March 28, 2005

In Defense of Starbucks

by peterb

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" – 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 – 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.

Additional Resources

  • If Starbucks ever drives La Prima out of business, I'll edit this article and replace it with a rant saying that I always knew they were bastards who are intent on destroying our precious culture.
  • The I Hate Starbucks web site, interestingly, seems to largely consist of bitter rants from Starbucks employees.
  • Dear fellow travellers at From this point forward, referring to your Rancilio Silvia as "she" is strictly forbidden, and violators will be punished. No, seriously. You're really creeping me out. Stop it.

Posted by peterb at March 28, 2005 07:18 AM | Bookmark This
How to keep your town weird
Excerpt: Gabrielle Procter writes: Residents of Exeter, the most clone-like town in Britain, according to the New Economics Foundation, might do well to look to their American counterpart in Louisville for guidance. Alarmed by the spread of chain stores and the...
Weblog: Guardian Unlimited: Newsblog
Tracked: June 6, 2005 12:36 PM

Starbucks is one of a number of businesses I might refer to as a "middle common denominator" business. They aren't the lowest common denonimator -- they make tolerable coffee. They don't make *good* coffee, but they do make tolerable coffee, and you know you can find a tolerable cup of coffee anywhere. Snobs don't realize the value of this. If you're travelling, if you don't have to find your local decent coffee shop, if you just don't care that much, you know that Starbucks will get you a tolerable cup of coffee. You also know that they'll get you the same tolerable cup of coffee *anywhere in the country*. I don't generally buy my coffee there, but I'm not generally looking for a tolerable cup of coffee. I'm looking for a good espresso, so I look for places like La Prima.

I should also point out that what constitutes "tolerable" varies by people and changes over time. McDonald's could fit in this bucket (not for coffee) -- they sell junk food, but with few exceptions* you know that they're selling the same junk everywhere, and you know what you're getting. Having to think about what you're getting is a huge transaction cost that people fail to realize even though they live by it (see also: flat rate local phone service).

* the one exception I've seen, and I assume there are others, was the McDonald's at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, which seemed to be using meat from the morgue. Maybe they were just having a bad day, but the experience was sufficiently foul as to ensure I would not test for regression to the mean.

Posted by Faisal N. Jawdat at March 28, 2005 01:00 PM

It's funny you should mention the Turnpike coffee situation before Starbucksification. It qualified for my response to a "what was your worst coffee experience?" thread on in early 2001:

"And so there I was, one evening a year ago, driving home on the
Turnpike. I was getting sleepy. I needed caffeine. And, like any
other sleepy Turnpike traveler, I was compelled to exit at the next rest
area in search of caffeine.

"As I entered the rest-area shops, I knew what I was in for. Bad
Coffee. I wasn't trying to kid myself. I kept repeating, this is
*medicinal coffee*, medicinal coffee, medicinal coffee, ..., you *need*
this, don't enjoy it, just drink it...

"Even so, when I paid my money and was handed an empty styrofoam cup
splashed with a blue Maxwell House logo, and the checkout
disgruntled-person mumbled something while tossing his head in the vague
direction of what turned out to be a stainless-steel vat of coffee the
size of a grain silo, I knew that something was horribly, horribly

Starbucks deserves my thanks if for no reason other than having saved me from having to drink "Turnpike Special Blend" coffee on every trip to Philly and back.

Posted by Tom Moertel at March 28, 2005 01:07 PM

hiya p!

you've got the wrong girl here. i'm not a bitter, angry anti-mermaid person. i have mixed feelings about the mermaid, both good and bad. i'm also not a coffee "fanatic," nor am i a coffee "geek."

i think you're talking more about a mark-prince-type person. (but actually, he's not as radical as you describe either.) perhaps you mean starbucks' ex-baristi, those who claim the company cheated them out of promised benefits. maybe even an independent retailer, many of whom can describe the unfair tactics they allege the mermaid resorts to in signage, store placement, leasing practices, etc.

or even those many irate customers who write news stories about how the starbucks staff arrogantly corrects them when calling back the order. . .

we have to remember that starbucks is actually a milk bar -- they use far more milk than coffee in most of their popular drinks, after all! they will gladly flavor your milk with coffee, with syrups, with caramel, with chocolate, whatever.

but i'm an scaa member, as is the mermaid. because i have worked with starbucks people, i have a much more nuanced view. . .

happy coffee,

Posted by frelkins at March 28, 2005 01:07 PM

My two worst coffee experiences were not at Starbucks. Starbucks is consistently mediocre, but at least it's not bad.

The worst coffee I ever got was at a fancy Shadyside restaurant whose name starts with E who let a new waitron make an espresso for me, and he didn't know how to run the machine.

The second worst coffee I ever had was at a fancy restaurant near Whole Foods whose name starts with R, where the coffee looked right, but tasted like toilet water. Literally.

So I guess Pete is right. You can do a lot worse.

Posted by psu at March 28, 2005 06:36 PM

Hi, F! Welcome!

I love your blog (keep up the good work), and I understand you don't want to be called a coffee fanatic, but...come on. You brought your own french press and personal secret blend with you to Boston. When you start travelling with your own emergency coffee kit, you are a fanatic. Mind you, as you may be able to tell from reading Tea Leaves, I don't think that being a coffee (or tea) fanatic is anything to be ashamed of.

Your observation that Starbucks is a milk bar is incisive. In fact, I came up with a justification for the dreaded caramel macchiato. In Rome, if you ask for a "macchiato", the barista will give you a blank look until you clarify whether you want a caffé macchiato (coffee spotted with a little milk) or a latte macchiato (milk spotted with a little coffee). Clearly, the dreaded caramel macchiato is a caramel milkshake spotted with a a little coffee. But maybe I'm doing too much intellectual justification on SB's behalf here. I still hate that they've appropriated a great drink's name for a milkshake.

