The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Admit you like Starbucks
Tom Smith

There's a Starbucks backlash goin' on and it's not fair.

Yes, Starbucks are absurdly ubiquitous, they have overexpanded, and now they're going to pay the price.  The creative destruction of the market is at work.  But we should remember some key facts and be grateful.

First, remember what coffee was like before Starbucks.  Some of you (though I doubt it, with the readership of this blog) may have cut your teeth on micro-roasted craft coffee shipped straight from Kona or that African critter's butt to your grinding burr in Seattle.  But most of us drank the usual American swill to be found in law firm coffee rooms and frat house kitchens.  Akk.  Dreadful stuff and I know because I drank enough of it.  "I just made it" meant it had been sitting there getting foul for less than an hour.  "It's OK" meant you could drink and not die immediately.  I grew up in a house where my Mom drank 20 cups of coffee a day, not one of them not worth forgetting until, you guessed it, Starbucks came along and taught people about coffee the way everybody discovered wine in the 1970s.  So yes, Starbucks is not as good as PetePeet's.  Well, excuse me while I play the grand piano.  No it isn't.  But the point is, it's not Maxwell House.

Then there is the whole concept of espresso.  It's not the same thing, but I discovered good coffee in New Orleans, I think when I went there for my brother's graduation from Tulane Law School.  I was never able to recreate it precisely but I tried, scalding milk and using New Orleans style coffee with chicory.  Espresso is a similar deal.  You get more of the good stuff out of the bean and less of the bad.  Americans discovered coffee did not have to taste like year old battery acid.  They began to explore.  In many instances this led to vice, such as caramel mocha fraps and chai tea in any form.  But this is inevitable.  There will always be those who take a good thing too far.

A common meme is this idea that Starbucks is a hotbed of elitism in the bosom of no nonsense, egalitarian America, as opposed to good ol' Dunkin Donuts.  This is a lie.  Maybe people who live in La Jolla or Coral Gables get sick of elitism, but for the vast majority of us who live out in the great long tail of American mediocrity, a place that has pretensions to upper middle class culture, however transparently self serving and delusional, is more than welcome.  The Starbucks I go to is next to a Burger King, a muffler shop, a Chaldean hooka joint, a dirt cheap barber shop you could clear out instantly by shouting "La Migra!" and some sort of store front holy rolling student ministry.  On a typical 102 in the shade summer day, with the 18 wheelers rolling by on their way to El Cajon, I can do with the AC blasting and some gal crooning about whatever is troubling her sensitive soul at that moment.  It may not be America.  I live in America and I want a place I can get away from it for 45 minutes and pretend I'm in Portland or wherever.  Dunkin' Donuts is just more of the same.  You go into Starbucks, buy the New York Times, listen to jazz, drink your latte, and for a little while, you experience a kind of relief.  If you are worried that it's not authentic, then you really do have a problem.

So lay off Starbucks.  America needs a big phony retreat from reality into a smug liberal fantasy land, where everything is hip and cool and the coffee is not OMG can you taste the nuttiness in the finish, but not half bad, which is a lot better than most places can manage.  A place where nobody knows your name.

HERE'S the Starbucks closure list.  San Diego is being hit pretty hard, but I don't see any on mine listed.

SAVE OUR STARBUCKS in the WSJ.

WELCOME Daily Dish readers.  Could one of you please tell Andrew it's Tom Smith, not Tim Smith.  I know you may think there's not much difference, but when you go through life with a name like Tom Smith, every letter counts.  My wife actually changed her name to Smith after we were married but then changed it back to her (frankly, somewhat funny sounding) Austrian name because she said she "felt so, so, anonymous . . . "   Just a slightly sensitive point is all.  But, thanks for the link.  Also, I think of myself as a libertarian, not a conservative.  I just happen to exercise my liberty to be mostly conservative, but I think everyone should be free to choose whatever lifestyle they want, however much I may envy it.

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Tom Smith
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Comments

It's "Peet's," you trogolodyte.

