The Evany Thomas Column

No Daddy Starbucks, No!

Resistance is Futile; the Starbucks stops nowhere (h2so4 15)

About a year ago, my neighborhood grocery store morphed into one of those all-in-one mother ships with a built-in bank, deli, bakery, and carpet-cleaning rental agency. Like birds flocking to the back of a water buffalo, Jamba Juice and World Wrapps soon moved in next door. And of course it goes without saying that a Starbucks also sprang forth and that business there is brisk even though you can walk a block in every direction and get a fine cup of coffee at any number of locally owned cafés.

And I'm fine with it, really. The arrival of a new Starbucks used to seize me with acid indignation—after all, Starbucks typifies the strip-mollification of our culture. But now, either because I'm older and have more experience with the inevitability of change for the worse, or because the rate at which new Starbucks open has become so ferocious that my disappointment can't keep pace, the indignation has turned to resignation.

Worse still, I've come to expect one on every corner. At home I studiously avoid Starbucks in favor of local talent, but on a recent cross-country road trip, my need for the sustenance of coffee easily canceled out my boycott. I pulled into an affluent little town early one morning and caught myself hoping for a glimpse of that cursed green sign. "How can there not be a Starbucks here?" I moaned in a decaffeinated haze, my neck craning over the steering wheel, "This is the perfect demographic!" And whenever I found a town—like fabulous Las Vegas—that not only had Starbucks, but Starbucks with a drive-thru window, I was disgustingly ecstatic.

But just as I became comfortable with the idea of Starbucks as a necessary evil, and accepted the Starbucks/Jamba/Wrapps/mother ship conglomerate, they went and opened a branch inside the groceria, right next to the produce aisle. I just couldn't fucking believe it. After all, there is a Starbucks just one door over! Doesn't that kind of unhealthy competition go against all capitalistic common sense? Are we in such a fever to pay $3.50 for our double-talls that we can't walk an extra fifty feet to get them? Or is this some sort of sick Catch-22, where you can't face going into Starbucks without being fortified by Starbucks first?

Of course, the crushing momentum of Starbucks has been the butt of mainstream humor for a while now: On The Simpsons, Bart visits a mall full of nothing but Starbucks; in Austin Powers, Starbucks is the evil power plotting to overthrow the world. Now it turns out that all the funning hyperbole was actually soothsaying genius. Yet while the unbelievable expansion of Starbucks may seem to be an out-of-control Frankenstein, propelling ever-onward without reason, it's no accident. Their sights have been set on world domination since the very beginning. I know because I've been inside the monster.

The first Starbucks coffee bar opened in Seattle in 1987. By 1992, they were only about 100 stores strong and glittery eyed customers still fell through the doors like people at the end of a long religious pilgrimage. I was fresh out of college and Top Ramen poor, and they were the only place that answered my pounding on the pavement; it took me three interviews ("Give me three words that describe the way a cappuccino makes you feel"), but I got the job. It paid $6.50 an hour, a full dollar more than any other counter work, and it came with health care and stock options, which were absolutely unheard of. Their training methods were also above and beyond anything I'd ever experienced.

Before employees were allowed to take one step behind the coffee bar, however, they had to sit through three eight-hour days of Starbucks boot camp. At the beginning of Day One, we were each given a binder three inches thick with friendly facts about the history of Starbucks (it's named after the character in Moby Dick), detailed rules about the Starbucks coffee science (shots are pulled for no more than 23 seconds, milk never heated above 165 degrees), and poetic descriptions of the different coffees ("Arabian Mocha Java: an ancient blend, powerful and exotic"). There were also workbook sections with blanks for us to fill with our short- and long-term goals as Starbucks employees. And then there were perforated positive affirmation cards, which we were encouraged to tear out and stick on our mirrors and dashboards, where we'd be sure to read them every morning.

When we weren't taking turns sharing our coffee-based hopes and dreams with the rest of the class, we participated in role-playing exercises and watched videos that demonstrated the Starbucks way of interacting with coworkers ("Never complain or argue with another Partner while you're working—when you're behind the counter, you're on stage!") and customers ("Always ask customers open-ended questions—yes-or-no queries can end a transaction prematurely. If you ask 'Do you like this coffee?', a customer can answer 'no,' but ask 'what about this coffee do you enjoy?' and the conversation leads to a sale!").

