The History of Starbucks in China: How to make a name in a tea-drinking culture?

If we think about China’s favourite beverage, tea is probably the first and unique word that comes to our mind. The dominance of this devotion makes it difficult to find another option. However, since the entrance of Starbucks in 1998, the supremacy has been attenuated. The American company has been able to integrate another hot drink to their list, coffee. Before that date, it would have been unbelievable that China is the most important market for Starbucks outside North America. Nowadays, Chinese recognize them as the best coffee maker, but also as a sign of progressing and transforming modern Chinese cities.


Living the Starbucks Experience in China (source:

Living the Starbucks Experience in China (source:


When and where did everything start?

The first Chinese Starbucks store was opened in Taiwan in March 1998. Followed by the first store opening in Mainland China at the China World Trade Building in Beijing in January 1999. After that, the string of store openings continued with the first stores in Hong Kong and Macau in May 2000 and August 2002, respectively. Actually there are nearly 500 stores in China, including Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. If we consider only the Mainland, the number is 230 stores in 22 cities.


Starbucks store in the Forbidden City (source:

Starbucks store in the Forbidden City

In July 2007, a polemic issue about Starbucks stores inside the Forbidden City arose. The motive was cultural sensitivities, as the chosen location was to be in the country’s lead tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage. After huge protests and an online campaign that drew more than 500.000 signatures, the shop had to be closed down.

Starbucks in China Today

The main clientèle are from the rising upper-middle class “modern Chinese”, white collar workers and college students. The brand is synonymous of a universal quality of life, a “modern” way of living and a positive attitude. Starbucks aspires to diffuse coffee knowledge and create a new coffee culture, without disrespecting Chinese culture. In fact, their store ambience is similar to the old tea houses of China. All elements including store design, local food and drinks offering aim to accommodate with local customs.

The company contributes to the society through its corporate social responsibility program. They include the nationwide China Education Project to help improve education in the underdeveloped areas. In addition, Starbucks partners across China are engaged in projects such as book drives, beach cleanups, and school building.

What can we find in a Chinese Starbucks coffee shop?

You can find many western coffee based drinks such as Cappuccino, Espresso, Latte, Mocha, and also a variety of Frappuccino. In order to delight the Chinese palate, they have two different types: Chinese tea (Oolong tea, Green tea and many others) or exotic tea (Earl Grey, English breakfast, Chai). Starbucks also offers occidental food in their China stores, such as cinnamon rolls, blue berries muffins and paninis. Some of them are adapted a bit with local elements, like the green tea tiramisu or sweet potato cupcake. Starbucks even produces Chinese products, such as the Chinese New Year moon cakes with their own logo.


Starbucks moon cake (source:

Starbucks moon cake


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