Why I Don’t Hate Starbucks

David

I remember in the 80s, back in the dark age of coffee, when traveling through the United States, it was impossible to get a decent cup almost anywhere you went. Or heaven’s forbid, something as wildly exotic as a cappuccino or espresso. I wasn’t a coffee snob, but simply discovered good coffee early on when I was in college back in those days, because the restaurant I worked in was one of those rare places that carried coffee from a local roaster. (The owner was of Scandinavian descent and insisted on good, strong, dark coffee. So I got used to drinking that.) I don’t remember if local roasters were all that common back in the 1980s, but I don’t think so. And back then, unless you made coffee at home, you were pretty much not going to find a decent cup of coffee in America unless you went to an Italian café. People pretty much settled for diner-style drip coffee or something brewed up in a broiling-hot urn.

Nowadays you can go virtually anywhere in America and get a freshly prepared cup of coffee or an espresso. You (and I) may not think the coffee is exceptional (people use the words “burnt” and “overroasted” to describe the coffee at Starbucks), but nevertheless, I don’t think many would have thought that the day would come when you could walk into any American airport – and even Charles de Gaulle, in Paris, where Starbucks is one of the few places serving reasonably fresh, hot and cold food, with comfortable chairs – and can get a yogurt, some fresh fruit, a fruit juice…and coffee ground and prepared right there. They’re not just pouring the caramelized dregs from the Bunn pot into Styrofoam cups. (It gives me the shivers to remember drinking from those cups.)

Starbucks introduced a vast majority of America to coffee and espresso drinks. Like it or not, I would venture to say that because of their nationwide reach, many high quality coffee shops were able to open – and thrive – because of the mermaid. The idea of coffee other than stuff that comes in a big blue can at the supermarket, got people got into the habit of thinking about the coffee they were drinking. Similar to how no one gave much thought to chocolate in America, until John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg started making bean-to-bar chocolate. Now there’s a few dozen producers of small-batch chocolates.

It’s easy to criticize Starbucks nowadays, and no, I’m not a regular customer. But because of them, I’m not sure if places like Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, and Joe the Art of Coffee would be with us. For many years, America was considered a culinary wasteland. When I started working at Chez Panisse, customers asked if the goat cheese was tofu, people thought radicchio was red cabbage, and folks wondered how we got the oranges so red (they were blood oranges.) Nowadays they’re serving mesclun (baby lettuce) salads on airplane meals and Sunkist grows blood oranges.

Curiously when I went to Chipotle in Paris recently, I was surprised by some of the comments on my Instagram feed. Mostly the messages left regarding the quality of the food, to the very idea of their being an American chain in Paris. (Oddly, no one winced at the idea of a Korean fried chicken chain in New York City.) I don’t go to chain restaurants often, but Parisians sure do, and unlike the other popular fast-food chains in France, Chipotle is serving free-range meat, free of antibiotics and steroids, showing that even ‘fast-food’ restaurants can use quality products and be successful. Places like this reach a different, broader demographic than regional farmers markets, high-end restaurants, and food magazines, and I can’t find much fault with companies trying to raise the bar.

america versus france

Starbucks has a lot going wrong for it. Aside from being sold in quantities roughly the same size as a bottle of wine, the quality of their coffee beans could be better, they’ve gobbled up a lot of spaces where local businesses once thrived (although I’m not sure if it’s their fault, or the progression of economic and social shifts in general), the employee benefits may be debatable, and at one of their branches in Paris, I had what may have been the worst espresso I’ve ever had in my life.

But it has it’s positives. For one thing, they re-introduced “café culture” to America, offering places to sit and visit with friends, or read or write. (Something the old-fashioned diners offered when they were a bigger presence in America.) They have free WiFi and bathrooms. And although I don’t frequent them in Paris, it’s a relief to see them. Especially for the last reason.



