My Starbucks Experience

Does coffee taste better in a bling mug? I think so. So does Starbucks.
Does coffee taste better in a bling mug? I think so. So does Starbucks.

I mentioned in “Seriously Seed to Cup” that the two most frequent coffee questions I get are “what’s the best coffee you’ve ever had?” And “what coffee do you drink at home?” Number four would be “is fair trade really fair?” I answered that in “The Question No One Really Wants to Know the Answer to”, so, in the spirit of my trip to my first SCAA conference, held this year (and next) in the US’s coffee Mecca of Seattle, I’m answering the third most common question I’m asked, “so do you really hate Starbucks?”

It’s interesting that people assume that because something is big it must be bad. My short, unexpected answer, is a very simple, “no, actually.” But, when people ask it’s a question of celebrity and the way people inquire is with a blush of scandal, the way they’d ask “so how does Leo really look naked?!” The question expects an answer gushing with juicy details.

My not hating Starbucks starts with my experience of the company from a consumer perspective. As a semi regular customer for many years, I was satisfied.

I discovered Starbucks via the Frappaccino. I was just another small town middle schooler wanting to look like a diva on the rare occasions my family flew to visit relatives. Sauntering up to the counter of a Starbucks airport kiosk to order a Frappuccino to drink on the plane while I flipped through People seemed to be the definition of making it in life. I wanted a piece of the cool that seemed to waft in waves from Starbucks, and I associated the brand with the swanky, fast paced, in-the-know city life I was determined to one day live. My mom had never heard of a Frappaccino. I rolled my eyes as I sucked on the green straw. Her not knowing was proof that Starbucks was “it,” and I was giddy to be on the right side of the trend equation.

I started drinking black coffee out of pride; it was trial by fire when I lived in Spain with a French family, all of whom sucked down a cup of bitter black coffee every morning without batting an eyelash. I was not about to be made to look like the wimp at the breakfast table, and ever since my one way ticket to black I’ve genuinely liked the taste of Starbucks’ drip coffee and forever abandoned the milk and sugar of my once coveted Frappaccino.

Something about the viscosity and the thick velvety texture of the dark, almost sludgy roast left me always happy at the bottom of my white to-go cup. Starbucks coffee always seemed as far from watery as possible, and, now thinking in terms of a coffee writer who knows the lengths to which a roaster must go to maintain a product’s consistent flavor profile, I think I liked the dependability as much as the taste itself.

I’ve always sought out the odd and funky, but sometimes it’s raining out and you have a paper to write and you just want to be 100% sure that your coffee will be hot, have a bite of flavor to it, and not be so thin and diluted that you have to do the mental dance over whether or not it’s even worth it to get a second cup. I liked Starbucks’ coffee, but not enough to go out of my way for it, which I of course never had to, because in New York there’s one on every corner.

I was satisfied with being part of a cool brand, I was satisfied with the product, and I was satisfied with the option of a third space. Starbucks has always walked that thin line of offering you a place to hang but not compelling you to hang in order to buy something, which is the core of coffeehouse logic. Starbucks is certainly not the first business to masterfully execute “the coffee shop essence,” but sometimes there is an awkward feeling to going into a coffee shop in a new neighborhood, as though the regulars give you darting “outsider” side glances. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but I liked that from the day I moved to New York I could always count on Starbucks to give me some place to kill that awkward half-hour between class and picking the kids up for my nannying job.

Drinking my cup of familiar black coffee as I took a few deep breaths to regroup for the second half of my day, I had just as much of a right to be there as the guy in a suit downing a latte or the table full of middle schoolers looking cool as they giggled over their Frappuccinos. It’s always an equitable place and the perfect third space when you just need to sit and collect yourself before you get back on the train.

In my own little consumer way I traced Starbucks’ beyond its role in New York’s coffee/third space fabric and on it’s globetrotting expansion. My friends and I began to travel during college, and requisite souvenirs became Starbucks mugs from the countries we visited, like Germany, Spain, and even Egypt (but not Italy!) Whenever any one of us traveled to a new city or country the question was always, “did you get the mug? What does it look like?” I gave my parents a Starbucks Christmas tree ornament all four years of college because I could buy them with my “Dining Dollars” at the Starbucks on NYU’s campus. Starbucks’ merch was varied enough that products from different places and different years allowed for the possibility of collection. You couldn’t get the 2007 Christmas ornament in 2008 or the Philly mug in DC. I was satisfied that a global brand had local touches my friends and I could turn into our own traditions.

I've been skating many times on Central Park's Wollman rink, depicted here. Love it when something mass produced seems to reflect important moments in real life.
I’ve been skating many times on Central Park’s Wollman rink, depicted here. Love it when something mass produced reflects important moments in real life.

I was definitely satisfied when Starbucks rolled out their Bold line of coffees. I liked the standard Pike Place, but because I do like funky stuff and love ordering items off a menu and having no idea what my plate will look like when it hits the table, I also loved just walking in a asking for a “tall Bold please.” Names like Verona and tags with drawings of Kenyan elephants dangling on the airpots appealed to my exotic literary side, and I was satisfied that there was the same variation-on-a-theme in black coffee that there was in 12 oz collectable mugs.

When I set out on my “When Coffee Speaks” odyssey, the sum of my Starbucks experience was one of general satisfaction with a brand that, for me, stood for urban sophistication and a club anyone could be a part if you were willing to put in the 30 seconds required to learn the language. It represented a flavor I liked and could count on, an anonymous space that for under $2 I had the right to spend two hours in, and tokens my friends and I associated with holidays and travel. When I started investigating coffee production, I had no outside knowledge of Starbucks’ sourcing practices, and I had no inkling to think that the elves behind Starbucks were doing something stellar or horrible.

