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

194 comments

  • Nice post David! Living here in Turkey, Starbucks is always one place where I can feel a bit more American and enjoy a familiar latte or iced coffee. We don’t have as many coffeeshops here so the Starbucks and Cafe Nero are a welcome sight. And you should see beautiful water view of the Starbucks located along the Bosphorus in the Bebek neighborhood here in Istanbul. For less than $5, I can enjoy the view, wifi, coffee and my book for as long as I want.

  • I too am very quick to criticise Starbucks and will search out other coffee shops before going there. But you are so right, and so I have to give them credit. When I moved from the UK to America back almost 20 years ago, I realized that to get a cappuccino an good one, you had to make your own. I grew up in London with cafes all around and drank coffee in school!

    At least now, thanks to Starbucks, we have many coffee stores selling beans online, and here in Boulder, we have micro roasters who won Best Microroaster 2011. Their coffee is amazing and Fair Trade and organic. I guess it wouldn’t have been possible if Starbucks didn’t introduce to us their medicore coffee.

    As for Chipotle…well…they’re from Colorado, and you’re right, they do a lot of things responsibly for a fast food type joint.

    Thanks for the reminder David.

  • I completely agree. In the early 90s, before Starbucks achieved world dominance, I moved to a city in the U.S. South with no coffee culture. There were no cafes, nothing. Eventually an astonishingly pretentious, over priced cafe opened, but their coffee and espresso were terrible –bitter, lukewarm, and lethargically served by would-be “actors” pretending to be Romanian emigres. I was thrilled when Starbucks came. While my friends were saying, “But Cafe Pretentious will go out of business!” I was happily enjoying a decent latte for the first time in years.

    Cafe Pretentious stayed open. What eventually put them out of business (besides some dodgy stuff with employee payroll taxes …) was that, to illustrate your point, several other locally-owned cafes opened, but this time with good coffee.

  • Yes, I remember going to Cafe Milano and Cafe Roma in Berkeley, ordering a large mocha almost everyday. After graduating, nada. There were a couple of places around Palo Alto (Cafe Verona and the Il Fornaio cafe, neither of which exists anymore) and Menlo Park (Cafe Barrone) which did have serve as a substitute for that much needed mocha, latte, or espresso.

    In 2002, I spent most of the year in Tokyo, and Starbucks was a god-send! A “grande, non-fat late” translated! No plastic models of food (or coffee preparations) to point at!! More importantly, the young folks working at the Starbucks shops tended to want to speak English, which made life infinitely easier. I should note, though, Peets was trying to break into the market around that time, and colleague and I went WAY out of our way to find the Peets in Omotesando at the time, just to have that Peets! And there were more Starbucks than McDonalds!

    Fast forward to Switzerland in 2012, and yes, it’s one of the few places I can order a non-fat Chai latte. Unfortunately, the peppermint syrup hasn’t made it here, which I find thoroughly un-festive for the holidays! I’ve found myself in London, happy as a clam, ordering a peppermint mocha or hot chocolate. Mmmmmm…. Let’s thank Starbucks for the coffees with flavored syrups!

  • David, All fine points you’ve made, both pro + con!

    To echo an earlier comment, I want to note Starbucks’ recent decision to order coffee mugs from a U.S. pottery factory instead of one in China. This manufacturer is located in a small town in Ohio (a town that used to be known as the “pottery capital of America” with 4 dozen such factories, but now has only 2). A major corporate decision!

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/12/business/starbucks-turns-to-ohio-not-china-for-coffee-mugs.html?pagewanted=all

  • I’ve recently returned from Shanghai and have to say I so appreciated being able to stop into a Starbucks after a week of poorly made coffee and/or weak tea. Living in Sydney where great coffee is everywhere I wouldn’t frequent the (very few) Starbucks here as I want to support my local families who support my habit, but overseas it is a welcome relief. And despite the temptation of overindulging, I was satisfied with a tall.

  • I remember tasting Peet’s coffee in Berkeley for the first time in the early 1980’s and sighing..”oh… Coffee!” Everytime I had to go to Colorado for a holiday, it was absymal, no decent coffee anywhere. Starbucks did accomplish the feat of introducing the US to decent coffee, not the same as Peet’s which is still my favorite.

    Well written, David. Thanks for the memories.. We are all glad those times are behind us.

