Starbucks: stär'buks n. A parasitic organism that reproduces itself at an astounding rate, much like its furry intergalactic counterpart, the tribble.

Once a Starbucks has penetrated a neighborhood, it proceeds to saturate the unsuspecting populace with various beverages containing a highly addictive substance called "caffeine." This causes an unnatural dependence of the public on Starbucks for daily subsistence, and in some the addiction becomes so severe that they must consume caffeine immediately upon waking in the morning or else the victim will be rendered unable to function. The people proceed to supply Starbucks with a steady flow of small green pieces of paper in exchange for their fix.

Starbucks feeds off of these pieces of paper, growing ever larger and producing an assortment of decorative coffee mugs and personal espresso machines within its walls. Eventually, Starbucks begins to multiply, encroaching upon the native coffeehouses and eventually driving them out of existence. It is not uncommon to see two or more Starbucks on one street corner, and many large cities have more Starbucks than they do public schools. Scientists are still uncertain as to how Starbucks is able to reproduce itself on such a grand scale, but they suspect it involves spores.

Starbucks can easily be identified by the presence of a bright green neon sign featuring a truncated mermaid. This sign is always present, and is usually found on the exterior walls.

While there is no way to prevent a Starbucks infestation at present, there are several warning signs that Starbucks is on its way:

Evil Empire? Starbucks is a Seattle-based company founded by CEO Howard Schultz in 1985. There are currently 2500 locations around the world (the next biggest retailer of specialty coffee owns 371). This retail giant owns 38% of the coffeehouse business in North America and 60% of the Seattle market. Schultz' vision for the company was born out of a trip to Italy where he saw the proliferation of espresso bars. The first three years of business were dismal, and at one point Schultz and the firm were supported entirely by his pregnant wife's salary.

Obviously, things have turned around. Starbucks competes based on a high quality product and good service. It boasts the top 6% within the industry for employee satisfaction. Bill Clinton has recognized it as one of the only chains of any kind to offer even their part-time employees benefits and stock options. It also has one of the most recognized brands in the world. It currently has stores in England, the Middle East and Asia.

Taking over the World? Currently, Starbucks has strategic alliances with Kraft for the grocery store market and Pepsi for their Frappuccino bottled beverage. They are also the official coffee of Barnes and Noble, United Airlines and many more. Is this ubiquity a problem? No one says 'I would like a disposable tissue please', they say, 'I would like a Kleenex'. Will 'I would like a specialty coffee' soon become 'I would like a Starbucks'?

Starbucks is very worried about this trend. Being a huge money grabbing multi-national runs counter to the new-age-green-glowing image they try to project. They have already been accused of union-busting in Canada and have been fiercely criticized for so grudgingly and slowly conceding to the fair trade coffee activists. Their predatorial cluster strategy described by goneaway has stirred up many emotions as coffee houses have traditionally been places with strong community ties.

Forcing out Competition?Starbucks became 'big' because they brought coffee to young people. From about 1960 onwards, coffee consumption had been going down as young people of the 70's and 80's preferred to drink pop. Starbucks attached a brand and a culture to coffee drinking again, and since it entered the market in the mid-80s, coffee drinking rates have taken a steep upturn, and have actually surpassed those of 40 years previous. It is entirely possible that many of the independent coffee houses, whose extinction has been decried by the appearance of Starbucks, are actually riding on the coat tails of the giant who popularized coffee again. In Japan, where the coffee quality has been famously low, the appearance of Starbucks has upped the quality of all competition considerably.

All Powerful?The North American specialty coffee market is beginning to slow so Starbucks is looking increasingly at international markets. They have locations in Kuwait, Korea and even in the Forbidden City. What? They don't say 'not for all the tea in China' for nothing but Starbucks is choosing to challenge it. They are also trying to enter European markets, with already 150 locations in Britain and soon to enter Switzerland. How are Italians going to react to this American company serving espresso, coined by some as their national drink?

Many people fear Starbucks and assert that they are ‘taking over the world’. Remember, Starbucks is not a shitty operating system forcing a monopoly on us. It is not a Pharmaceutical with patents forcing exorbitant prices. It is simply a coffee house that knows how to use good strategic business practices.

Interestingly enough, Vancouver was the first city outside of Seattle that Starbucks opened a branch in, back in the late 80's. Even then the push towards global market domination was there.

Despite the fact that Starbucks tends to muscle in on established markets (occasionally pushing out Mom and Pop coffee shops), Starbucks is at the same time mostly responsible for these same small coffee houses being commercially viable. Back in the 70's you might only find specialty coffee houses in Italian neighborhoods (ie. Commercial Drive in Vancouver), whereas they are almost as omnipresent as Starbucks is now.

