Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Soulless Starbucks

Yesterday morning, as I was struggling to wake up, I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about Starbucks. Apparently founder Howard Shultz fears that his megacorporation is losing its soul. The story featured two ardent defenders of Starbucks, including a minister who compared the sameness of Starbucks to taking the Eucharist—one can take it anywhere. Needless to say, I woke up pissed off.

This story reminded me of everything that is wrong with America. While I’m glad that the founder of Starbucks has realized that the sterile sameness he has foisted on the world is indeed soulless, I am not convinced that Starbucks ever had a soul. And minister guy, with that logic, you should just go to McDonald’s—apparently their coffee (Newman’s Own) was ranked higher in taste tests than Starbucks coffee. You could have a Big Mac and a large coffee and call it communion.

I hate Starbucks. I hate their coffee; I hate the “atmosphere.” I hate their paper cups. I hate what they’ve done to music and to literature. I hate that people think that hanging out in a Starbucks is an authentic coffee shop experience.
Starbuck would be pissed to see his good name so misused.

My hatred of Starbucks goes back to when the company took over Boston’s Coffee Connection in the mid-nineties. Coffee Connection was a local roaster with a number of small coffee shops in Boston. Dark and delicious, Coffee Connection coffee came in real mugs if you had your coffee in the shop. All was wonderful in Beantown until Starbucks came along and took over my beloved Coffee Connection. Bastards.

You can’t see the Coffee Connection label anymore,
but this is a Coffee Connection travel mug


When I got into organic and Fair Trade, my hatred of Starbucks intensified. Although the company has made strides in recent years to incorporate organic and fairly traded coffee into their line (though I’ve never seen organic brewed coffee offered at a store), Starbucks dragged its feet on the issue for a long, long time. When a Starbucks opened up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (a town with its own coffee roaster, Breaking New Grounds), a bunch of us teamed up with the Organic Consumer Association and handed out leaflets to the tourists going into Starbucks.

The thing was that while we wanted Starbucks to start carrying Fair Trade organic coffee, we also wanted the store out of our community. To this day, no self-respecting local sets foot in the place. Why have coffee in a place virally replicated throughout the world when you can experience a place unique in all the world (and that has better coffee)?

For the love of God, if you want a real coffee experience—one with soul—go and find your local coffee shop. Try Caffé Sicilia in Gloucester, Massachusetts, if you’re ever on the North Shore. Try 1369 in Cambridge. Go to Breaking New Grounds in Portsmouth. Find your shop and support it. That’s how you put soul into your cup.

22 comments:

Rich said...

Don't forget to mention the Beantown Caffe!!!

I guess you don't like starfucks eh? The coffee connection was good and is missed. having said that. I'd take starbucks over Dunkin Donuts any day. Doesn't mean I love starbucks just means how much I hate DD's

Sassy Sundry said...

True, true. Nice use of the eff word (would have used it, but I'm at work).

Carissa said...

Ah, Sassy....

As a member of the Diaspora, I can see how Schultz might find that Starbucks is losing its soul. Particularly when a Starbucks moves into a non-Coffee-culture area. Seattle area baristas are usually cool local people who understand coffee culture and are held to very high coffee standards and have to go to coffee school for a month as well as be trained and pass quite a few practical tests to become a certified barista. While Shultz' original vision was to export coffee culture to the masses, it's rather hard to do when neither your employees nor customers are really coffee culture kinds of people. While I will pick the Bucks over DD any day, standards at MA Starbucks aren't quite up to Seattle standards....but then again, we aren't in Seattle.

Also, while Starbucks may not have started as a fair trade and organic company, I think they really deserve props for their policies now. They take care of their people both in America and abroad. They are one of the few companies in America that give benefits for working 20 hours a week. They also go into the communities that grow their coffee beans and build schools, sewer systems, medical clinics and really strive to improve the quality of life of the people who work for them. They also have multiple organic blends (not just one token one) and many of their coffees which are not labeled as organic are blends which include organic coffees. You can also get organic milk at all corporately owned stores.

So, yes, supporting local indie coffee places is a good thing. But I do think your Starbucks hatred is a bit on the strong side.

Sassy Sundry said...

Ah, Carissa. As I said, I nearly included an apology to you in the title.

Yes, Starbucks has done a lot recently to promote organic and fairly traded (different from Fair Trade) coffee. But it took a year-long boycott and active leafletting to get them to do it. They do, however, treat their employees very well and always have. So kudos there.

I can see what you are saying about wanting to export coffee culture, but the thing is that culture can't be exported. It just doesn't work. It becomes a soulless caricature of itself.