  • I included a photo of my Paris Starbucks cup and Madeleines today… We were on the same wavelength today!

  • Ok, David so I can appreciate why you appreciate Starbuck’s… but I just can’t and don’t. As a real New Yorker, I find their coffee over-priced and yes, put me in the camp of burnt-n-bitter. It gives me a royal headache. I just don’t “get it.” My last Starbuck’s was about 2 years ago. And don’t even get me started on the “pastries, etc” which are/were always disappointing. Service is beyond slow and into the sphere of “I-really-couldn’t-care-less-about-you-and-i-get-paid-not-matter-what-so-what-is-your-name-so-i-can-print-it-on-the-cup-as-i-was-trained-to-do….while you wait — forever”

    I was perfectly ok with paying half for quickly served “diner” coffee in NY. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t burnt and bitter, either. I didn’t need to take advil all day to get rid of the headache.

    I think the one thing Starbuck’s does really well is stir up competition for other coffee chains and independent boutique-type shops or cafés who really care about coffee and their customers. When in Paris, Starbuck’s is absolutely the last place I want to go. When in NY, Starbuck’s is definitely the last place I want to go…. There, I said it. :-)

    Love your posts and your admiration for this chain… but have to say, No, I just can’t!

  • Yes David, your comment- “can’t find much fault with companies trying to raise the bar” is so true. Gotta love the bar raisers.

  • Ha! Especially the restrooms!!

  • Agree with the travellers and expats, having a bit of “home” (even though I’m Canadian) to go to now and then is a mind lift in relaxation. Love the plum teas and black tea lattes in Korean cafes and traditional tea houses, but a decent Starbucks certainly comforts from time to time.

    Love your instagram feed, David! Living in Paris vicariously through you~

  • I’m belong to the tribe of people that loves Starbuck’s. I agree with you that until they came along, most eatery coffee was just brown water and very offensive. I most eateries, it still is, but Starbuck’s has raised the bar.

    I retired recently, but when I worked Starbuck’s served me breakfast every day, lunch on many days, and even dinner on some. I found the quality and freshness of the food very good. In fact, on a trek by car from Chicago to California this Winter, Starbuck’s was a true oasis in the food desert that is the American highway; all I could think about was their Turkey & Swiss on Whole-wheat.

    In terms of service, I agree it’s mixed depending on the store. At the place where I got my coffee every day when I was working, there could be 40 people in line and you were through it in 5 minutes at the most. Their friendly, efficient, and jovial staff were at the top of their game. I routinely sent Starbuck’s Corporate positive feedback that I hope got delivered to the employees of that particular store.

    I admit it. I’m a Starbuck’s groupie.

  • Great post! Totally agree with you David.

  • Very good points made. Starbucks may be a corporate giant now, but if it wasn’t for Starbucks many of us would probably be drinking folgers, lol.

  • Interesting that you say your predilection for good coffee came from working for a Scandinavian. The Seattle area, where Starbucks was born, has a significant Scandinavian culture from some long ago immigration influx. That and the hippie escapee’s from SF’s Italian cafe culture in the 70’s. Actually there are a few Italians in Seattle too.

  • When I was in Paris spotting a Starbucks was a huge relief. Not for the Coffee but for the toilet.

    Over here in Australia Starbucks is very unpopular. I can only think of two in my city and they are both in tourist locations. I think McDonald’s coffee (from the McCafe haha) is probably better regarded than Starbucks, and that is saying something!

    I can think of three cafe’s I can walk to that roast their own beans onsite and a dozen more who buy their beans from those roasters. Cafe culture is huge here and there is a lot of coffee snobbery. Cafe’s seem to be in a constant competition to see who has the most advanced machines, the most obscure beans and the best coffee art.

  • Loved Starbucks in NYC, it was our guaranteed reasonable coffee, though we fell about laughing with the X,has gingerbread flavoured specials and massive cup sizes…back home in Australia it is widely snubbed, their cafes lack atmosphere but there is no chance of coming within a mile of the great coffees/cafes we have in Melbourne.

  • Sorry, that is Xmas gingerbread flavoured…
    I just read the previous coffee, yes we are coffee snobs, but truly I have said it before we make amazing coffees in Melbourne and I just saw the most gorgeous bright yellow La Marzocco coffee machine locally this very morning!