On a side note, Vancouver is the only city in the world (IIRC) where there are two Starbucks kitty-corner to each other (Robson & Thurlow), with different clientèles and (somewhat) stable bottom lines.

"The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision making ability whatsoever to make six desicions 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!" --Joe Fox III in You've got mail

As someone who has worked in the coffee industry now for almost five years (wow, that's hard to admit) I found this quote pretty much sums up a fair amount of the customers I come in contact with. In fact, it gets to the point where we know people by their drinks. There is a woman who works for International Programs at my University with whom I had a fair amount of contact at one time, and I can't even tell you here name. However, I can tell you that she drinks a skinny double tall au lait, and that she prefers a mug to a paper cup.

Quote courtesy of
Starbucks has thoroughly saturated most cities in the US, and many foreign cities, to the point that pointing out how many Starbucks there are is a cliche. However, the facts are astounding. In several places in New York City, one or more additional Starbucks are visible from the windows of other Starbucks. One corner actually has three on it. They have even attempted to tap into the hip-chic Soho coffee market by opening a coffee store that doesn't actually have a sign anywhere admitting it's a Starbucks.

There are so many of them because Starbucks is a notorious practitioner of the practice of Block Busting, a practice where national chain retailers draw on their vast corporate resources to descend upon an area and open up enough stores to saturate the market, even to the point where there are so many locations that individual ones aren't even profitable, in order to drive out any competing operations, especially independent 'mom and pop' ones. Then once the competition is driven into bankruptcy, and the chain has obtained near monopoly status over the market in a given area, they begin closing locations to make the operation as a whole obscenely profitable - leaving the community bereft of its local business, dealing with a near monopoly in the sector in question, and with a bunch of vacant storefronts. It would seem that Starbucks is still in saturation mode and hasn't reached the stage of closing redundant locations yet, for they are still opening locations and there are still a few independent coffee houses that haven't been crushed.

Starbucks opens up near established coffee houses to drive them out? Not here in Poway, California they don't.

Instead, the management of a strip mall announces that they have elected not to renew the lease of an established coffee house.1 When pressed by the newspaper, the management admits they are in negotiations with an unnamed other company to bring in a new coffee vendor. To no one's suprise, the next occupant comes from Seattle's Other Evil Empire2. It makes you wonder how early those negotiations really began. Why block bust when you can crush the competition before the game begins?

1 The latest casualty is Mikey's, a popular spot that's open late, books some good music, and is friendly to the area kids.

2 I should qualify that... my mom does work for them, is quite happy there, and works in a location (in Northbrook) where there was no coffee house previously.

People seem to assert that Starbucks is some sort of evil conspiracy bent on driving other coffee shops out of business. The point above, about Starbucks having moved such coffee shops from a fringe business into the mainstream in modern cities, is well taken. Additionally, there is a major factor that deserves attention.

Starbucks coffee is better:

Say what you will about monopolies, there is nothing to stop other people from setting up competing coffee shops. Why, then, if there is such hostility to Starbucks as a global rather than a local institution, do people choose to go there? One major factor is the obvious superiority of Starbucks coffee. I have consumed a lot of coffee in my recent time as a university undergraduate and nothing you can buy on the street exceeds the brew which can be reliably acquired from the chain named after Captain Ahab’s first mate.

That very consistency is another selling point. In an unfamiliar area, you can count on the level of standardization in a Starbucks location as an indicator that the coffee will consistently be good. Once you’ve learned the Starbucks lexicon, you can order more-or-less the same Venti Mocha Frappuccino in Vancouver, London, Washington, Tokyo, or wherever in the western world you happen to find yourself.

Why is Starbucks coffee better? Firstly, they train their employees extensively. I have personally worked in a local coffee shop that gave me precisely zero hours of training before setting me to the task of making coffee. The three month training period for Starbucks baristas probably contributes to the continuously high quality of their java. The benefits to part-time employees mentioned above, coupled with the high rate of employee satisfaction do contribute to the quality of the product and to the generally pleasing nature of the atmosphere and the attractiveness of the company itself.

Coffee is a fairly demand inelastic good. I hesitate to call it a commodity because, while in many cases it does behave like one, in the case of really excellent coffee, it is a luxury good. That is why demand is relatively weakly correlated to price (addicts can get all the caffeine they want from cheap coffee, making the argument that trimethylxanthine addiction leads to high Starbucks prices faulty). Starbucks, due to the quality of their staff, product, and environment earns economic rents.

