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Lucy’s Beats Starbucks

That's Lucy on the left, with Claire (m) and Mirela (rt.).
That’s Lucy on the left, with Claire (m) and Mirela (rt.).

Let me be clear: I LIKE Starbucks. In the West Pavilion here at UAB Medicine, we have a Starbucks coffee kiosk and I go there frequently and get their “Veranda Blend.” A fantastic woman named Annie works there and when she sees me coming, she fills a cup for me even before I get to the counter. There are other reasons I like Annie, not the least of which is that she seems to like my imitations of Sean Connery, Bob Marley, and Mr. Haney (from that old 60’s sit-com “Green Acres”), which I use alternatively in ordering and paying. I’m simply tedious to many servers in a host of eateries around our fair nation, but Annie seems to like me and makes me feel like I’m clever. She may roll her eyes after I leave, but I’ve never caught it. All of that to say that I enjoy going to Starbucks. I like Starbucks.

On the other hand . . . I love Lucy’s!

Back in 1993, a woman named Lucy Bonds started selling coffee and muffins from a street side kiosk on the campus of UAB Medical Center. People really liked Lucy, liked the good fare she served, and liked her personality. She did so well, in fact that she decided to take her wares from temporary location to permanent. In 1995, she opened a shop near the corner of University and 20th Street South where she sells coffee, pastries, breakfasts, and lunches.

The atmosphere in her permanent place only amplified what she had at the street-side kiosk. At her new place, you can get roast beef, Mediterranean, BLT, turkey, club, even goat cheese pan inis.  You can also get chocolate cake, lemon cake, other cakes, all cut in slices large enough to cover a city block in Homewood. You can also get biscotti, bagels, and croissants, the latter with chicken salad made Lucy’s way. You can wash all of this down with some iced mango tea, or a soda, or, of course . . . their coffee!! Sure there’s the standard cappuccino and latte, but in addition to their mocha, there’s also a rocha mocha, a chai steamer, and a Torani Moo (non-coffee drink).   And get this! You can use the terms “small,” “medium,” and “large,” and they mean just that!

Lucy's store front on University Blvd. right in the middle of the UAB medical center campus.
Lucy’s store front on University Blvd. right in the middle of the UAB medical center campus.

Business blossomed. Graduate students from UAB, physicians from UAB Medicine, researchers from both, students, and chaplains (like me) all found the ambience of Lucy’s extremely conducive to reading, thinking, meeting, conversation, and just plain getting a noon-time meal. One social work professor told me that he wrote his dissertation at Lucy’s.

Then along came Starbucks. They opened a store right next door to Lucy’s in a vacant space directly on the corner of University and 20th. Everyone got a sense of anxiety for Lucy. It was as if Goliath had stalked into the valley and shaken his massive sword at little David in his funky, rustic tunic. Certainly, this giant of a corporation, famous for carefully researched demographics, traffic flow, and sheer brand recognition, would crush an operation like Lucy’s.

Guess what? The people who went to Lucy’s kept going to Lucy’s.   And that was a lot of people. None of them preferred Goliath, uh, Starbucks. It seems that the vast majority of them preferred Lucy. Why? Beyond the quality of the food, the friendliness of the people, the unduplicated uniqueness of the shop’s atmosphere, and the personality of Lucy, herself, it seems it boils down to one thing: Lucy’s customers love her.

Starbucks left that corner. Lucy’s is still there.

There are some things that don’t show up on carefully researched marketing spreadsheets or in carefully analyzed metrics. Starbucks may have accurately assessed the income level and frequency with which coffee-drinking, sandwich-needing professionals blast by the corner of University and 20th in Birmingham, Alabama. They did not have a way of determining how much those same people loved the proprietor of the competition.

I think about that when I’m working with a Support Team. The health issues that many people face look like giant problems, and those of us with no medical expertise look at those concerns and feel like little Davids facing very intimidating Goliaths. And yet, metrics haven’t been invented that can measure the way the love of little folks like me and you can drive off giant health care challenges – when we gather around the people we love, doing what we love. When we do that, the chances are very good that in the not too distant future, we’ll still be here and the giant will be gone.

One reply on “Lucy’s Beats Starbucks”

I love Lucy’s as well! I love the “customer account” chalkboard behind the main counter. I’ve never met a business owner who took the time and effort to memorize your name, but after 2 visits, she always knew when “JT” was walking in.


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