Faisal: Your use of the word "tolerable" is much more accurate than my use of the word "good," and I wish I had thought of "tolerable" when writing this article.

Tom: exactly.

Posted by peterb at March 29, 2005 01:53 PM

[Taking the tangential comment back to the original post here.]

You're right, I was off the mark when I called this post "Starbucks-loving." I think your analysis is pretty dead-on about Starbucks, both how they've raised the par on coffee, and how they've been successful by creating new markets. This part says it best:

"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."

This, however, just seems idiotic. What is it about our culture that people will generally only shop at the slickest, most mass-produced establishments? Why is it that they don't understand what they're missing out on? Is it just a response to the overstimulation of the "new information economy"? The more I think about it, the less I'm willing to pin the blame on Starbucks for being good at what they do, but it just seems a bit off that theirs is the measure of success.

(One more thing -- can you point me to the resource for the security code that you use for comments? I think it's about time for me to install something like that. Also, do you know why it's telling me that my security code is wrong or missing every time I comment?)

Posted by Joel at March 29, 2005 02:06 PM

The security code is courtesy MT Captcha, which is available here: I don't know why you're seeing that error message (it works OK for me), but if you'll send mail to blog - at - letting me know what platform (OS and browser) you're using, and also whether you're going through a web proxy, I'll try to reproduce the problem and then fix it.

Posted by peterb at March 29, 2005 02:45 PM

There is one other thing about starbucks, which is perhaps only important to people like me who travel all the time, but almost never to the same place, and for whom wifi is like oxygen.

Starbucks will let you, for a $1.50 cup of admittedly imperfect coffee, use it as an internet cafe. When I want good coffee, I make it at home or seek out a true coffeeshop. When I need caffeine and wifi on the road, I seek out a starbucks. It beats sitting in a kinkos, a hotel business center, and just about anything else that is predictably available.

NOW - if there's a funky local coffeeshop with wifi, I would obviously check in there and not starbucks. Unfortunately those funky local coffeeshops frequently don't exist outside of major cities, and when they do, they somehow don't seem capable of making themselves easily findable or listing themselves on the web (much less listing themselves as wifi hotspots). All's it takes is a good ADSL line, a cheap wireless router, and fifteen minutes of HTML and people like me would be there over starbucks. Ah well.

carry on.

Posted by john at April 4, 2005 11:58 AM

Their coffee tastes like crap!!! Plain and simple. Maybe if it tasted decent I might agree on some points with you but... it just crap! Sorry but crap is crap and it IS CRAP!

Posted by Jeff at April 4, 2005 02:27 PM

When I was a kid there were Howard Johnson's all over the place and I know my parents stopped at them on road trips because they could depend on the food. A big deal when fast food chains were less ubiquitous.

Starbucks is the same. I may call it the evil empire, but bless it if I'm in a strange airport first thing in the morning.

Posted by Renee at April 4, 2005 09:27 PM

Interesting point-of-view.

I have my own contrarian take on Starbucks, for another reason. I remember back in 1999 or so when there was a lot of pressure on Starbucks from activists on the left to offer fair-trade coffee. And then one day, they decided to. For all that liberals focus on supporting local businesses, you can't help but appreciate how with one centralized decision fair-trade coffee was made available at thousands of new venues. How long has it taken for the same number of independent cafes to also do so?

Posted by Earl at April 4, 2005 11:26 PM

>> 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.

No, the reason I hate Starbucks is because they are tricking millions of people into forking over their cold hard cash for something that is overpriced and unnecessary. :-)

Posted by Martin of Borg at April 7, 2005 01:07 AM

Well, here in the land of coffee and beer (portland, OR), I much prefer catering to the local coffee merchants than starbucks if only to keep the money in the community.

There is a funny story about a local starbucks here that opened up about a block away from a local, employee run coffee shop called
"The Red and Black Cafe". (We call it the communist coffee shop but more on that later).

Well, less than a day before the starbucks opened, a piece of concrete was thrown through the big picture glass window at starbucks.

Nobody was ever apprehended, but the t-shirt that is now sold at the Red and Black, stating "Just a stone's throw from Starbucks" is selling quite well

(and hiya pete)

Posted by egronke at April 14, 2005 05:17 PM

Here's evidence that Starbucks' consistency will soon become even MORE consistent.

"Starbucks [is moving] to automated espresso machines that tamp and pour espresso shots on their own, leaving the Starbucks barista to just push a button and steam some milk. Lara Wyss, a spokeswoman for Starbucks, said an automatic machine would soon be in each of the company's 6,800 American stores."

I think it's fair to predict the mediocrity will sink a step or two with this.

Posted by a. at April 16, 2005 04:21 PM

Like alot of people stuck in PIT, I have to hit the road, (or the air) early, and often, to have employment with fair market level compensation. I have driven the 1500 miles between Denver, and PIT, more times than I have fingers and toes, even the 24 of a mutated cat. I now concider the Starbucks in Colby, KS, Exit 53 on I-70 to be an oasis.

I have asked people that as SB fans, what is the attraction? Men, say, "no surprises". They are generally risk adverse types. There is also the type that is just too busy to seek out anything, even if it is on the way. Creatures of mindless habit. Women have a favorite pseudo milkshake. 'Nuff said.

For my on the road wifi, I prefer Kinkos to Starbucks. Quieter, and I can bring in better coffee.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at May 8, 2005 08:29 PM

Please help support Tea Leaves by visiting our sponsors.

November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January