Everything But the Coffee

Learning About America from Starbucks

by Bryant Simon

University of California, 320 pp., $25.95

The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.

That is how Joe Fox, owner of the evil superstore in You’ve Got Mail, explains the popularity of Starbucks, or what Bryant Simon calls the “Starbucks moment.” In his treatise, Simon attempts to understand and answer the questions: “Why Starbucks? Why now?” Is it really possible that Americans just want a clean place to go to buy a consistently decent cup of coffee? There must be a deeper social motive driving the needs of caffeine addicts nationwide.

Simon believes the story of Starbucks to be the story of the “post-need” marketplace in America, and spends the bulk of this work investigating what Starbucks “promises” and delivers in light of customers’ desires for “fulfillment.” He looks less at the product and more at the atmosphere and marketing in search of the “something more” that Starbucks sells: the sense of community and global awareness that sets it apart from other (in his view) pedestrian chains.

Of course, viewing Starbucks as a glorified McDonald’s is not a new concept, and Simon does not claim to be the first or final authority on the culture of the place. So what exactly are some of Starbucks’s “unfulfilled” promises to us? One of the first that Simon examines is the branding of “community,” billing Starbucks as a third place—a locale other than home and work where people can meet to experience “community.” Simon quotes Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz:

I think we have managed to, with a simple cup of coffee and a very unique experience, enhance the lives of millions of people by re-creating a sense of community, by bringing people together and recognizing the importance of place in people’s lives.

Although Starbucks provides a clean, comfortable location for people to be, the idea that Starbucks is actually promoting “community” through its stores is debatable. Simon cites hours spent in a variety of Starbucks in different cities where he interviews patrons and employees to examine this promise. What he discovers is not surprising to anyone who has spent any substantial time in a Starbucks: stores with many people in one place, but not true “community.” Simon gives examples of empty community bulletin boards and a persistent lack of real conversation with strangers or meeting of “neighbors.” Conclusion: Samuel Johnson-style coffeehouses are not being replicated at your local drive-through Starbucks.

The community Starbucks promises to promote is not just of a social nature, but a global one. Starbucks seeks to appeal to environmentally friendly sensibilities. But through some investigatory research, and a rather uncomfortable episode of the author sifting through a bag of trash he lifts from a Starbucks after hours, Simon shows just how much Starbucks wastes in water and paper resources. The look at environmental waste in the chapter entitled “Not-So-Green Cups” is actually some of the more interesting reporting here. Simon looks at actual practices compared with more environmentally friendly solutions that are not being effectively implemented, such as better practices regarding reusable cups.

Indeed, he cites Starbucks’s own web page regarding the benefit of reusable cups, saying that if two customers use their own cups during every other business hour, this could save the company 1,631 gallons of water and 252 pounds in solid waste. As Starbucks regulars (and Simon) know, however, the stores do not loudly advertise and encourage the use of in-store mugs, and the ten-cent savings for bringing your own cup isn’t much of an incentive to prevent waste.

Although there are many corporations with an unfashionably substantial carbon footprint, the casual environmentally conscious customer would like to think Starbucks is not one of those evil empires. But if you are going to Starbucks for just a cup of coffee, and not to save the planet from that ever-growing mountain of discarded plastic cups and lids, you can rest easy and not feel quite so deceived.

Simon concludes his journey by looking at how Starbucks marketing appeals to its customers’ desires to promote global good. He refers to the appeal of “ethical consumption—buying to make a political statement, support the struggles of others, and build enduring challenges to authority.” Ethical customers are trying to make the world a better, more equal, place through the purchase of Starbucks fair trade coffee. The complaint regarding Starbucks practices here is not that they are not doing anything but that they are not doing enough—or worse, doing less than they would appear to be doing. Does Starbucks buy and sell fair trade coffee? Yes, but they should buy more. Does Starbucks improve the lives of peasant farmers in developing countries? Sometimes, maybe, we can’t be entirely sure; but they should be more vigilant and more generous.

From the evidence presented by Simon, it is clear that Starbucks, through its marketing, appeals to the sympathies of the consumer while placing the profit of the company before the good of the world. Lesson: If you want to make the world a better place, look for a reliable charitable organization to donate to rather than buying a bottle of Ethos water. Or better yet, volunteer a day’s service to earn a free ticket to a Disney theme park.

While Simon makes some valid points regarding the feel-good, community image Starbucks sells, some of his material and interviews tend to be more obvious than revealing and can feel redundant. Of course, readers are at some point expected to see themselves in one of the Starbucks regulars that Simon studies. Perhaps you’re guilty of “treating” yourself to one too many Frappuccinos, thus illustrating society’s incessant need to self-gift, regardless of the economy and dire needs surrounding us. Or maybe you realize that you’re not the artistic individual you once presumed since several of the musical artists on your iTunes playlist you “discovered” at Starbucks.

My personal enlightenment? The concept of third places has eluded me. I realized my lack of interest in the community surrounding me when I read these words from one of Simon’s friends: “I don’t go to Starbucks to talk—I go to be alone.” Yes, I am guilty. I have gone to Starbucks many a time to sip a latte while studying alone, reading alone, or—perhaps when I wanted my alone-ness to be socially acceptable—writing in a journal alone.

Simon does admit in the end that most of these corporate “sins” do not make Starbucks customers bad people. And Starbucks is not an evil institution: It’s just not the global Good Samaritan we hoped for. The ones we should pity are those who allow Starbucks to deceive them by believing that, with every Starbucks beverage choice they make, they’re in partnership with Starbucks to do something good for earth and humanity.

If you are one of the enlightened few going to Starbucks just for the coffee—and only when you’re unable to visit your locally owned, environmentally friendly, community-focused coffee shop—you will not be deceived by the pictures of peasant farmers in Ethiopia. You will know that they are not living the opulent lifestyle of a corporate executive. You will look at the paper coffee cups and know that they’re made from only 10 percent recycled materials. And you will sip your venti Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino all the time knowing you could have had a Big Mac instead for less glamor and fewer calories.

Kari Barbic is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.

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