Related Posts and Recipes

Where to Find Good Coffee in Paris

La Caféotheque de Paris

Espresso Granita Affogato

Making Perfect Espresso at Illy

Chocolate-Espresso Mousse Cake

Never miss a post!

194 comments

  • June 14, 2012 2:26pm

    Hi David, I don’t hate Starbucks because it was one of the few places I could go to in Zürich with my kid, and stay as long as I wanted, on comfy sofas ans armchairs. Later I was enjoying it in the NY – drinking coffee while walking was soooo American to my French eyes. Then the free wifi can be life saving, and theirs and Barnes and noble free wifi saved my life in LA when I was looking for an apartment… Then the French in me was a little sad to see art galleries and local businesses in Paris being replaced by Starbucks. But like you pointed out, is it Starbucks’ fault? Recently, Starbucks stood up for gay rights http://sumofus.org/campaigns/thank-starbucks/, and now I see in you comments that they are buying cups/mugs made in America, instead of China. They might be a big corporation but it looks like they are trying to be a good one… Well the quality of the coffee, is something else. I find that they taste differently, a Starbucks taste…

  • June 14, 2012 6:43pm

    Great points. If there anything worse than weak/bad coffee … ok, there are a lot of worse things, but I’d go without rather than drink the stuff you used to get before Starbucks.

    And, I really enjoy Chipotle — their food tastes good, as well as being antibiotic- and steroid-free. No, it’s not what I’d choose most of the time, but it is a fantastic fast food alternative when you don’t have time or money for a finer restaurant meal.

  • Sara Tonin
    June 14, 2012 8:46pm

    New Yorker here – I doubt very much I would be drinking coffee nowadays if it weren’t for Starbucks – growing up in a tea family, it was their frosty mocha drinks that first hooked me. As my tastes evolved (and I fell for a coffee-lover) I moved towards espresso-based drinks. Yes, I do tend to seek out other, smaller coffee shops for my cappuccinos nowadays. But I still love the frappuccinos as an occasional summer treat. And always have to have at least one pumpkin spice latte.

    For other commenters – I find most Starbucks bathrooms in NYC to be available, so no alarm on that point. Starbucks is making it a point to create some beautifully designed flagship cafes (sadly none near me): http://archrecord.construction.com/features/GDGB/2012/Starbucks.asp

    And for those who mentioned Korean coffee culture – it has come to NYC. There’s now a Caffe Bene in Times Square (though I haven’t tried it yet)

  • Megan
    June 14, 2012 9:52pm

    Wow…Chipotle in Paris! Definitely not telling my fiance about that one or he will want to eat there 3x per week. Great to know David.

  • Marla in Columbus
    June 14, 2012 9:58pm

    Oh my goodness! We (hubs, 2 kids and mother-in-law) are leaving for France in about a week – so glad to have found your site prior to going. Reading very word – well, almost every word. Thank you so much for restaurant recommendations and travel tips.

  • k. santanen
    June 14, 2012 10:07pm

    Oh David, the ‘louisianaise’ in me just has to let you know that in Louisiana, Community Coffee has been roasting beans in Baton Rouge since 1919 and Café du Monde has been serving a mean café au lait with beignets since 1862! Sounds like you need to take a trip down south for good food AND good coffee. ;)

  • June 14, 2012 10:49pm

    I love how tourists have their photos taken in front of Starbucks, I always find it hilarious!

  • Michael Duffy
    June 15, 2012 12:46am

    Wouldn’t it be great if we all took the time to search out a local mom-and-pop coffee place instead of the Starbucks that can be found on almost every corner and in every shopping mall. They have certainly raised our “coffee awareness” but that doesn’t make them great coffee. Help out the little guy!

  • DebbieSR
    June 15, 2012 1:30am

    I particularly like the Starbucks in New York City for the same reason you mentioned. It is sometimesquite difficult to find a bathroom when you really need one, and seeing their sign, in those circumstances, is like a shining beacon!!

