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Grande Illusion

Starbucks wants you to know it sells more than coffee.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By KARI BARBIC
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Grande Illusion

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. 

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