  • Thank you, David, for reminding us (it seems especially in the Bay Area) that we are coffee snobs. I must say that one of the best coffees that I had on my last trip to Paris was at the Starbucks across from Gare St. Lazare @ the corner of Rue St. Lazare and Rue de Rome. They were some of the most friendly people that I’ve ever met in Paris and they serve excellent coffee. Not to mention they were the only place I could actually get a cup of coffee in the 9th @ 6am….ok so I was jet lagged and totally screwed up timewise but I digress…….

  • In the Mid 80s I worked at a wonderful independent coffee roaster in Newport Beach, California. At that point in time our only other competitor was another local roaster that used a different style roaster that yielded a different roast. It was healthy competition.

    In the late 80s a Starbucks opened in a nearby town, so a couple of my co-workers and I went to check the new place out…I remember vividly the colorful labels on the coffee bags (Our bags were hand stamped) and the many choices of professional ceramic mugs with the fanciful Starbucks logo- instead of our handmade ones…It was a little scary to see such a “well oiled machine” compared to our funky place…After all this time I am happy to say that my our Coffeehouse still exists…It proves that if you have a good product and convivial atmosphere you can make it.

  • I’m glad someone remembered our dear friend Mr. Peet. Walnut Square, I think that was long before Starbucks hit the Oakland/Berkeley area. In the late 70’s there was Peabody’s on Piedmont Ave (and all those terrible donut shops) then at some point became a Peet’s that is still there today. Far superior to Starbucks in my opinion, but what the hey, we can all have our brew we prefer. Makes my wait in line shorter.

    However, I do not think I will visit a Starbucks when in Paris.

  • The best health insurance I’ve ever had was when I worked at Starbucks. :) Regarding the “worst espresso” that you had, the automatic machines are supposed to deliver consistent shots, but they’re also supposed to be calibrated regularily. A step which I got the impression many/most barristas skip.

    • I think part of it was that in France, a café express is often made with a lot of water, whereas an espresso actually should be just about 1 liquid ounce of liquid. That double espresso (shown) that I ordered came with about 3/4 cup (180ml) of liquid in that cup. I think it’s just the local custom of letting lots of water pass through the grounds, because that’s the preference. I would think that if they have automatic machines, they would stop after the twenty seconds it takes to extract an espresso?

  • I live in the french alps and right next door to Italy and I will gladly bike that hour and a half over the col to get a decent espresso in my neighbouring country.

    As for Starbucks you’re right they definitely have their plus points as well as minus (for starters those incredibly thick mugs). I remember being in Taiwan 10 years ago and was so relieved to see a Starbucks after a week without an espresso.

    Though right now i am feeling pretty smug having just had a packet of freshly roasted coffee delivered by hand from my friend who has just returned from Ethiopia. just waiting for my little Gaggia to heat up. Happy days.

  • I worked for Starbucks for years and although I was becoming fed up with the overly corporate ways by the end, I still appreciated the customer service mantra we were *forced* to memorize. I can tell you it is with much relief to see a Starbucks anywhere after hours of traveling with two kids. I know that I can get some fruit or a good sandwich at least and (most of the time) have a decent place to sit and relax for a bit. Their coffee isn’t great; used to be better before they had these mammoth espresso machines, but it’s still fresh. Thanks for the post David :)

  • That’s true about Starbucks creating a coffee culture, and raising the bar for good coffee. However, after coming back from Italy, I can’t bring myself to drink Starabucks coffee anymore. I prefer going to the smaller cafes or the Illy Espressamente cafes. It costs about the same (though coffee cups at smaller cafes and at Illy are a lot smaller than Starbucks), and the quality of the coffee is a lot better.

  • We used to have 2 Starbucks here in Adelaide (South Australia) but the coffee was so awful, they soon closed. However I was very relieved to see a Starbucks in Bali recently as we were really craving a coffee. I guess it’s all relative to what the alternative is and here in Adelaide there are plenty of much better options than Starbucks.

  • Hi David: have you been to Chaak on Blvd Saint-Denis? (www.chaak.com) – it is similar to Chipotle, but run by two French guys. I’m curious to know which one you think is better!

  • I’ve had Starbucks coffee. It is just okay, aside from its over-roasted burnt flavor. When you get back to the US, you do need to visit their competition though—Dunkin Donuts coffee is out of this world amazing!!!

