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Ex-Victoria student's 'Dumb Starbucks' prank attracts long lineups in L.A.

Los Angeles coffee customers who waited in line over the weekend for a free cup of Starbucks were unknowingly served fake Frappuccinos as part of an elaborate prank staged by a former University of Victoria student.
Nathan Fielder_3.jpg
Nathan Fielder opened a "Dumb Starbucks" in Los Angeles as part of a prank for the filming of a Comedy Central show.

Los Angeles coffee customers who waited in line over the weekend for a free cup of Starbucks were unknowingly served fake Frappuccinos as part of an elaborate prank staged by a former University of Victoria student.

Vancouver-raised comedian Nathan Fielder, who graduated from UVic in 2005 with a business degree, was revealed Monday as the brains behind Dumb Starbucks, a Los Angeles storefront that began serving free coffee during the weekend.

The pop-up shop, with a staff hired from Craigslist and a full menu of “dumb drinks,” was part a full-scale operation being filmed for an upcoming episode of Nathan for You, a Comedy Central reality show in which Fielder dispenses odd advice to small business owners.

“It was a brilliant way of getting his name out there,” said UVic entrepreneurship and marketing professor Brock Smith, who taught Fielder in university.

“His humour is very dry, and he tends to do things that are outrageous and outlandish and just plain bizarre.”

By adding the word “dumb” as a prefix to each menu item, Fielder suggested he was “technically ‘making fun’ of Starbucks,” as per a Q&A posted in the store. As such, Fielder believed he would skirt copyright infringement via “parody law.”

That was not the case. On Monday, after the prank began trending on Twitter, health inspectors shut down Fielder’s operation.

A statement from the company’s corporate office soon followed.

“While we appreciate the humour, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark,” Starbucks spokeswoman Laurel Harper said in an email.

The prank made headlines across the world, warranting coverage on the BBC, CNN, Fox News and Gawker. Fielder was due to appear Tuesday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

None of that surprises Smith, who said Fielder was “actually a brilliant entrepreneur.”

He was “one of those wonders to watch” during his time at UVic, Smith added. Fielder was a go-getter who spent extra hours in Smith’s office, trying to improve as a businessman. When Fielder switched to comedy soon after graduation, landing a spot on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Smith took note of the parallels in his performances.

“Being a comedian is like being an entrepreneur — you have to develop something that people will value,” Smith said Tuesday.

“Every time he comes up with a new idea, he is applying what he learned in our program.”

— with files from The Associated Press.

mdevlin@timescolonist.com