It has been cool to hate Starbucks for a long time. I remember, though, before most people knew what Starbucks was. I had a New York friend who had a little bit of money to invest, and her stock-buying strategy was simply this: buy shares in a companies whose products she thought were cool. There was this new chain called Starbucks, which made unusually good coffee, and served it in an attractive environment. She bought shares. Smart girl, as it turned out. Really smart girl.
I am not a fan of Starbucks-style coffee, simply because it tastes over-roasted to me (and I prefer dark-roasted coffee as a general matter). But it’s still good coffee, and the shops are good places to sit and read and work while you enjoy their coffee. I don’t really expect more than that out of a coffee shop. Though my prejudice is toward patronizing the independently-owned coffee shop, that is not a dogma with me. I’ve written on earlier iterations of this blog about our Brooklyn neighborhood 11 or 12 years ago, in which an independent coffee shop owner tried to rally the community against a Starbucks moving in down the block. He failed, not because there was a special love for Starbucks in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, but because that Starbucks was what his shop was not: welcoming to moms with strollers, who, as it turned out, were a big part of the local coffee business during the day. As I remember it, we were all happy to have that Starbucks to go to — I used to go write there — because the baristas were all nice, and didn’t give you attitude, like the independent jerk down the street (who, by the way, gave customers the impression that they were drinking coffee inside a shrill left-wing clubhouse, with all his political posters and “no this” and “no that” signs on the walls.)
Anyway, when I was in France last month, I was surprised by how inferior the coffee was. To be sure, it was still pretty good coffee. It was just that I’ve been going to France since 1984, and in that time, my expectation for quality coffee has radically changed. What I thought was really good coffee in 1984 was no longer really good coffee. The coffee in France was what it always had been; it’s the coffee in America that had gotten so much better. And this is chiefly because of Starbucks, the chain cool people love to hate.
So there’s this: Starbucks has probably improved your coffee-drinking life even if you never step foot inside a Starbucks shop. Because, again, what chains do is set a floor for standards beneath which it is not wise to fall. Starbucks may not be the best coffee in the world but if you’re competing with Seattle’s largest you better offer something better than they can provide.
The reason Starbucks and other chains have made less impact in, say, Italy or the Netherlands is that these countries were amply-stocked with places you could purchase good coffee before Starbucks et al arrived. Britain? Well, not so much.
Those wealthy consumers who deplore Starbucks and want to stick to their single-tree sourced, Ethiopian high-roast or other comparably trendy, exotic and fussy brews are entitled to their prejudices. But they might at least recall that Starbucks created the market in which they can parade their snobberies. They owe something to Seattle too.
If the average cup of coffee sold in Britain today is much better than it was 20 years ago – and by god it is you know – then the people to be thanked are the folk who brought Starbucks to the UK. Again, even if you hate the chains (there’s now one chain coffee shop for every 10,000 people in Britain) they have improved your coffee-drinking life. You don’t need to use them but you might at least be honest enough to tip your hat in their direction.
Absolutely right. Come to think of it, before Starbucks, I almost never drank coffee outside of south Louisiana, because American coffee was so bad. I grew up on Community Coffee, a very popular local brand, which used to be far too strong for people outside our region. I remember when friends of ours would come visit from up North back in the Seventies, they found the coffee my mom and dad brewed to be mud-like. And it really was, compared to what people in the rest of the country drank. When I lived in DC during the 1980s, on a college internship, I didn’t even bother with coffee, as amazing as that sounds to me now (I’ve just finished my third cup of the morning); Maxwell House and Folger’s weren’t worth drinking, not if you were used to Community.
It’s a different world now, a radically different world, and that’s thanks to Starbucks. There are all kinds of locally-owned, independent coffee shops around now, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t exist at all if not for Starbucks.