  • I haven’t been to Starbucks in years and shudder whenever I think about them. In the 90’s when they came to Dallas I went there at least ever other day. But after 10 long painful years I found out what was causing the debilitating 3 day migraines I was having…. caffeine from Starbucks. Left that place and never looked back!

  • Uh, great post about coffee, but you just made me gasp to find out that there’s a CHIPOTLE IN PARIS. Will wonders never cease?! Thanks for the info. I wish that the café and coffee culture of Seoul, South Korea would spread itself here and in the U.S. Koreans love coffee and great design. You will never see more beautiful cafes in your life as the ones in Seoul. Oh, the coffee is amazing as well.

  • Well, my birthday was yesterday, and I seem to have finally just turned into my grandfather; my first reaction, scrolling through these comments was “Really? Let me tell you about the way it was when I was growing up…”

    Am I the only one who recalls that, during the sxities and way-up into the seventies (until The Blessed Nativity of “Mr Coffee”)?….no public space (offices, stores, government buildings) was considered complete without one of those tall, “streamlined”, electric percolators. In doctors’ waiting rooms, the customer service center at Sears, etcetera?…..you’d always find one of those contraptions boling away.
    The point, I suppose, was the thrilling convenience of ALWAYS having perpetually “fresh-brewed” coffee. The fact, of course, was that you had instant-access to perpetually re-brewed/boiled coffee. This was considered the height of modern elegance and efficiency. I don’t recalling anyone’s ever doing anything but exclaiming in delight when given a cup of “percolated!” coffee.

    A friend of mine, whose elderly parents have died, recently cleaned-out their house. Among the sentimental items she brought back to her own house was, indeed, her mother’s “Hostess Percolator” (which, one can assume, lifted the tone of many a tupperware party and Junior League meeting throughout the sixties).

    We plugged the dang thing in, filled it with Maxwell House, and went off on errands that morning…..came back about noon, to a house FILLED with the Proustian aroma of burnt, nasty, and utterly un-drinkable (by today’s standards) “coffee”.

    It was possibly the most tearfully nostalgic moment either of us has had in years. We both remarked “doesn’t that smell just take you STRAIGHT back?”. Then, after a few minutes of sentimental indulgence, we poured the percolator’s scorched contents down the kitchen drain, put the percolator back on a high shelf, and made ourselves some actual coffee.

    that aside?…..am I the only Amercian (aside from 3 million or so non-convert Mormons) who’s never so much as stepped inside a starbucks, let alone have drunk their coffee?

    Thanks for the evocative posting,

    David Terry
    http://www.davidterryart.com

  • It will be very interesting to see how Starbucks incorporates the purchase of one of our local favorites La Boulange, into their corporate plans. For one thing, Boulange uses Equator coffee and that will certainly end…maybe the pastries offered at Starbucks will improve. And I have to agree about espresso in Paris– we were very disappointed with both express and the petit cremes we had recently, except for the ones we actually took at Italian places ( which also had some of the best food). Maybe we are just too spoiled in Bay Area….

  • I miss those days when I’d walk down the hill to Peet’s mothership and would have three choices, small, medium, or large, and there would be a crowd of the usual hanging out, although there were no chairs or table there.

    Then one day, about two decades later, I drove past Barstow, CA, on my way back from a long trip driving around the desert, and there was a Starbucks. I was thankful, and understood that Starbucks has its purpose.

  • I agree with you. The Irish coffee market has improved dramatically since Starbucks arrived.

  • Let’s not forget Peet’s on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland – their second location – in the early 80s. People stood in line for the 25 cent cup of coffee if they brought their own mug. I never forget those times! Let’s not forget the fact the Mr. Peet taught the Starbucks staff how to roast coffee beans when they just started.
    Also: Cafe Trieste on Grand Ave. in San Francisco. Great spot even way back in the 70s.

  • I totally agree with you about Starbucks…and in case it wasn’t noted earlier in the comments, I am so sad to see the NYC Starbucks no longer allowing the public to use their restrooms. A big loss.