But when people ask me what I think about Starbucks, they really don’t care about my personal history with the brand. They mean, “what did you see on the ground? Anything scandalous? What did all those farmers have to say about Starbucks?”

Most of them have never heard of it.

Starbucks is a coffee roaster, like Green Mountain (now Keurig Green Mountain), Tim Horton’s, or JM Smucker & Co (who roasts Folgers). They buy coffee; they don’t grow it. People think of Starbucks as THE coffee brand, but that’s a testament to their iconic ubiquity of branding rather than their actual market share. Grocery and food service roasters still purchase the majority of coffee produced in the world.

As a roaster, Starbucks buys coffee via trading companies. Some of these companies are vertically integrated and run processing mills in origin countries, but even when the trading companies that buy coffee for Starbucks are the ones who own the mills, the mills will often be known to coffee farmers by the names of the local companies running them or by older names of former owners. Direct trade is attempting to eliminate some of the middlemen in coffee, but all those intermediaries are there for a reason. Starbucks’ business is to roast and sell coffee, not to weatherize processing mills in African floodplains. For that reason, Starbucks is just another buyer to most coffee growers, and most growers don’t know the end roasters who buy their coffee, making Starbucks, in the US synonymous with all things coffee, just another drop in the faceless buying bucket from the vantage point of producers.

Starbucks has a long love affair with Costa Rica (it’s the seat of its regional agronomy offices and the home of the experimental farm they bought last year to monitor effects of/test ameliorations for climate change), so many farmers in Costa Rica do know that the co-op they sell to sells some coffee to Starbucks. When that’s the case, the farmers are as happy as a middle schooler with a Frappuccino. Starbucks opened its first café location in Costa Rica in 2012, and even though the brand is new-ish to Latin American consumers, growers who know it know it as a gold mine.

Starbucks ‘reputation, as it trickles down to the coffee growing hills of Costa Rica, is one of success. Knowing that Starbucks bought your coffee is a serious gold star. Starbucks, as a roaster, is a much smaller buyer than Kraft (Maxwell House) or Nestle (Nescafe/Nespresso). They’re looking for smaller volumes than the larger, more entrenched “dinosaur” buyers, and they’re often willing to pay some sort of premium. They even buy rotating microlots for their Reserve Collections.

In preparation to visit Seattle and attend my first Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) conference, I’m almost done reading Howard Schultz’s Starbucks saga “Onward” (by the time I finish and this post goes live I’ll be on the plane!) It’s interesting to see where my modest consumer experience does and doesn’t intersect with his narrative of the company’s goals and strategies, as told from the inside. It’s even more interesting to see where Schultz’s insider tale does and doesn’t intersect with the views I heard producers share about the company.

To producers, Starbucks is just another coffee roaster, buying their beans through one commercialization path or another, maybe paying a slightly better price or helping them invest in reforestation through their C.A.F.E Practices program. Knowing your beans have made it to Starbucks, particularly to the Reserve Collection, is a major point of pride, but Starbucks doesn’t influence the weather or the C-Market price, so it’s really not on producers’ daily radars.

Because it’s something we consumers in the US and other developed nations interact with intimately and tend to have strong opinions about, people asking me how I, after talking to so many producers, feel about Starbucks, expect that even the mention of it as an entity will elicit similarly-charged emotional responses among coffee growers. It just doesn’t. The charge consumers experience is rooted in a ritual in which coffee is only part of the rite.

In “Onward” Schultz writes repeatedly about “The Starbucks Experience,” one key of facet of which is its infinite customizability. My friend worked as a Starbucks barista in Pennsylvania, where she also performed in a local community theater performance. After the show, a woman approached her and said, “You did such a great job!” My friend stammered because she couldn’t place her face, so the woman apologized saying, “Oh, I’m Donna!” Following my friend’s continued blank stare Donna added, “7am, grande no foam latte with two pumps of sugar-free caramel,” and my friend exploded into a grin and “of course!” returning her outstretched arms in a hug.

How can you forge a consumer identity in a fast food nation of #3’s and the dollar menu? You develop “your drink” at Starbucks, and your barista knows you and your beverage as well as the bartender at Pete’s Tavern knows who gets two fingers of scotch and who gets a dry martini.

On p. 163 of “Onward” Schultz quotes Daniel Henninger’s 2008 Wall Street Journal comment that, “Starbucks stores are like secular chapels…I don’t go to Starbucks that much. I don’t go to the Baptist church either. But I’m glad that we’ve got one just about everywhere.”

I share Henniger’s evaluation. I drink black coffee and if I do go to Starbucks, it’ll be whichever store is closest to my next meeting. Attending church for Easter was such a treat to revel in the comfort of tradition. I don’t feel great about being a “twice a year” churchgoer and blaming it on “being busy,” but I do feel good about participating, on at least two important days a year, in a tradition that I grew up with and that I want to always exist.

The day before Easter I snuck back into the studio where I learned to dance and the community theater where I first set foot on stage. For me, those spaces are more sacred than any religious institution. Finding something to revere is important, but so is tradition, even passive traditions that we observe just by noticing that things are there.

Now that I have so many coffee connections, I drink little to no Starbucks coffee. But, my first stop in Seattle will be to the coffee altar of the first Starbucks store in Pike Place market. I hope they sell mugs.


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