Starbucks also benefits from imperfect information because, like all brands, it creates a familiar marker of consistency and quality in uncertain environments. I know that if I am in Calcutta and I keel over from a cup of Starbucks coffee, I can sue Starbucks international – and put a nasty tarnish on their international image. Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely that the aforementioned ‘mom and pop’ coffeehouses would lay me low in such a manner, it is pretty likely that I might get a pretty bad cup of coffee from them. Maybe that denotes an unwillingness to immerse myself in local culture, but I have a certain appreciation for the emerging global culture. I see Starbucks as part of the progression from narrow nationalism to something more interesting.

Another major point in Starbucks' favour: as well as having better wages than almost all entry level service jobs, they are generous with providing stock options and actually provide health insurance to all of their employees in the United States. This is largely due to Howard Schultz's personal moral commitment to do so. As explained in The Economist:

For Mr Schultz, raised in a Brooklyn public-housing project, this health insurance—which now costs Starbucks more each year than coffee—is a moral obligation. At the age of seven, he came home to find his father, a lorry-driver, in a plaster cast, having slipped and broken an ankle. No insurance, no compensation and now no job.


Commodity vs. Luxury vs. Starbucks

Coffee as a whole is neither a demand inelastic good nor a luxury good, though certain individual coffee varietals qualify as such. It is the second-most-traded commodity in the world (behind oil) whose price fluctuates wildly as a result of temporary demand spikes and inadvertent market flooding.

Starbucks has capitalized on the elasticity of the market by accounting for 2% per annum of entire global coffee purchasing. This includes both Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta beans, and is a shockingly high number for a single company that professes to sell specialty coffees. This has a number of unfortunate results, the most prominent of which is the driving-down of coffee prices in America, meaning that Mom-and-Pops have to sell a higher volume of beans in order to keep the same bottom line.

Perhaps the most dire result is to the actual consumers of specialty coffee themselves. Understand this: Starbucks is essentially buying a commodity good and selling it as a luxury good.

As someone with many years in the coffee industry, please allow me to explain the difference. Coffee that is sold as a luxury good is considered "specialty coffee" and must meet specific standards of quality. At the purchaser level, to qualify as an actual "specialty coffee", it must be of a single varietal specific to a given growing region, and must be free of a given minimum number of defects per barrel sampling. Contrary to popular belief, many coffees sold in specialty-coffee stores are not actually specialty grade; many African coffees fall into this category. They are sold in these stores due to popularity or particular taste distinction, but they are not a luxury good, and do not command a higher price.

The reason you only ever see blends sold in Starbucks' retail stores is due to their habit of attending coffee auctions and literally buying the leftovers, bags of coffee with too high a number of defects to qualify as specialty coffee. These already inferior beans are usually mixed with high-yield, low-quality, low-grown Arabicas from Vietnam and Brazil in order to keep prices down. Make no mistake, the word "Arabica" does not qualify a coffee as specialty-grade anymore than a burning BMW impaled on a telephone pole qualifies as a luxury car.

Now as a consumer, you drink this sort of coffee all the time, in diners or in the office, and you pay 60 cents for it, and fair enough I say. But Starbucks sells you this exact same coffee, intentionally mislabels it as a luxury good, and charges you out the ass for it.

Couple that need for higher volume with Starbucks' corporate stratagem of block-busting, a practice that is not technically illegal but is certainly not fair competition, and you have a dire outlook for any poor schmuck who wants to actually buy specialty-grade coffee, since many actual retailers of specialty-grade coffee are put out of business or forced to relocate as a result of these practices.

"And your name please?"

I'm Rick James, bitch. 555-1234. Napoleon. Why do you want my name? Slim Shady.

These are just a few of the thousands of names on cups that I wrote up in my sixth months as a barista for Starbucks Coffee Company. Though I was thoroughly annoyed on several occassions, I completed each transaction with a fat smile and thank you. Why? Starbucks' "Just say yes" policy forced me to. As indicated by the title, it is a policy in which employees are instructed to submit to the desires of customers.

How to take advantage of this policy:

-So you get a venti drink and halfway through you think, "I could use another drink." I almost guarantee you that if you spill it, they will make you another drink. Also, if you tell them, "This drink tastes weird" (or any equivalent statement), they will make you another drink or give you a refund. The same thing goes for pastries: eat more than half of it, bring it back, say that it is horrible, and get a refund or a new one.