  • Sheryl Greene
    June 15, 2012 5:38am

    Bang, On, David! I cut my coffee teeth at a small batch roaster from Atlanta, GA, Caffiends, and I was called a coffee snob. But, damn, the coffee was so much better than anywhere else in town! I learned how a properly prepared espresso should taste, and learned to brew coffee in a french press. (Which I learned this time around in France is not french at all….) Starbucks, for all it’s faults, has opened up America mostly, to a better coffee. I do know that because of the “chain” factor, whether I’m in France or Hong Kong or Atlanta, that there’s nowhere else around, I can walk in and get a reasonably decent coffee, if I’m just not feeling adventurous.

  • June 15, 2012 5:47am

    agree! it’s easy to sit around and be snooty about starbucks, but when i was traveling out of the country it was always a sight for sore eyes, especially in asia where i felt particularly outside of the culture.

  • Chipotle in Paris? We *may* have one in Toronto, but not sure about that. You know, sometimes having a Starbucks in a particular neighbourhood or district makes one feel comfortable – it just means that Starbucks had found that place safe, lucrative, in-the-up, for them to establish their presence there. Here in Toronto, realtors use Starbucks as an indicator that a particular place is desirable, hence property values go up.

  • June 15, 2012 7:12am

    Yes, Kim, and some other’s I don’t go to other big box stores and I don’t even drink coffee but Starbucks is good to their people. I read the book “Onward” by Shultz and think Starbucks is good because they care about their employees and when things were not working changed back to their original mission. I am a tea drinker and Starbucks tea is just OK, but I go there and have a muffin. Ok, not the best muffin I ever had either. I was born in NYC and lived in Minnesota, land of muffins, but like I said, they treat my son well and the benefits help him save something for his future which he will need. They also let him take a 3 week vacation.

  • Mark Urbanek
    June 16, 2012 2:58am

    Before Starbucks there was “Hey hon, can I freshen that up for you” garbage that they called coffee. Starbucks changed everything for the better and since then have been vilified for it. Plus, “hey hon” was making $2.00 an hour plus $3.00 tips a day and health care….. ha ha ha. Get real folks.

  • Adam gaffey
    June 16, 2012 4:23am

    I still think starbucks coffee is not good . anyway David great article. Have u ever read an article called death of the barista ?

  • Judy
    June 16, 2012 7:25am

    Totally agree! Whether it’s good coffee or not – debatable, is it decent? Yes, can you find much worse? Oh, yes! All in all – we have found that it’s the best bet in a new city you are visiting for something sound to begin with. Not in Italy, though… – :)

    Thank you for the insight!

  • June 16, 2012 9:54am

    Like you, I don’t think Starbuck’s is so terrific, the burnt aroma and all that and how it makes me feel like a sheep just following the herd on the rare times I go to one, BUT like an excellent mediator, you have looked at the other side of the coin and presented a very thoughtful essay on the merits of S. Thanks for this post and for all your musings and reflections.

  • meag
    June 16, 2012 4:25pm

    I’m with you on this one. While my American friends are quick to disagree, I live in an obscure Argentine city and we just got our first stores. It’s just as exciting as it was 15 years ago in the US. Every trip is a treat. (Mostly because the prices are so expensive, but also for the novelty of it.)

  • Evelyn
    June 16, 2012 11:41pm

    Jeez! I hope you all get as exercised about the state of the world and the plight of people who don’t have enough to eat as you do about a coffee company being successful. If you don’t like them don’t go there.

    David, great blog, great recipes, and great tips about Paris. Thanks!

  • Colleen
    June 17, 2012 12:17am

    I agree completely! I just had the same conversation with a Parisian this week – he asserted that Starbucks was terrible, and I said yes, but we have a lot to thank them for! Before Starbucks, no one in America had heard of a latte…I’m from New England, and believe me, when we only had Dunkin Donuts, the coffee was absolutely terrible. Even if I don’t appreciate that Starbucks’ dark roasts just taste burnt, I do love that we now have real coffee shops, where I can enjoy a delicious cafe au lait, cropping up across the States.