  • Thank you, David, for stating my thoughts precisely! I have been living in Seattle for over 40 years, and back then Seattle was practically unknown by the rest of the country, let alone the world. At that time Starbucks was the place my mother went to buy exotic sounding fresh-roasted coffee, chunks of chocolate and candied ginger; it was just a little place started by some guys with a great idea. People here get down on what Starbucks has become, and they forget that without it, food and coffee options at airports would be much worse, and that they would be hard-pressed to find a good place to hang out. I am not a regular customer of Starbucks, and I seek more independent cafés when possible, but when I travel, especially in the US, I am relieved to find a Starbucks that offers the coffee I need to get me on my way and a clean bathroom for my kids to use. If it weren’t for Starbucks, Seattle probably wouldn’t be on the map as it is now, and it would probably still be the same backwater town that rolls up the carpet at 6:00 p.m. that it was in the early 1970s. I, too, am not one of those to disrespect Starbucks, warts and all, and get tired of hearing people go on about it. Thank you!

  • As of today I am the owner of a genuine “Made in the USA” coffee mug from Starbucks. I appreciate their effort to bring manufacturing back to this country.

    Thank you for giving credit where credit is due.

  • Recently went to a road trip and must report that there is still no decent coffee in Alabama (that I found). But in all the other states we drove through, we found at least some (in rural Louisiana we had to explain to the folks at Dunkin Donuts how to make a latte…with their machine, but it turned out ok…and it was fun, and got us talking to the locals).

  • U.S. based responder. Not a regular customer of Starbucks but what they did was they forced other locations or stores that sell coffee to be mindful of the quality and freshness of the product they sold.

    To each his own be it folgers, maxwell house, starbucks or some other shop. In the 80’s and 90’s I travelled a great deal by car and hot coffee got me thru those drives. Nothing is more frustrating than pulling into some convenience store to grab a cup of coffee and finding a pot thats been sitting on the burner for 3 hours. At least with Starbucks you know what you are getting.

    I believe if 7-11 stores had been diligent in their coffee preparation, the rise of Starbucks would not have been so rapid.

    My take anyway.

    I believe

  • To: PC – Peets was in Menlo Park in the very early 80s. They even had a store in Los Altos.

    They just were not interested in “flavored” or sugared, gooied up coffees. It was a real coffee store where I found I liked African and Indonesian coffees the best – more bitter and full than “fruity” and acidic, which you would find with the New World coffees.

    It still sells pretty good coffee and I buy it there when I am in the Bay Area. Otherwise Trader Joe’s Sumatra is passable and very inexpensive. I just don’t depend on anyone to be able to actually brew the drink consistently.

  • I’ve probably been in Starbucks in Paris more times than ever in NYC or the US
    Really just to have a look around to see what the attraction is since I’m not a big coffee drinker. but I find now when I wander in in New York I get nostalgic for Paris!
    really odd..

  • I was indifferent until they came out in support of marriage equality even in the face of an obnoxious boycott threat. Now I make a point to stop by at least once a week.

  • Hi David,
    My son works at Starbucks and I couldn’t believe the benefits and extras he received. They let him transfer to another state, gave him health insurance and he doesn’t even work full time. He’s a good barrista, just not that ambitious. and that’s ok with Starbucks. sigh

  • I don’t expect everyone to love our coffee (yes, I work for Starbucks- just celebrated 10 years!) but after all these years, what I really want people to understand is that we believe in creating community, connection and humanity and we think that a great cup of coffee is a good vehicle for that. For all those that enjoy Starbucks, I sincerely thank you for supporting what I believe is a spectacular company whose values I am proud to share. And thanks to you David for not hating us and sharing that we’re not so bad…

  • Very interesting post, David! :)

  • I think this was a really well written post and agree with the pros and cons. I don’t often go to Starbucks, because I am lucky enough to live in Italy, but I visit it abroad for so many of the reasons you listed above.

  • I appreciate Starbucks greater efforts at shaping cafe culture through featured artists and authors. The company not only raised the bar on coffee – but culture – and highlighted specific artistic creations which deserved the publicity. Now that I live in Turkey, and have grown used to the deep, deep taste of Turkish coffee, Starbucks coffee drinks (my favorite was Caramel Macchiato) are too sweet for my tastes. Brilliant branding though!

  • I am generally against mega corporations, but Starbucks is good to their employees on many levels and is now working to bring some jobs back to America. In a country that has outsourced many jobs overseas, this is vital to our economy. I do not work for Starbucks, but have had many friends who have and do, and they have all had good experiences.

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. ;)

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

  • 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!

  • 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!!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.)

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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 !

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • You’re spot on

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.