-Maybe that doesn't sound impressive. Every Starbucks location is also equipped with "service recovery" coupons. They are little tickets good for any drink, any size, and any additions at a later time. So bring back your drink, bitch a plenty, and they will give you a coupon.

-Also (for the cheapo) if you don't want to pay the 35 cents for extra caramel, don't order it at the register. Ask for it at the bar and they will do it for you and most of the time with no additional cost, especially at busy times.

-If you ask for a free drink, they will make you a sample. It can sometimes mean a tall-sized drink because drinks are not pre-made except for freshly brewed coffee and they don't want to waste an entire drink.

-Let's say you want a non-fat drink. Do not order it non-fat. When they hand you a drink, ask, "Is this non-fat?" When they reply no, instruct them to make you another drink. More than likely, they will ask you if you want to keep the original drink. It would go in the trash anyway.

Disclaimer: This doesn't work at Franchise locations (i.e. airports, malls, and certain locations in Los Angeles), where they don't really care about customers.

For those uninterested in acquiring a free drink:

Ask for it extra hot, extra sweet, extra caffeinated. If you frequent your local Starbucks but still aren't familiar with the specialized terms, let me help you:

breve-If you're on a carb diet, you might want half and half instead of milk.

doppio-Used instead of "double". (i.e. - doppio espresso)

dry-If you want a cappuccino with more foam than milk.

skinny-non-fat. (i.e. - skinny latte)

upside-down-The shots normally sit on top of the milk in a caramel macchiato, but this will have them on the bottom.

wet-If you want a cappuccino with more milk than foam.

Invented drink ideas:

Tastes like a mint chip shake: Grande cream based frappucino, 3 pumps peppermint, blended with chips.
Tastes like a 50/50 bar: Grande cream based frappucino, 2 pumps valencia, 2 pumps vanilla.
Tastes like cookies and cream: Grande cream based frappucino, 2 pumps caramel, 1 pump vanilla, blended with chips.
Passion Tea Apple Juice: Passion tea, apple juice, and raspberry syrup.

I will leave you with my favorite interaction with a customer:

What size would you like?
The big one.
I don't know, I don't speak Spanish.

Starbucks hates me. I came to that conclusion while standing in a line waiting to order one of their items.

My step-daughter loves Starbucks. She lives in a rather rural area and looks forward to the occasional trip to the big town where she can indulge her jones. She is joined by hordes of young coffee drinkers, a group of consumers whom Starbucks pursued and wooed back into the fold. Starbucks came into being at a time when coffee consumption was falling. Young people didn't drink the beverage loved by their parents' generation but chose to buy soda or bottled water. Starbucks found the key to entice them into sailing onto the dark waters, explore the intricacies of coffee.

Coffee to me is one of life's carnal pleasures. Coffee excites at least four of the five senses. The aroma of brewing coffee is wonderful. The sight of it, steam lazily curling above its dark surface, fosters anticipation. The silken touch of it on the tongue (properly conjoined with ones preferred additives) couples taste and texture in a marriage for the ages. It always gives back to the drinker in a way totally disproportionate to the investment. That is, until Starbucks came along.

As with most people, I was aware of Starbucks existence. I ventured one day to sample their offerings. I'm admittedly a frugal man, though in my defense I've never squeezed a nickel until the buffalo bellowed. I could (almost) justify the price as an investment in adventure, the sampling of something new to my experience.

What led to my desertion, my act of going AWOL from the army of young, upwardly mobile patrons, was the need to learn a foreign language before ordering. I'm not able to define what 'latte' means. I sure as sin don't know what a venti might be. I resent the demand upon my withered old pate to learn how to request their product in a way which suits them instead of me. I know a large coffee, cream and artificial sweetener doesn't roll off the tongue in a melodic waterfall of syllables. I'm not writing opera lyrics, I want a really big cup of coffee.

Am I alone in my resentment? Should I wander down to my local tattoo artist and have him scribe dinosaur on my furrowed brow? Should I get a haircut before I make the appointment? I can't deal with all this stress.

I wasn't always this way. I remember a time when I had to learn how to order eggs at a restaurant. I learned it isn't acceptable when the waitress asks how you want your eggs to respond "Like Mama makes them." I learned real quick she has never met Mama or had breakfast cooked by her. I learned the correct term for me is 'over medium', and it works almost every time.

Maybe it's a sign of my grey matter becoming encrusted with some plaque or calcification. Whatever the reason, I don't want to play anymore.

I fell out of line, casting myself on the shore of non-consumption as the stream of avid caffeine junkies moved forward a single space. I'll wait until I can order in a tongue I've already mastered.

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