Posted by: caffeine junkie | Jul 18, 2008 2:40:45 PM

This is a great manifesto. Amen.

Posted by: Skeptical | Jul 18, 2008 3:37:35 PM

There are fivew from my community. Sucks I guess...

Posted by: Starbucks Closure List | Jul 19, 2008 2:25:23 PM

There are five from my community. Sucks I guess...

Posted by: Starbucks Closure List | Jul 19, 2008 2:26:11 PM

Agreed that this is a fine rant.

I never drank coffee until someone offered me a hit of Cuban espresso, which is like crack except that crack isn't as strong. Starbucks is like a weird Scandinavian country where I don't speak the language. I buy a tasteless scone or one of those girl-sized lemon things. Ordering from the drink menu forces me to use cult marketingspeak, which I dislike. Or I go to the Cuban coffee place, things are simple and friendly, I order a colada. Everything is understood. They barely speak English but I feel that I am in America again.

Posted by: Jonathan | Jul 20, 2008 10:03:54 AM

There's nothing like a thin watery espresso at Charbucks to make you appreciate espresso Peet's Coffee.

Thank you and have a nice day.

Posted by: djl4570 | Jul 21, 2008 8:54:21 PM

Maybe it's the Marine in me, but I prefer the Maxwell House. Try drinking your coffee out of a metal cup?

Posted by: Paul | Jul 21, 2008 8:56:23 PM

Starbucks? Jeez. You're still not drinking coffee. You traded battery acid for the scum in the oil pans of all the 56 Bel Aires in Havana. Over roasted, under prepared, and the service? Please.

Posted by: Fidel, MD | Jul 21, 2008 8:56:38 PM

It's "troglodyte," not "trogolodyte," you meathead.

Posted by: Neptune Hoist-Petard | Jul 21, 2008 9:07:18 PM

Sorry. Can't bring myself to pay $5 for a cup of coffee.

I do live sorta near the Farmers Brothers plant and I hear they now sell their restaurant grade coffee over the counter to locals. I'm gettin' me some.

What is it about banquet coffee that tastes so good? Preparing a cauldron for 500 somehow allows brewage to perfection. Do they percolate it (horrors!) like my mom did fifty years ago?

Posted by: koblog | Jul 21, 2008 9:16:42 PM

I'm down on starbucks at the moment - not down enough to avoid going in every single day but I got real bad service yesterday and I'm looking for a place to complain about it.

Posted by: rj | Jul 21, 2008 9:19:03 PM

I live in Minnesota. None of the listed locations are places I'd choose to start a new business. No loss.

Posted by: Big Boy | Jul 21, 2008 9:33:09 PM

Starbucks is proof that a lot of people have too much money and damned poor taste. The stuff is made from goat dropping, bridge sweepings and water from a desert waterhole surrounded by animal skeletons. It's just plain nasty.

Posted by: Peter | Jul 21, 2008 9:41:38 PM

For the record Peet's chai is vile.

Posted by: Boris | Jul 21, 2008 9:45:15 PM

Starbucks was cool, hip, and trendy until it became *too* big. We in America don't like corporate winners--ask Wal*Mart.

Posted by: Darren | Jul 21, 2008 9:48:01 PM

Given my experience growing up on a farm 'back in the day' when coffee came from a giant percolator my grandma used to make coffee "strong as a mule's butt" just about anything that was better than hot river water a revelation. I don't care for Starbucks because I don't like being forced to use funny words for ordinary objects. What's wrong with small, medium, and large anyway? I left the second time I felt like punching out a 'barista' (whatever the hell that might be -- I was figuring some sort of French bar pimp turning out B girls) who *simply wouldn't serve me* until I used the 'right' terms. (I'm guessing that isn't the norm for their service, but it lost me as a customer years ago and I have zero interest in finding out.)

I buy my own coffee now, and it's not outstanding but it's better than Grandma's (God rest her beautiful soul -- no person *ever* left her house undernourished), and I appreciate it, and I appreciate Starbucks for, in large part, making it possible. Making decent coffee isn't all that hard, and it is one of life's small pleasures. We have several other coffee houses within 10 or so minutes of my house and I visit them all on occasion, and probably none of them would have been there had not Starbucks blazed the way. So, even though you're getting none of my money, I do have to admit I owe Starbucks at least a big Thank You!!

