.

The cafe lured large groups of seniors looking to warm up between tours and teenage tourists clad in snow gear.

“Wait, there’s a Starbucks here now?” a girl with sardonically raised eyebrows quipped to her father.

Tom Collin, a 23-year-old lounging at a table outside the Starbucks while on vacation from Adelaide, Australia, said it was his first time at Yosemite and he was wowed by the sights outside, including the gargantuan sentinel rock, which can be seen just a short walk from the Starbucks entrance. But he was also happy to dip into the eatery for a coffee while he checked his phone, and appreciated the familiarity of an international coffee chain.

“I think it’s good. Because no matter what Starbucks you go to it’s all the same. Same quality, and you know what you are getting as soon as you walk in.”

Plans for the upgrades have been underway since concessions and facilities firm Aramark was awarded a 15-year, $2bn concessions contract for Yosemite. A spokesman for Aramark subsidiary Yosemite Hospitality, David Freireich, said the decision to put the Starbucks in the park was based on requests from visitors, and that Aramark is simply fulfilling its contractual obligation to the park service to create a dining experience that “better meets the expectations and needs of visitors”.

“We understand that there is some concern among park purists, but we heard from many guests who expressed support for the change,” he said. “We ultimately selected Starbucks based on feedback from guests, and because it aligns with our goals of elevating the food and beverage offerings throughout the park.”

The Yosemite Starbucks might signal what’s to come for national parks around the country.

A record-breaking 331 million people visited the parks in 2016. But despite the parks’ popularity, there is a maintenance backlog – resulting in issues including closed trails and a collapsing cabin – valued at about $12bn.

Hospitality services could be one way to close the gap. Visitor spending is up 30%, and food and beverages account for close to a third of dollars spent.

At Yosemite, the infrastructure and hospitality offerings are aging – the last upgrade to the food court that now houses Starbucks occurred roughly 20 years ago. “It’s more than putting some lipstick on it,” said Freireich. “The time to modernize is long overdue.”

Brewster, who started the petition, takes issue with the whole ethos of investing in projects that spur consumption as opposed to conservation.

“Now it is just a free-for-all. They just pack as many people in,” he said. “But pumping cars into the park at the point where you have to re-do infrastructure to accommodate that many people is not what the park service was established to do, in my opinion.”

This content is funded by support provided, in part, by a grant to theguardian.org from the Fund for Environmental Journalism (FEJ), a grant-making program of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ).

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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