Starbucks Nation


I am writing this on my laptop from a wobbly wrought-iron cafe table sitting by a battered wood banquette in the back of the hippest, coolest, most damnably noncorporate coffeehouse that I know of in Los Angeles. Casbah, on Sunset Boulevard in the Silver Lake area--out-of-towners, just follow the smell of disdain--looks like it’s been moved brick by brick from the souk in Marrakech, notwithstanding the anorexic teenagers in eyeliner. The place is chandeliered with hand-hammered Moroccan tin lamps. The menu is hand-painted on an antique mirror hanging behind the counter. There’s a little boutique in back selling muslin blouses and hand-painted ceramic tagines. Don’t know what a tagine is? Get out, OUT!--before we call the multicultural police.

Is this the Starbucks of the future?

The gist of Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz’s memo to his fellow executives, leaked in February to the consternation of stockholders, was that Starbucks--the coffee goliath with more than 13,000 outlets in 39 countries --had sacrificed the “romance and theater” of the coffee-shop experience for efficiency and profit.

Confronted with lines going out the doors, the chain had introduced automatic espresso machines to replace the La Marzocco machines (Schultz misspelled it “La Marzocca,” which only seemed to underscore his point). Instead of open bins full of fragrant coffee beans, the chain sells its coffee in vacuum-sealed bags like in a grocery store. Likewise, in the name of “efficiencies of scale,” the store design had been regularized so that one Starbucks looks more or less like every other. The sites, Schultz lamented, “no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store.”


Schultz’s memo--the food and beverage industry equivalent of Jerry Maguire’s “Mission Statement”--kicked off a huge debate in the blogosphere among foodies, Starbucks addicts and what could only be called caffeineistas, and it all got quite recondite. What is the ontology of an espresso drink made by machine? The reddish-brown foam (crema) atop a perfect espresso is neither liquid nor solid. Discuss.

The debate about the automatic espresso machines reminds me of something the literary critic Walter Benjamin once said: “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” Is machine-made espresso inferior to hand-pulled espresso, lacking the latter’s “aura,” to borrow Benjamin’s word? Yes, by some fine degree, a degree I’ll forgive if I don’t have to wait in line for 20 minutes.

There’s a curious thread from the culture wars woven into the Starbucks debate. Schultz fretted about the commodification of the brand. Well, what is that? It’s making something that was cool, a favorite of a self-selected audience, widely available to a mass audience, thereby making it uncool. A decade ago, Starbucks’ audience was primarily affluent, college-educated progressives, the so-called latte liberals. Today these people find themselves fighting over tables with pickup-driving contractors and real estate developers. And they don’t like it.

I rise in defense of Starbucks as it is: a highly refined retail environment, clean and predictable, with reliably consistent products from the Forbidden City in China to the Forbidden City in the U.S. (Fort Worth). The devil’s deal with Starbucks is this: Instead of an absolutely fantastic hand-crafted coffee in a few places, you can get a merely excellent coffee just about anywhere.

Does Silver Lake’s Casbah--or the delightfully seedy Bourgeois Pig in Hollywood--have more ambience than the Starbucks at the airport? Oh yeah. But they’re not at the airport, are they? Neither can you rely on the hole-in-the-wall caffeine emporium to provide a convenient power outlet. When I’m overseas on assignment, I don’t gamble on the boutique hotels. I find the biggest, tallest business-class hotel in town because I know the Wi-Fi works, the room service is 24-hour and the shuttles run on time. When it comes to business travel, trust me, romance and theater are highly overrated.

I would not want to defend Starbucks on all counts. The mere thought of a venti caramel macchiato makes my bowels cramp. They could pay their baristas more. Instead of the corporate soundscape, playing approved music that flows from the mermaid’s brow in Seattle, they could encourage managers to program the stores’ music with an eye toward promoting local musicians.

And far from being the “third place” its founders imagined--a place of ease and repose between work and home--Starbucks has become instead study hall for adults, with people clacking away at their laptops and finger-spazzing on their BlackBerrys.

On the other hand, because of its ubiquity, Starbucks is politically and culturally neutral ground. College kids with anarchy on their minds sit next to cops and businessmen. In an odd and, I grant, surreal way, Starbucks may be one of the last remaining venues where Americans of different views can fraternize peaceably, united in their jonesing for caffeine.

Put that in a memo.