Is There a Starbucks in South Africa?

*** Since the writing of this blog post, Starbucks has come to South Africa (for now, just to Johannesburg). One in Rosebank, one in the Mall of Africa, one in Eastgate, one at Melrose Arch, among others. See all Starbucks store locations in Johannesburg. And now, read about the time when expats still had to make do without Starbucks… ***

Is there a Starbucks in South Africa?

The answer is: YES, but with a disclaimer. There is Starbucks coffee, but not “A” Starbucks as in a Starbucks store.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and until yesterday I would have told you there isn’t even any Starbucks coffee in South Africa. I would have gone on to lament this sad fact, and I would have described in detail all the other options for coffee and cappuccino I’ve been researching, and their benefits and shortcomings. But yesterday, Jabulani mentioned to me, almost in passing, that his teacher – his TEACHER – had told him there was a Starbucks at Montecasino (a sort of replica Tuscan village with restaurants, shops, hotels, cinemas, a casino, and a comedy club, most of it indoors but with trees and painted-sky ceilings that look very real-life).

As you can imagine, I dropped all my other projects and googled it right away. It turns out it’s not quite that you will find Starbucks outlets sprinkled throughout Johannesburg, but that, at the start of the World Cup, Starbucks has launched “proudly serving Starbucks” bars in just a few exclusive South African hotels. The Sunsquare at Montecasino is one of them, and there are two others in Sandton. I cannot BELIEVE that it took me 6 weeks to get any wind of this, but it is a very well-kept secret. You don’t just stumble into the Sunsquare Hotel when strolling through Montecasino.

Of course I had to conduct first-hand research of the situation, so I set out to Montecasino today, dragging Impatience along because she was bored. And indeed, we struck coffee gold. It took us an hour altogether – driving there, parking in the garage, walking through Montecasino, finding the hotel, waiting for our coffees (in true African fashion, there were about 4 people supervising the brewing while one did the actual work), walking back to the garage and then racing back home (I came across a police check minutes from home and remember thinking “I’ll puke if they pull me over and my coffees get cold” but luckily I was waved through – but what a glorious feeling to return home to Noisette and press a still-hot Starbucks cup to his lips! Not to mention that tongue-scalding first sip I gulped after a 6-months sabbatical from Starbucks!

I should mention that it was different from the U.S. experience in a few ways. First, no Frappuccinos, which had my kids very disappointed. They offered a similar concoction but not quite the same. “It’s coming,” I was promised. Second, it is impossible to get anything skim here. What they have is “Skinny Cappuccinos” but at most they use 2% milk, not fat-free, which after years of fat-free you can totally taste. So I won’t be having Starbucks every day from now on, which, considering it will take an hour every time, isn’t practical anyway. Of course one can hope Starbucks will consider this experiment a success and launch regular cafes soon. Right here in Dainfern, at the junction of several upscale security estates and a top-notch private school, would be THE South African prime location for a hopping Starbucks, I can tell you that!

I would do South Africa a disservice, however, if I left it at that. I’ve survived without Starbucks for six months, quite happily, and I also suspect it is more the IDEA of Starbucks I’ve missed rather than the actual taste. There are plenty of other coffee options. The only thing you will not find is anything FAST or drive-through:

  1. Mugg & Bean: Probably the best-known chain of coffee shops in Gauteng (and beyond), actually more a full-fledged restaurant with great lunch food as well; their Muggaccinos and American Iced Coffees are quite good, and the Cappuccinos are simply excellent; you’ll find them everywhere – Broadacres, Montecasino, Fourways Mall – quite big and in the nicest locations, very crowded especially on weekends.
  2. Seattle Coffee Company: These are the closest in appearance to Starbucks, but not quite in taste; there is one in Montecasino as well.
  3. vida e caffé: I think of Portuguese or Brazilian origin, I’ve found two of these, one at Design Quarter and one at Broadacres; their lattes, I was promised by the girls’ tennis coach, who’d been to the U.S., were the closest to Starbucks in South Africa, and he was quite right; this is also where I’ve received the fastest service.
  4. Fournos Bakery: Not so much known for its coffee but its extensive and excellent baked goods, which go very well with a nice cup of coffee.
  5. Cafe Frappe: This is just our little neighborhood coffee shop in Valley Shopping Centre, where I can ride with my bike, but after having sampled the rest, I have to say their cappuccinos (and Frappes, a Greek thing, more of an acquired taste) are amongst the best. 

And for the best cappuccino with a view: Maropeng Visitor Centre in the Cradle of Humankind, about an hour from Johannesburg.

I’m sure there are plenty more, but these are the ones that stood out for me. In reality you can get very nice cappuccinos pretty much anywhere in South Africa, as if you were right in Italy, much better than I’ve had in most U.S. restaurants. The only requirement is that you sit down for a leisurely hour of coffee-sipping, with some good company. Since we’re starting to become used to the concept of African Time, I have to say this is actually a quite enjoyable thing. I don’t feel nearly as rushed as I did in my American life. The only added-value Starbucks can possibly offer in this country is the everywhere-ness of it, and fast service. In fact, if they erected a stall right on the Fourways intersection of William Nicol Dr, they could serve lattes in the time it takes to get through the light!