See? The coffee-buying public never had a chance against such a well-trained army of Starbuckaroos. Thanks to the detailed instructions drilled into every employee's head, you can go into any Starbucks, anywhere, and get the same machine-like friendliness, the same relentless pursuit of the ultimate goal: You Will Buy Coffee. Starbucks Coffee. The world simply can't resist so many minds focused on just one task, especially when one of the most compelling by-products of this iron-fisted training is the comforting regularity it produces.

Like McDonald's, Starbucks preys on people's desire for the same old same-old. There are no surprises: A Quarter Pounder tastes like a Quarter Pounder tastes like a Quarter Pounder no matter where you go, and because its brewing cycle is controlled down to the second, a cup of Starbucks coffee tastes the same (not so great, but whatever) whether you're in Baltimore or Bangkok. Every Starbucks looks the same—with identical furniture, lighting, and uniforms—and sounds the same—only music selected by corporate HQ is allowed to play in the stores.

Of course there are changes, usually for the worse (McDonald's switching to "healthier" oil for its fries, Starbucks' foregoing the finely tuned training of baristas for press-of-a-button espresso machines), but that's to be expected. Everything's already going to hell: The divorce rate, rents, and the price of a movie ticket are all going up; the age at which kids start to diet, have sex, and shoot up their schools is going down; Freaks and Geeks and Sports Night were canceled. By comparison, the decline in the "quality" of old faves like Mickey-D's and Starbucks, which slopes at a much gentler grade than the average rate of world deterioration, is almost appealing. So what if the fries used to taste better. Now they're healthy! Plus, once people are hooked, it takes a lot of disappointment to shake them.

But none of this explains or excuses the Starbucks that's blocking my produce aisle. Ronald would never erect the Golden Arches right next door to an existing franchise, yet Starbucks flourishes in spite of over-saturation. This is possible only because they've managed to position their coffee as a second-tier necessity. First-tier necessities, such as food, water, and sleep, are truly do-or-die. Second-tier necessities, like coffee or gas, are really just luxury items that we tell ourselves (or, more to the point, some tireless marketing genius convinces us) we can't manage without, despite the sacrifices. "I know it exhausts the environment, and that oil means war, but I just couldn't survive without a car!" "Yes, Starbucks displaced that cute neighborhood cafe, but I just can't think without my morning grande-no-whip-mocha! Besides, those sullen, Nietzsche-reading cafe people never even gave me a java jacket!" Whenever enough people convert a want to a need, a seemingly never-ending customer glut is created. And with so many people wanting a product, the cult of convenience is born.

Gas stations can thrive four to a corner because they divide their customers based on the direction of traffic. Why make the effort of a U-turn when the prices, product, and experience over here are virtually the same as they are over there? So one station gets the North-bound customers, another South-bound, and so on. And while it seems crazy to have two Starbucks existing side by side, it makes perfect sense as long as there's demand to meet the supply.

But where did this demand come from? I like to think that few people would consciously choose to support generic corporate culture, yet how did Starbucks infect us with such a burning need for coffee—no, not coffee, Starbucks coffee? It's a chicken/egg sort of problem: Did our constant thirst for coffee exist before Starbucks came along to exploit it, or is it the endless availability of Starbucks that gave us such a taste for it? Probably a little of both.

Starbucks' genius is that they realized that people may like the "funkiness" of local cafes, but they find the cool-patrol counter people too intimidating, or too irritatingly slow and inconsistent. When it comes to coffee, all people really care about is that it arrives fast and it tastes exactly like it did yesterday. So Starbucks gave people what they wanted: friendly, efficient, and, most importantly, consistent service. And the more people got what they wanted, the more they wanted it—when my Starbucks shift began at 6 am, a line of people would already be rattling at the doors. People would stop by on the way to the airport to buy last-minute bags of beans ("My mother would KILL me if I didn't bring her back a pound!"). Starbucks expanded to meet this "need," thereby combining the consistency of McDonald's with the convenience of a gas station, a one-two punch that makes them virtually unstoppable.

And now all they have to do is open up shop and, like grizzlies lined up along a stream of coffee-craving spawning salmon, dip in their claws.