Posted by: JorgXMcKie | Jul 21, 2008 10:12:31 PM

"Chai tea?" Isn't that redundant? Chai is tea.

Posted by: T J Sawyer | Jul 21, 2008 10:20:15 PM

Just last sunday I bought some donuts from a small family run donut shop. I grabbed a cup of coffee as well.

Let me just say, the donuts were good but the coffee sucked. Styrofoam cup and all.

However, I avoid most Starbuck's around my house because the lines are too long.

I was in Marin County in 95-96 for business, the nearest joe joint was a Peet's. A friend and I got some drip coffee. Blech, we actually went back and complained. We thought we were doing them a service by telling them their drip coffee was way too strong. Hah, we even suggested they do it more like Starbucks. That suggestion didn't go over well. (This was long before I learned Starbucks was a spin-off of Peet's.)

I have had Peet's since then, the drip seems to have come down to Earth.


Posted by: John in Seattle | Jul 21, 2008 10:20:20 PM

Also, the customers are not required to use Starbucks Lingo. Ordering a "small drip coffee" seems to work out just fine for me.

Posted by: John in Seattle | Jul 21, 2008 10:23:40 PM

Starbucks, now, is not Starbucks the way it got started. Starbucks, then, was basically a spinoff of Peets. What's funny, of course, is that the guys who founded Starbucks now run Peets.

But Starbucks-the-monster-chain does nothing but predate to make sure that it's B-grade coffee is what's out there. Ever hear of Seattle's Best Coffee? Torrefazionne?

Starbucks, today, is the McDonalds of coffee. Mass marketed, not great, it's only saving grace is that it's consistent. It's the same thing in California as it is in Wisconsin, as it is in Florida, as it is overseas.

But y'know what? I like small coffee shops. Some of 'em are really quite good. And I'm tired of Starbucks trying to nuke them out of existence.

Posted by: Chuckles48 | Jul 21, 2008 10:55:54 PM

Oh, please. I've been drinking good coffee my entire life and I had my first chai before Peet's Coffee was founded, let alone Starbucks.
I don't like Starbucks - the coffee.
Starbucks - the cult, is... well there is a high concentration there of overly wordy people who think pretentiousness is "more than welcome."
*douche chills*

Posted by: Amanda | Jul 21, 2008 11:01:22 PM

I've never really 'liked' coffee, so the demise of Starbucks is no big whoop to me.

That yummy stuff I drank in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica... now that's another story.

Posted by: Suzie | Jul 21, 2008 11:25:25 PM

I don't like Peet's. At every Peet's I've been to, the service is slow and disorganized - far inferior to most Starbucks.

Posted by: Eric | Jul 21, 2008 11:44:46 PM

hmmm

luckily i live in wellington, new zealand, where we have more coffee shops, and coffee roasters per head of population in the world.

starbucks is here too - it is shopgirl coffee, they think its cool. everyone else goes to their favourite local.

at home i use a french press, and when i have the time to wait the 15 minutes for it to warm up, my la pavoni "beast". at the moment ergacheffe (sp) ethiopian organic is the bean of choice, but the kenyan peaberry also makes a mighty fine brew.

pretentious - moi?!? :)

Posted by: gareth | Jul 22, 2008 12:08:39 AM

Starbucks coffee is the same as it's always been in terms of quality - more or less consistently middle-of-the-road. Sure, you can do better; but you can also do a helluva lot worse, too. The majority of elitist Starbucks decriers (it's oh-so-fashionable to sneer at Starbucks, isn't it?) would humiliate themselves if they faced a blind tasting consisting of the offerings from their favourite coffee outlets and the Starbucks cup. Penny to a pound, they'd fail to identify the Starbucks brew time and time again.

Posted by: Coffee realist | Jul 22, 2008 12:15:24 AM