  • Michelle Ruiz
    June 17, 2012 5:56pm

    David – living in the bay area I get to enjoy all the great mom n pop coffee shops – favorite being Blue Bottle and philz but when in traveling I always try the local coffee and when it’s not to my liking I’m relieved to find a Starbucks for a familiar cup of coffee !

  • June 18, 2012 2:41am

    Your mother didn’t have a Melitta in the 70s? Or was it the early 80s? Then again, using a Melitta with canned coffee as my mother did was probably a waste.

    In airports, Starbucks is a shining beacon (unless I’m in Guatemala City and then it’s Pollo Campero all the way!) . Especially if they have the raspberry scone or tarragon chicken salad sandwich – which beats McDonalds when you’re delayed at O’Hare and lucky enough to be in the terminal.

    Stuck in Denver Int’l for 4 hours tomorrow – I hope there is something better but if not, I will happily settle for Starbucks.

  • Catherine Negus
    June 18, 2012 3:23pm

    You make several excellent points and give credit where it is due. Sometimes, though, I question if free WiFi is a blessing or a curse. Countless times I have seen chain cafes (not just Starbucks) that offer free WiFi filled with people who buy their one requisite coffee, then sit for hours using their computer. I was in one the other day and there wasn’t a seat to be had, thanks to students from a nearby university who filled the place – every single one was on a computer. It looked more like a study hall than a cafe. I enjoy going to cafes, (chains or otherwise) where people are enjoying each other’s conversation, rather than seeing a room filled with people staring at screen.

    As far as coffee goes, I’m not particularly a Starbucks fan, but can appreciate their contribution to coffee culture in North America. Personally, I’ve become very spoiled with grinding and brewing coffee beans at home that have been shipped from Kauai (very reasonably priced) as often as I can.

  • June 19, 2012 1:38pm

    Starbucks, sure, but Chipotle? I’m not convinced.

    I’m working in Louisville this summer, (a city in the state with the second-highest obesity rate), and I can see that any fast food “progress” is just another hurdle for people involved with healthy food advocacy, food literacy, farmers markets, and most importantly, obesity and diabetes itself.

    Within the poorest neighborhood you’ve got a street lined with 22 fast food joints. Why would anyone who lives there, who is already accustomed to eating french fries and Taco Bell for every meal, going to pay attention to a community garden?

    Any step towards free-range and steroid/antibiotic-free food in Chipotle is just another excuse made by the fast food world to hide what they’ve been doing and to cling on to the market (like the legs of a dying cockroach, if you will).

    • June 19, 2012 6:27pm
      David Lebovitz

      I’m not a regular customer at Chipotle, in Paris or in the states, but from what I saw, the meal and the food was composed of healthy ingredients. Nothing was deep-fried, except for the tortilla chips, the food wasn’t overloaded with salt, and the meats were well-sourced. I think the idea of community gardens are great – and I worked for a long time in restaurants where fresh food was important – but they are serving a diverse demographic, and getting people used to the idea of free-range pork and steroid- and hormone-free beef – (because folks complain that good food is out-of-reach for many people, economically and geographically) isn’t such a bad idea.

  • June 22, 2012 10:03am

    Thought provoking post David. I have mixed feelings about Starbucks. It is true they are definitely filling a gap in the market and in the UK have converted a lot of the tea drinking population to opt for skinny latte in the morning. My regret, if you can call it that, is the success of this chain within France! Maybe it is the old romantic in me but I used to and still enjoy the traditional cafe culture in Paris. I love being served real coffee by waiters in traditional dress and enjoy sipping my favourite drink as I watch the hive of Parisian activity. For me, this represents part of the French culture and with the ubiquity of Starbucks on the Parisian landscape, I fear part of its culture being edged away.