Carissa said...

...which is exactly why Shultz thinks Starbucks is losing its soul.

Dear Prudence said...

Only once did I have a Starbucks coffee. I drink 3-4 of those mugs of yours a day Sassy and fancy myself as a coffee snot of sorts. Starbucks had shite coffee if you ask me. Right now I am enjoying a lovely Guatamalian coffee that is divine.I really never go and have coffee anywhere other than work or home. Unless it is for breakfast and all that coffee sucks.

Robyn said...

I absolutely love my shabby local coffee shop with its cork board wall covering and tattered carpet. You walk in, and the owner says, "Hey Robyn. What can I get for you?" It helps that I make his menus, but it also helps that he likes knowing his customers,and he always has a dark roast at the ready.

Sassy Sundry said...

Prudence, I am proud. And I'm very happy that you still like that mug I made for you.

Robyn, your coffee shop sounds fantastic.

Before Girl said...

I'm a tea person so I'm totally out of my league. But you know, to a certain extent, I like the idea of being able to go into the viral sameness of a store replicated (soul or not) around the world. Though I'm not a world traveler (again, out of my league here), I have found comfort in places wholly unfamiliar to me, just in the ones that are. Example: When I went to Las Vegas for five days, I totally enjoyed getting a quick bite at McDonald's. It was the same McDonald's that I like here. Comfort in sameness in a place that is admittedly, known for the bizarre.

But I totally agree with you on the fact that they've taken literature and music into their souless void. And I HATE those people who lounge for hours in Starbucks, thinking they are having an experience. Go experience somewhere else-I just want ten minutes in front of the fireplace in a comfy chair!

Oh and Dirk Benedict of "Battlestar Galactica" would be upset his namesake is being used as well.

Before Girl said...

I also hate that Starbucks people are called "Barristas". Hello-you are a CLERK. Don't fancy it up. You're still making minimum wage.

dive said...

Hope's Brazilian deli and coffee shop in Westminster makes the best coffee in the world.

Over here (when I'm not in Westminster) we use Costa (British/Italian) or Nero. Starbie's is only used if you are gagging for caffeine and there's nothing else within staggering distance.

Good to see you ranty again, Sassy.

Rich said...

I have a starbucks coffee gift card that was given to me as a gift back in 2003. I still have about $10.00 left on it. I don't frequent the place much - just when I'm stuck at an airport and it's the only coffee around. check out my post today.

Carissa said...

You do realize that Starbucks is not unique in calling some of their employees baristas (not all of their employees are baristas). Barista = non-alcoholic, espresso-based bar tender across the board....even at non-Starbucks coffee shops (and there are a lot of those).

Hate on the Bucks all you want, but show some respect for those in the industry. I'm sure the bar tender at the bar near my apartment wouldn't like it if I started calling her a "beer wench." Being a barista is something which requires skill and training and in which many people take great pride.

Before Girl said...

I understand they have to go to coffee school and all that. I have never heard "barista" used anywhere else other than Starbucks.

Plus, the term "barista" was only used in this term since 1982 in the United States. It's from the Italian, a place where culture certainly means more than Starbuck's ever will.

"Wench" has a much longer history, it was often used to describe a promiscuous woman-hence an insult. "Barista" merely means someone who works a coffee bar. So, wench would be an insult. Barista is something intended as more cultured.

And if you want to get really technical, a bartender needs skill as well. How to mix drinks, get along under high pressure, and be able to be as sociable or as non-sociable as the clientele presents itself.

I'm not saying baristas can't take pride in what they do. If it keeps my drink from being spat in, they can think whatever they want. I'm just saying "barista" denotes a tone of snottiness in my mind that tries to put them up there with say, "neurologist."

Carissa said...

BG - I think you missed what I was trying to say.

My point was simply that baristas (in Italy and Seattle anyway) are usually highly trained skilled individuals very similarly to bar tenders. Simply calling them clerks is degrading.

Baristas are by no means on par with doctors but their position requires more skill than your average fast food worker's job which I felt you were trying to write them off as.

Sassy Sundry said...

I once went to a minor-league hockey game where the players got into huge fights. At one point, the guy who did the music put on a little romantic number to try to break things up.

I may despise Starbucks, but I really like Carissa. I do feel badly about trashing something that reminds her of home.

If you happen to hate Starbucks, though, do visit Beantown Caffe. Nicely done, Rich. Heh.

Miz Minka said...

