The Tall Latte Index

When I was in Toronto a few years ago, I joked for the first time that seeing a Starbucks made me feel like I was in “civilization.”  Never mind that Toronto is a fabulous and vibrant global city, apparently I was rather unnerved by the preponderance of the more-creatively-named Canadian coffee chain, Second Cup.  No doubt, that joke works a lot more effectively in more far-flung locales.

Excusing him for putting that terrible Squeeze song in my head, I want to follow up on Wesley’s recent posts on the Starbucks company’s effort to become the “third place” for folks (following work and home) in their communities.  Because I (inexplicably) have access to Times Select articles, I was able to read the feature on Starbucks’s CEO Howard Schultz and his fear that the company was [losing]

“’the soul of the past and [reflecting] a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store.’ He said that the Starbucks experience was becoming commoditized, and he urged the executive team to ‘go back to the core.’â€?

Schultz celebrates the company’s extremely profitable growth even as he laments the character-assasinating qualities of corporate efficiencies and economies of scale.  The article concludes with a silly dramatic warning to Starbucks not to become the next McDonald’s (even though Starbucks’s growth has been faster and bigger than McDonald’s). 

But why shouldn’t this be the goal? 


Starbucks was at the forefront of the coffee renaissance in this country, and with its size (over 30,000 stores and counting), growth and brand recognition, it need not nor should not try to fit in with the local, independent coffee shops that had sprung up in its wake.  I love coffee/espresso: I want the choice of both, am very finicky about my milk (fat content, foam frothiness, etc.), tittilated by good packaging, and loathe to stand in line for more than a minute or two to order a cup.  While in spirit I seek to remain devoted to the notion of the independent coffeehouse, especially as the former GM of Deis’s Chum’s Coffeehouse, I know from experience that there is a lot of inconsistency in coffee drink production these days.  Starbucks, no longer one of the coffee creative class, offers the consistency I depend on when faced with multiple coffeehouse options and little time to be discretionary.  To me it’s a competitive advantage of Starbucks that I can run in and out – often with the right amount of $$ in my hand – knowing how that crucial first sip of coffee is going to taste (although, even though the machines are automated, there is still too much variance in what baristas consider to be the right amount of foam on a latte or cafe misto, etc.).  Apparently, Schultz and brand experts thinks this could be Starbucks’s downfall.  Instead, it’s what is keeping it percolating (now that’s decaf-tea-fueled writing right there).

Furthermore, with the exception of the phenomenal-coffeehouse-culture of New Orleans and the obvious wealth of choices in large cities like New York, in most places I travel to in the U.S., and especially up here in Dunkin’ dominated New England, there’s still not enough coffeehouse choice.  And Starbucks proves to be a reliable fallback.  In the New England scenario, there’s no real, distinctive Other to trump the “commoditized” feel of Starbucks – Au Bon Pain, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and the aforementioned Dunkin are the major competitors – and they’re all chains, the lot of them.  Meanwhile, as previously noted, I saw ONE Starbucks and ZERO distinguishable coffeehouses in the exurbs of Raleigh, and was forced to buy coffee at a gas station rest stop en route to Greensboro (a city now sporting several independent coffeehouses as part of its downtown revitalization…if signs of life indeed do return, a Starbucks should come rolling on in). 

Starbucks is sitting pretty, and so are the crowds that appear to reliably fill its stores on a daily basis, even as it does decidely un-neighborly things like charging its customers for Wi-fi use.  The analysts featured in the Times piece might be right that the company’s “lifestyle” brand strategy is an overreach.  But it has options, including making itself the alternative to the dominant local option (be it McDonald’s, Mobil, or that kooky place on Main Street where the suburban white kids trying to grow dreads hang out). For there’s no doubt from up here in the land of “Time-to-make-the-donuts” that many of us seek a reprieve from the ubiquitous Dunkin culture: aggressive, working class Massholes nursing last night’s hangover and/or gathering to relive their Korean War days before they head home for lunch at 11:30 am.  (Despite outposts in Jackson Heights and Santiago, among others, more than 20% of Dunkin’s 5,000 stores are within 50 miles of Boston.)  And while I love coffeehouses Cafe Nation and Athans in Brighton Center, I repeatedly wonder what it would take to get a Starbucks in Cleveland Circle (where Dunkins is the favored spot for the T employees’ mandatory work breaks). Honestly, with the amount of coffee Americans consume, there’s room for everyone!

Finally, as far as Wall Street is concerned, Starbucks has long since joined the ranks of McDonald’s, so why are we even having this conversation?  Perhaps we should go get a cup of coffee and discuss it.




4 Responses to “The Tall Latte Index”

  1. March 4, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    PS: I should probably mention I worked at Starbucks in ’94. I receive no royalties from mentioning them here at the RP, though I could probably still make a mean cappucino.

  2. March 5, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Well, with a blog title like mine, it’s not very surprising that I’d have a comment here 😉 I’ve actually never had a Starbucks coffee, but I agree with you that it’s probably too late for them to worry about becoming “The Man.” And I must say, if coffee unpredictability gets you going, southern Italy, where it’s all mom and pop cafes, might not be the place for you…although once you find one you like, it’s always the same person making the coffee 🙂

  3. March 5, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    No, the best coffee I’ve had is in Europe, where I drop my haranging American demands of skim milk, etc. etc. If I’m ever in Southern Italy, I probably have all the time in the world to track down and enjoy a great cup!

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