by Ian Froeb
Gut Check reviews new(ish) food- and drink-related books.
A few years ago, I got a job as a Starbucks barista. As part of my training, I had to attend coffee school. The instructor was named Ernie. He was knowledgeable about all aspects of coffee production, from farming to brewing. He had trained his palate to distinguish between the Guatemala Antigua and the Kenya, though his favorite roast was the Italian, and had complete mastery of the coffee-taster's slurp. His overall appearance was quirky, but not disarmingly so: he had slicked-back hair and a thin mustache and, instead of the standard khakis and polo, sported black pinstriped trousers and a matching vest. His brand of cigarette was Nat Sherman, which cost twice as much as plain old Marlboro, but which marked him as a connoisseur of the finer things in life. He was enthusiastic. He was highly-caffeinated. Occasionally, he would take a break from expounding on the difference between Arabica (good) and robusta (evil) beans to remind us, "We are taking over the world, one cup at a time."
In short, Ernie was Starbucks, in human form.
The first half of Taylor Clark's Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture explains how a creature like Ernie came to be. The original Starbucks was a small Seattle chain that specialized in fresh-roasted beans for home brewing. When Howard Schultz, a former housewares salesman, joined the company as its marketing manager, he envisioned a transformation of the small roastery into an Italian-style coffee bar, the kind where commuters stepped in only long enough to slam down a shot of expertly-brewed espresso before heading on their way.
Clearly, things did not turn out quite as Schultz had planned. Part of Schultz's genius (and no, that is not too strong a word) was paying close attention to what his customers needed. And, as he discovered in focus group sessions, they didn't need quality espresso; in fact, they preferred to drown it in lots and lots of steamed milk. What they really needed was what Schultz, borrowing from the sociologist Ray Oldenburg, called a "third place," neither home nor work, where they could enjoy the feeling of being among other people without actually having to talk with them.
The rest of Schultz's genius was his real estate acumen: his ability to choose desirable locations and his faith that installing two Starbucks on the same block would not divide business but increase it. By refusing to lower prices, he earned enormous profits and turned the white cup into a symbol of quotidian luxury. And then there was the decorating: the soft lighting, the wood tables, the velour couches (which the manager of my store allegedly used for sex with employees -- excuse me, partners). It made other coffeehouses look cheap and uninviting in comparison.
Clark offers an informative and witty history of the growth of Starbucks into the international leviathan we all know and are addicted to today, with entertaining side trips into the process of coffee roasting and the transport of the first coffee plant to the Western hemisphere, punctuated by irreverent footnotes. The second half of the book, which addresses the various controversies that have beset Starbucks in recent years (Fair Trade coffee, employee discontent, accusations of homogenizing world culture), is less successful, possibly because there aren't very many Central American coffee farmers or aspiring artists in green aprons who are willing to speak out on the record against the Starbucks juggernaut.
The strange thing about Starbucked was that even though Clark effectively demystified Starbucks -- which, to be fair, should have happened to me a long time ago (after all, I worked there and to work in retail is to loathe retail, not to mention most of humanity) -- I couldn't repress the vision I had in my head while I was reading. And that was, unsurprisingly, myself curled up in one of the purple velour chairs in the Delmar Starbucks, sipping a gingerbread latte and peacefully ignoring the flow of humanity around me because Starbucked was that damned good.