Starbucks: Five Easy Pieces

Caffeine, Heal Thyself, Heal Thy Planet

1. A woman stood in front of me in line at Starbucks, a bit of a fish out of water, and is perplexed by all of the options. To her credit, festooned in gypsy-like garb, she clearly was not a policy wonk nor law school student, nor Senator or local. She quizzes the Barrista on all the possible combinations of chocolate that she can get into a coffee. She first orders a white chocolate mocha.

She then asks “Do you just have plain mocha?”

“Okay, I’ll just have hot water for tea.”

“No wait, I’ll have a double-chocolate chip Frappuccino”

“Does that come in extra-large?”

“Oh, can you make it with half-and-half and extra chocolate?”

So, to review, she ended up ordering a Trienta (30 oz) double chocolate, double chocolate chip mocha frappuccino made with half-and-half. It is important to note that most transactions at an urban Starbucks are instantaneous–people know what they want, or they get the same damn thing every day.

This episode (annotated) took about five minutes. An eternity for the wonk in need of an afternoon perk. The Barrista, upon the final draft, did a double take and nearly laughed out loud. I swallowed my own laughter too. The woman paid with a free drink postcard, the sort that Starbucks offers up to get a new drone hooked on the nectar (because this HAD to be the most expensive single order I have ever seen, you know, get your free money’s worth!).

Lesson: I am pretty sure a .32 caliber would make for a more humane suicide.

2. Reprise….A gruff chap, perhaps fresh in from the mountainside given his beard length, tried to order a “white milk shake.” Perplexed, the Barrista asked him if he meant a smoothie, and proceeded to ring him up. He insisted it wasn’t a smoothie, but a cappuccino. He saw an ad for it, he said. The Barrista explained that the cappuccino is of course, foam and espresso. At this point, the senior Barrista-in-charge stepped in. He backed up, asking if our mountaineer would like a “Blended Beverage.” This was lost in translation from the original Starbuckeese. There was a bit of a pause, long enough to palpitate the inability of our vagabond to speak to the natives. Then, from the line, an increasingly impatient customer offered up “Frappachino!”

Lesson: At Starbucks, it is un-PC to say “white milk shake.” “Blended beverage,” please.

3. I have seen ten year old princesses of the yuppie kingdom speak such fluent Starbuck-prose, that Yeats or Byron would weep upon a hearing. Certainly their parents claim their children to be bilingual! The addiction seems to start with frappaccino fueled by a parent’s wallet. Admittedly, that is how it happened for me, except in those days, Starbucks could only be found in major urban centers and not at Target. Buckys wa a treat, not a need.

By the time the young whippersnapper gets his first job, it is on to more potent caffeine. I marvel at the cost of this daily habit. People used to try to discourage cigarette smokers by showing the cost per year for a pack-a-day person (what is that nowadays, $3650?). Starbucks, at $3 a pop gets into quadruple digits–a plane trip to Europe perhaps.

Lesson: Maxwell House can get you both a morning coffee AND a trip to Europe.

4. A friend of mine, engaging in hyperbole, “checked in” at a Starbucks on that Orwellian app, “Foursquare.” His comment?

“A gallon, please.”

I took up the challenge–how might your order a gallon? Granted, you could get the office kit of a gallon with a nifty carrying handle, but I envisioned the “Big Gulp” of Starbucks. “I’ll have a Cento-venti-otto, please.” Certainly if one wanted death by Starbucks, this is the way to go. Coked out like a 80’s Hair-banger, not smothered under caramel syrup.

Lesson: If you say it in Italian, it doesn’t seem like excess.

5. Another acquaintance, perhaps longing for his halcyon college years of dropping shots of whiskey in his beer, opts for a shot of espresso dumped into a venti (large) bold (dark) coffee.No cream, no sugar. “An act of terrorism,” he calls such additions. The beverage is not on the menu, but is part of the secret lexicon. One shot is a red eye. Two is a black eye. Three is a green eye. Four is an overdose.

Lesson: If you want that much caffeine, take it in pill form.

Personally, I have had better coffee. Starbucks is the McDonald’s of coffee (that is not fair to McDonalds, as their coffee has always been okay.) Uniform and ubiquitous, and reliably found in every travel destination, Starbucks is every bit a Kraken or Cthulhu, rather than a mermaid. Perhaps the better analogy is a Siren that lured the seafarers into the rocks.

I have since kicked my daily habit, opting for better brews and a little more lead time at home (whilst blogging!). But it is hard to imagine an America, 30 years on, without the Green mermaid.

Photo: Photo credit: Thomas Hawk / Foter / CC BY-NC

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4 thoughts on “Starbucks: Five Easy Pieces

  1. Ex-Starbucks barista here. I’m going to let you in on a secret. The coffee beans at Starbucks are intentionally over-roasted, for a variety of reasons, such as for consistency (big, big, big goal of the company), for the illusion of freshness (I.e. to mask the stale flavours), and ultimately, because it dates back to their inception. When they first started selling whole beans, Starbucks needed something to make them stand out. They decided that the thing that would set them apart would be a darker roast of beans. Fast forward forty years, and apparently, for finicky investing/political reasons, they have not been able to put in place a better method, even though a better methods do indeed exist in this modern coffee world.

    The over-roasting is probably a big reason you dislike the coffee. A lot of people (myself included) complain it tastes burnt. This is the case even in their Blonde roast – a roast developed for those whom prefer lighter-tasting coffee. The beans themselves can be pretty decent quality, actually, especially their Christmas Blend, which contains Sumatra beans aged for four years. They are great with buying decent quality, ethically sourced beans, but they are awful about treating them afterwards.

    I get all of this information from my brother. I swear to God, he’s one of the best baristas ever, inside or outside of Starbucks. He is working on his “Coffee Master” title within the company – a title now only awarded to those who are pretty much coffee deities. He got all of this information from that training, but it’s all available publicly if you dig enough, so I’m not outing anything super secretive.

    Annnnnd I;m done with my wall of text.

    • Thanks for your comment. I once heard Chuck Bryant, of howstuffworks.com say that Starbucks introduced to Americans what other coffee there can be, but it is not the best by far. I agree. I have heard about this inside baseball before. I wonder what your brothers take on other Big Coffee firms might be? Peets, founded by the founder of Starbucks was recently bought by a German firm. That same firm bought caribou coffee and is now in the process of converting many an east coast caribou into peets. I have to think that people really drink sbux out of vanity. The green straw could be a status symbol. Also, habit. I droned “Venti, Pike” like a morning fog horn at baristas for the better part of the two thousand-aughts.

      • I like that quotation. I think it indeed did that. They’re whole purpose was to introduce fine Italian coffee to North America, and I think it served its purpose lovely. Does that mean it’s good coffee? Not necessarily.

        My brother is all-too diplomatic about large coffee chains, but let me offer this. I have only once seen him pay for a beverage at a coffee chain, and he never outwardly condones them.

        I drank a lot of Starbucks because I worked there and it was free. I started at the sugary sweet drinks, and eventually descended into Americanos.

        It is totally a status thing. I would say almost all of the customers I served were either business people on their daily routine or a person/group of people splurging for an exciting change from Tim Hortons – the chain equivalent to Dunkin Doughnuts, around these parts.

  2. Pingback: Best Independent Bookeries | Henry's Eclectic

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