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Starbucks: Credit Where Credit’s Due

In the words of self-proclaimed “big deal” Ron Burgundy, “I wanna say something. I’m gonna put it out there; if you like it you can take it, if you don’t, send it right back.” 

It’s about Starbucks: the much maligned coffee house franchise conglomerate that, as all Australian coffee enthusiasts know, sold its soul to the two-headed corporate coffee devil and deserves to suffocate under its own weight for the debt it owes to coffee culture and possibly, culture itself… 

That was a mouthful! 

Was it too harsh? A tad over-reactive? Maybe, but did it also more or less capture how we feel? I mean, would you vomit in your mouth just a little if you heard that Starbucks opens a new store in China every fifteen hours?  

There’s about 40 Starbucks stores in Australia since their retreat in 2008 when they shut down some 60 odd lacklustre locations; a triumph many of us cheered on at the time but have since forgotten. We still see the survivors around sometimes, sprouting their heads in airports or busy city streets. Sometimes we even wonder what happened and then slap ourselves for evoking an interest as we look back at them like weeds in a vege garden. 

The inconvenient truth, however, is that the vibrant coffee culture we love and cherish, the home-away-from-home atmosphere, the refined flavours, the bespoke aesthetics, these are not some accident that bloomed in a vacuum. There are shoulders of giants that our cafes and coffee culture are standing on. Some are big and some are small, but it may be that despite what indignity we attribute to Starbucks, despite the money machine we singularly see them as, there’s a heart in there somewhere and a place for them that we can be thankful for. 

After ripping Starbucks to shreds in the outburst above, allow me to swing the pendulum and pump up their tyres a little. 

Let’s start at the beginning…

You might find it interesting to know that Starbucks is named after Starbuck, a major character in Herman Melville’s famous novel, Moby Dick. 

Why a 19th century literary character? Well, the pioneers were Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker, names which mean nothing to most of us, except that they were an English teacher, a History teacher and a writer respectively. They’d probably read Moby Dick… and understood it. 

These guys were old college buddies in San Francisco and it was through their acquaintance Alfred Peet, a Dutch-American entrepreneur and coffee roaster, that they received a love of coffee and the art of bean roasting. 

They set up shop in 1977 on Western Avenue in Seattle. Initially they only sold roasted whole coffee beans and roasting equipment rather than the beverage. It was a nice start and a pure start. They wanted the American public to know that there was more to coffee than what you could filter into a pot. 

It was Howard Schultz that put the company on the trajectory towards its now 31k-plus stores across the globe. But as off-putting as that may sound, it’s a story with a heartbeat as it transformed a coffee bean store into a place to catch up with friends. 

Schultz was employed as the director of retail operations and marketing in 1982, but it was a year later on a buying trip to Milan, Italy that Schultz was introduced to coffee in a fresh way. Coffee was part of Italy’s culture, not some flippant side dish with an endless bottom to wash down eggs and pancakes at the local diner. Coffee was the main, it was a point of reference. Espresso bars were on street corners everywhere and they were places for people to meet and enjoy a conversation. 

There was no turning back for Schultz. This was a road-to-Damascus moment. The penny had dropped, he was a faithful convert. And of course he was. It wasn’t just the aroma and flavour of espresso that captivated him. It was the charm, the flare, the community, the ethos, the attention to detail and pride in craftsmanship. Aussies caught the same drift too, though a few decades earlier when thousands of Italian immigrants settled in inner Melbourne suburbs but that’s a tale for another day. 

To cut a long story short, Schultz returned to America, left Starbucks and opened a small cafe called Il Giornale (after the Milanese newspaper). He served Italian-style espresso and ice-cream, offered a small area to dine in with elegant decor and if that wasn’t alternative enough (for the time), he played Italian opera to set the mood. It sounds…delightful. 

Hats off to Schultz. 

So what happened? 

Well… he expanded, bought Starbucks, re-branded and opened 46 stores in two years and the rest is (almost) history.

Of course, what Schultz started with Il Giornale is virtually nothing of what Starbucks is today. Something worth considering, however, especially if you like the fact that Aussie coffee is world-renowned, our cafe culture is revered and Australian baristas are a highly sought after commodity on the global market, is (…wait for it…) the idea of readiness. 

Readiness. A state in which we’re primed to embrace something new. 

Sometimes we can be a little slow on the uptake. Changing old habits is a process and seeing the value in something can be hard. It can often be offensive too, I mean what’s wrong with the way I do things now! 

It might seem obvious to say, but there’s usually a progression or an evolution to most things we adopt in this life. Let’s face it, life itself is in a constant state of change, and in the case of the world embracing specialty coffee, Starbucks, I’m afraid, has played a significant role. 

Within Australian borders, the role Starbucks is playing or has played is probably minimal but it’s harder to calculate too so it’s worth a mention. Remaining stores mostly cater to tourism, and there’s an important role in this so listen carefully: if a person’s familiarity and enjoyment of coffee is associated with Starbucks coffee (especially if they drink espresso) then they might be willing to drink independent cafe coffee if it’s more accessible to them. 

I have first-hand experience with this phenomenon. Years ago I worked with study abroad students at Melbourne universities. American students and staff would arrive for a 6-month tenure and the first thing they craved after stepping off the plane was Starbucks and they would seek out and make day-trip plans that coincided with Starbucks’ locations. This means that in the presence of enjoying their down-under experience, they wanted a touch of home. Nothing unusual. After a few weeks however, knowing that coffee was way more accessible if they simply went to local cafes, they became acquainted with Melbourne’s cafe scene. 

After a few months they were telling me where to get a coffee as Starbucks was falling off the end of their minds. 

See the pattern?!

Starbucks can be thought of as the bridge from pot-coffee and instant coffee culture to specialty coffee. The 50 strong Australian cafes in New York City alone tend to think so. Not surprisingly, Seattle, the city where Starbucks was born, is North America’s specialty coffee hub with world famous specialty coffee houses that people literally travel across the world to visit. That was never going to happen had Starbucks not prepared the peoples’ palates and cultural gravitational pull.

If the Chinese are rapidly adopting cafe culture via Starbucks by opening a store every 15 hours, then maybe in 15 years, Starbucks will slowly die off while a diversity of independent, creative and interesting cafes emerge through. 

To see a transnational movement where a vibrant, evolving coffee culture spans the globe; a movement where specialty roasters and expert baristas are refining flavours, improving textures and offering attractive and unique ornamentation, then a catalyst is required. Starbucks may be that catalyst or at least an essential player in such a movement.

There’s a ying and a yang to Starbucks’ success. For those of us who are guilty of prejudice then perhaps… (and if you don’t like it, you can “send it right back”), perhaps…it would do us well to reserve our judgement and consider a bigger picture in which Starbucks may be playing a crucial role.

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The Connected Coffee Team!

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