Fortunately, I don't drink coffee (love the smell, can't stand the taste). But I hate how these soulless chains put the little guys out of business. If I drank coffee, I'd definitely support my local Java Hut. Plus they have a great deal: buy ten cups of coffee, and the next one's free.

My coffee-addict boss keeps giving me Starbucks gift cards for Christmas. I occasionally use them to buy Chai, and then I leave. I hate the atmosphere there.

And thanks for adding me to your Nifty Blogs list, Sassy! :)

james said...

i was a barista for about 3 1/2 years. Like many i began to have a sort of ethical crisis with their operation. I was never convinced that they paid their coffee farmers a fair wage. Yes, they had a fair trade coffee, however this particular coffee covered roughly 2% of their total coffee output. I thought they could do much better.

And like any mega corporation i found them severely out of touch with the average worker. The benefits they offer for 20 hours per week of work was awesome though i have family who were purposefully shorted on their hours each week so they so the company wouldn't have to pay it.

Atomic Cafe in Beverly rules! They roast their own coffee and almost all of it is fair trade.

Oh and they comparison of Starbucks coffee to the Eucharist completely nauseates me. what a turd.

Before Girl said...

Cue the romantic music! Also keep in mind, I should totally back down at this point, but I'm not smart like that. (Plus, I'm not in a good mood right now. But whatever, no excuses, right?)

Carissa-No, I think I got your point. Don't "dis" baristas. They are more specialized than burger/fry slingers. I got that.

But it's part of a more overall glorification of things. Kind of like how "trashman" turned into "garbage collector" turned into "waste management personnel." I just see the whole "barista" thing as more P.C. claptrap than anything else.

You wrote: My point was simply that baristas (in Italy and Seattle anyway) are usually highly trained skilled individuals very similarly to bar tenders. Simply calling them clerks is degrading.

How? That's what they are. They serve food and beverage, and ring up your order on a cash register. If someone asks, "Hey what's the difference between your mocha-latta-half-cafe-double-entendre" and your fair trade choco-nutty blend?" and they can tell that person, it's just useful and wanted info. But it comes down to "I've poured this for you, and that will be $6.95 please" the same as "Would you like fries with that?"

Still if they are happy doing that, more power to them. I couldn't do it. I think of the movie "Clerks": "This job would be great if it weren't for the customers."

James-I remember hearing about that. I also know that the Franklin Mint used to do that to me and another coworker. Not for benefits, but just actual pay. So it's unfortunately common with bigger corporations.

ali said...

Wow.....I just drive through the local Dunkin' Donuts to get my fix every morning. Since I can no longer have cream and sugar, it's gonna taste like shit no matter where I get it.

Also, I have a friend whose mother has been a bartender for 30 years. I would consider her an expert. She raised her 4 children on that income. However, if you ask what her profession is, she will tell you that she is a bartender. Just bartender. And she is perfectly happy with that.

My current position is "Administrative Assistant" - but if asked what I do, I find it much easier to just say I'm a "secretary". I do not in any way feel degraded by this term. It is what I do. I even have college level training!

adair said...

having been to italy and seen their love of all coffe dark, potent, and served in small lethal injections, i see a huge chiastic difference between the independant and the chain.

pride in what they serve on an individual level.

the local java hut that robyn and i frequent is good about putting out great service and a great product because it reflects on the individual. there are maybe two people behind the bar. they are involved start to finish. as robyn pointed out, they -know- their customers and care about them coming back.

in sorrento, the barista that served up my father's double espresso every morning roasted his own beans, hand ground them, brewed them. the coffee he served was as identifiable as his signature -- and the by-product of years of experience and wisdom.

in the few times i have frequented a starbucks, this has what i found: yappy teenagers craving super venti frozen sugary caffeinated coffee-esque treats. and mopey. carbon-copied "individualists" that think hanging at starbucks makes them enlightened, intellectual beings. and dopey twenty-somethings behind the bar who could never quite grasp that i wanted a medium raspberry hot chocolate. all the activity was chaotic. and it was evident that while they were slinging up the drinks and calling out people's orders -- it was half-hearted, and they worked there for reasons other than an undying passion for coffee and customer satisfaction.

maybe that's the biggest problem. with a chain, the buck-ites don't have to care, because it's starbucks name on the cup. and for gianni or greg, their name is there whether it is visible or not.

Kalila said...

Breaking New Grounds in Portsmouth is the best. If I have to get coffee, I have no ethical qualms about Starbucks (especially with 30$ worth in accumulated gift certificates) but if I'm looking to linger...it's not gonna be there. And no, coffee does not equal communion.