  • June 24, 2012 9:48am

    You’re spot on

  • P
    June 24, 2012 7:37pm

    Thanks David for sticking up for the American Dream…one thing people forget is that Starbucks started as one lone store many years ago. I worked in downtown Seattle and loved visiting that store at the Pike Place Market… I didn’t drink coffee and they didn’t serve coffee back then but they did sample coffee . They sold the beans or ground coffee and they sold coffee machines & espresso machines and coffee grinders. I just loved the store it was different and the coffee smells… mmm. Then they opened another store closer to where I worked and began to sell coffee, espresso and espresso drinks. I had my first Mocha there and began drinking coffee/espresso drinks (mind you the Mocha was a lot different back then-it wasn’t the overly sweet hot chocolate without any coffee taste they serve now!). After that store other places began to serve coffee, espresso and mocha’s even the old Frederick & Nelson’s opened an outside window with espresso drinks… yum Frango Mint Latte… that’s when the Seattle Coffee boom started to roll. There were Starbuck’s in malls then later in strip malls and grocery stores, then world wide. They kept on growing and now are hated because they are big. What’s wrong with realizing the American Dream and growing into a strong powerful world wide company… be proud of Starbucks! They come from America!

  • Keren
    June 27, 2012 2:24pm

    Sbux is great for what it is. Most all of the time the coffee is consistent and regardless of the country you are in the wifi and bathrooms are free. Bless them for that. They truly were my savior when I was in Madrid and couldn’t find wifi anywhere (not even paid!). The only place they haven’t seemed to take a big hold is Australia – they take their coffee very seriously and there are fantastic local cafes on just about every block.

    I wonder if now that they’ve bought up the La Boulange chain in SF if they’ll be rolling out the somewhat French themed -comically but enjoyably so- bakery across the US in the same way? Regardless, I still appreciate Sbux for ensuring I can find an Americano or iced green tea whenever I’m at the airport.

  • June 28, 2012 4:11am

    For years I have been explaining to people that I do not dislike Starbucks, but I do dislike Starbucks coffee. For every reason you just outlined very well in this post, Starbucks, as a company, is a great achievement. Their coffee, however, is just dreadful. It’s kind of a shame.

  • Greta
    June 28, 2012 5:57pm

    Personally, I’m not a fan of the Starbucks taste. I find that there are quite a number of smaller coffee shops in the Southern California that are really rather exceptional, and Starbucks is certainly nothing to compare!

    One grievance I have with Starbucks is the fact that they can actually drive these smaller companies out of business by monopolizing the market. True, it’s a mixed blessing, because they have certainly made it more available, but at the same time they made pretty much only their coffee readily available, which I think is a shame.

    I’m all for supporting the amazing, unique, smaller coffee shops!

  • Eva
    July 1, 2012 8:51am

    Yes. Thank you for saying this.

    As soon as I step outside the urban coffee bubble (e.g., rural Ohio for a wedding this spring), I make a bee-line for that green mermaid!

    My one and only complaint about Chipotle is that they don’t train their employees in good burrito-folding technique. It’s really not that hard! Although I never go to a Chipotle when I’m home in San Francisco (why would you?), I happily support them in markets where a decent burrito––or, indeed, another decent and/or responsibly-sourced bite––is hard to find.

  • MBernard
    July 2, 2012 7:06pm

    Thanks for this post. Agree and have been saying the same thing for years. Starbucks gave middle America a taste for decent coffee, and broadly speaking, that tide has lifted all coffee boats.

    I’ve lived in urban settings for a long time where locally owned coffee shops have done well for the most part. I believe in supporting them, and I have done so, but I admit – 95% of the time I get more friendly service at Starbucks. That and the drive-thru (I’m a working mom with about zero free time to spend in coffee shops) will tip me in the Starbucks direction more often than not.

    Small coffee shops, focus on service. Many people want to shop local. Give them the best possible reasons to do so.