In Defense of Starbucks

Everyone loves to hate Starbucks.

You can understand why: they’re everywhere, they’re successful, and the experience from store to store is so consistent that they destroy even the pretense of local flavor.

There’s an upside to Starbucks, though: they’re everywhere, they’re succesful, and the experience from store to store is so consistent that I can get a drinkable coffee in the middle of nowhere. To those of us who live in cities, the idea that one would have to go to a Starbucks to get acceptable coffee is ridiculous. Can’t you just go to a local coffeeshop? How about a diner? Can’t you get good coffee anywhere?

The answer, of course, is: hell no.

I can already see people dashing down to the comments section, prepared to lecture me on how Starbucks coffee is overroasted and burnt and doesn’t provide true satisfaction and yadda yadda yadda, to which all I can say is: sit down, Simone, I’m not finished with my rant yet. You don’t know from bad coffee. You don’t know anything about bad coffee. When I was a kid, I had to walk to school in the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways, and when I got there they served me sewer water with Folger’s Crystals waved over it, so I know a thing or two about bad coffee.

The biggest criticism I have of Starbucks on the coffee front is that they are promoting the moronic, disgusting, Seattle-style cappucino. Cappucino is supposed to have a hood that is made from steamed milk mixed with the crema on the coffee. Instead, thanks to Seattle, we get two inches of air-filled foamed milk ladeled on top of our coffee. But it’s every coffee-drinking cretin in Seattle, not just Starbucks, that is responsible for that moral tragedy. And Starbucks has, on the whole, done more good than harm. What sort of good, you ask?

I used to drive the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike about six times a year, going back to about 1986. In 1986, there was no Starbucks. If you wanted coffee, you stopped at a rest stop, where there would be a McDonald’s or some other fast food joint that had a five gallon jug of “Maxwell House” coffee that tasted – and I am simply being as descriptive as possible here, this is not hyperbole – like brewed cardboard. It didn’t taste like coffee, just tannin. If you were lucky, it was only 6 hours old. That was the standard experience. That was as good as you could get when you were in, say, Carlisle, PA and didn’t know anything about the area.

Now, more or less every rest stop along the way has a Starbucks. I can get coffee that, even if it’s not exactly to my taste, tastes like something. So while I understand the various critiques one can make of this huge and growing megacorp, I think it’s important to remember just how goddamn bleak things were in the hinterlands before they arrived.

None of this means that you should go to a Starbucks instead of that cool local coffee shop. If your town has a place as good as La Prima Espresso, and it’s within easy reach, and you go to Starbucks instead, then you’re a fool. But have you noticed how many fools there are out there?

There’s a Starbucks not too far from my office (yes, I realize that in any major American city that’s kind of like saying “today I was breathing air.”) In addition, there are also at least 3 coffee shops within easy walking distance that have nice atmospheres, and coffee that tastes better and is cheaper than Starbucks’. The Starbucks is packed, all the time. Every hour they are open, people are fighting over parking spots, or walking past the other coffee shops on the way so they can get their fix at the Starbucks. Why is that?

It’s tempting to just shrug it off and say “well, they’re all stupid,” but I think it’s a bit more complex than that. I think part of the secret is to realize that Starbucks markets itself (and does it very well) to at least 3 completely different market segments at once.

Start by going in to a Starbucks and looking at the menu on the wall. In every one that I’ve been in recently, you’ll see that it consists of three separate panels, each focusing on a different style of coffee. I call these panels “Giuseppi,” “Joe,” and “Josephine”. The leftmost panel is Giuseppi – it’s all espressos, cappucinos, and other drinks. Students trying to look sophisticated, the artistic type with the Powerbook, they’re all ordering from Giuseppi. Joe, the middle panel, is all variants of plain coffee – “house” coffee, decaf, tea, etc. Commuters on their way to work are all ordering off of Joe. On the rightmost panel, you’ve got Josephine, which I’ll broadly describe as consisting of stupid girly drinks – frappucinos and flavored coffees. Basically, the third panel is for people who don’t really like coffee except in the form of a milkshake. (For some reason, the dreaded “caramel macchiato” ñ if I ever meet the Yuppie loser who misappropriated the name of my beloved tiny spotted coffee and slapped it onto that super-sized monstrosity, I’m going to spit on him ñ is on Giuseppi, presumably because what you call a thing is more important than what a thing actually is.)

Now, your local coffee shop surely has espresso drinks and regular American coffee also, and maybe even a girly drink or two. But what they don’t do is market them towards the different types of customers with the same singleminded intensity as Starbucks. Watch people order from a Starbucks menu. Their eyes aren’t wandering over all their choices. They go straight to the specific menu segment they’re interested in, and then choose from that.

And Starbucks does the little things right, too. Their workflow is smooth and well-architected to deal with high volume. The clerks (I’m trying to avoid calling them “baristas”) smile and aren’t judgmental, even when you order something stupid like a caramel macchiato. There’s overpriced and overportioned pastries of the type that are popular nowadays. If you want to sit there in their comfortable chairs for three hours with your laptop not buying anything, they let you. The lighting is subdued and not harsh. Their bathrooms are clean.

Maybe that’s stuff that you don’t care about. I don’t really care about most of that, either. But apparently, lots of people do. What I think a lot of bitter coffee fanatics don’t understand is that the success of Starbucks isn’t about the coffee. The success of Starbucks is about the company convincing people who weren’t spending $3.50 a day on coffee to make it a part of their daily lives. In the early 1990s, when Starbucks was opening on every corner and driving the weaker local coffee shops out of business, I remember thinking “They can’t keep this up. There just aren’t that many people who go out and buy their coffee at coffee shops.” Starbucks secret is that they weren’t just out to steal consumers from the failing coffee shops, but were working on creating new consumers. In retrospect, they didn’t just steal existing customers. They expanded the market.

In the end, I think that’s why Starbucks is a net benefit to coffee drinkers everywhere. The cost has been that a few local coffee shops that probably weren’t that good anyway were driven out of business (the really good ones have adapted to the competition and have dedicated customers). In return, you can now get a decent cup of joe in the middle of Nowheresville, Kentucky, and the overall level of the United States’ appreciation of coffee as a drink to be enjoyed, rather than simply endured for its medicinal properties, has risen. If you never leave the city, maybe that doesn’t seem like a good trade to you.

But for as long as I still have to drive the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike on occasion, I’ll say it’s worth it.

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