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

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La Caféotheque de Paris

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Making Perfect Espresso at Illy

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194 comments

  • Wow, thanks for writing this David. It is quite insightful to see that without Starbucks we may not have all these other thriving local businesses. I think people, including myself, are afraid to admit that sometimes.

  • This is such an interesting take on Starbucks. I never really thought of it this way! Coffee roasted within walking distance of my apartment and delivered to my local store on a bike really might not have happened without them. I don’t think I’ll look at them the same way again!

  • Thank you! I couldn’t agree more. In London you can find a Starbucks every few 100 meters (failing that Costa or Cafe Nero are on hand) so last time I was in Paris I didn’t think twice about grabbing a Latte – much to the horror of the friend I was with, so for her sake I held off until I got to St Pancras. For a non-drinker like me coffee chains are a brilliant alternative to the pub. You can of course get far better coffee elsewhere, especially in Paris and I’m more than happy to get a coffee from a local cafe but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the oversized paper cups either. Another plus I do like that I won’t be kicked out or glared at after 30mins, when you are delayed by 8 hours in an airport small things like that are invaluable. At the end of the day its easy, comfortable and you know what you are getting, love it or hate it.

  • Thank you thank you for being willing to say this. I have to agree with everything you’ve said. Here in the State Starbucks can really be disliked so much and it can almost be dangerous to say “I really don’t hate Starbucks,” but you know, I’ve always been very grateful for being able to get a dependable cup of coffee or latte. Small, local coffee shops are great, but it’s really hard for a small business to have that kind of consistency.

    When I lived in Paris Starbucks was a piece of home that helped me through a rough transition, and now that I’m back Starbucks and the “café culture” it has promoted is now a reminder of Paris that has helped me in my homecoming.

    As always, great post!

  • Thanks for this. This explains why my sister-in-law who loathes Parisian coffee always goes to a Starbucks for a decent cup. Of course, it could be because she’s British, and has an historical enmity of the French.

  • I have to admit that Starbucks presence in Paris annoys me. But the free WiFi and bathrooms tempers my annoyance. A bit.

  • ChezLouLou: I used to wonder why the heck Starbucks opened in Paris, because they already have plenty of cafés here. But I think it’s because it’s clean, the chairs are comfy, there’s WiFi, and it’s also Américain, which is kind of fun for French folks.

    janele: I don’t know many people that like the coffee in France, including lots of my French friends. Most drink it for the caffeine – but no one is running around touting the quality of the coffee in the cafés…

    ShadowFalcon: I, too, prefer the smaller cafés and coffee shops in America – but at places like airports and so forth, it’s nice to have an alternative to all the fast-food places. And often when I travel, I just want some fruit, a bagel/muffin, and yogurt for breakfast, and I can pick them up there.

  • 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.

    I agree wholeheartedly, David! Walking by a Starbucks in Vienna (there are four in the First District that I walk by often), I always smile. I am happy they came to Vienna before I did, living proof that a smoke-free coffee house can not only survive, but thrive! Even though I prefer to enjoy my Viennese Melange in traditional coffee houses, I do love Starbucks and am glad they found their niche here.

    Long live variety and freedom of choice,
    Merisi

  • Interesting. In 2008, Starbucks here in Australia closed 61 of its 84 stores. I believe they struggled in Australia’s very sophisticated coffee culture. Obviously bitter, weak coffee augmented by huge quantities of milk and sweet flavoured syrups didn’t go down too well here.

    • For a while, there was one on every corner in New York City and (literally) you could not walk a block or two without passing one. They closed a lot of them a few years ago – but I think there were just too many.

      And speaking of “weak”, it’s odd they are offering “light” espresso, at least in Paris they are. I don’t know any espresso drinkers (myself included) that are looking for a “light” espresso…

      • I may be wrong, but seeing the commercials for the blonde roast it seemed they were promoting a lighter roast that wouldnt taste so burnt. I’m not a Starbucks drinker, so I can’t personally attest to it. My convenience vice is my Nespresso espresso maker. If you like a super strong espresso there are fewer options, but the 19 bars of pressure makes a delicious americano for me every morning.

    • The coffee culture here in the Netherlands apparently was the reason they didn’t open outlets here untill 2007. Allthough their European coffee roasting facility has been located in Amsterdam since 2002.

      We still have relatively little Starbucks, yet in March they opened the biggest outlet/concept store in Europe in the centre of Amsterdam!

      Perhaps Holland as a whole is still considered uninteresting, but Amsterdam draws enough Starbucks seeking tourists?

  • P.S.:
    Btw, McDonald’s “McCafé” coffee places offer some of the best Viennese Coffee Melange here in Vienna (and it is the only coffee along the Autobahn that I stop for). ;-)
    They also have some very good pastries, true French Macarons included (I hear they are shipped in from France, produced by the same company that owns Ladurée).

  • Totally agree. Back when he first started travelling to the US my boyfriend, a serious coffee drinker, was thrilled to discover Starbucks…and his collegues watched him in shock as he downed 2 or 3 dopio espresso’s a day.

    ShadowFalcon has a good point too, I especially love those little outlets in or next to bookstores…spend 4 hours in the one at an airport recently. Indeed, their espresso might not be great everywhere, but the same goes for many places, at least at Starbucks you know they’ll have an espresso brownie that, so far, has always done the trick for me :)

    And last but not least, the man who taught the original founders of Starbucks all there is to know about coffee, Mr. Alfred Peet came from my hometown in the Netherlands!

  • Well, if you’re going to be so darn reasonable and down-to-earth about it, it’s hard to argue against. :) Still not my favorite coffee in general (we have some pretty great local roasters here in Saint Louis), but you’re right, they definitely paved the way for cafe culture and made it possible for smaller cafes to thrive.

    Completely unrelated side note: I made your Chocolate Idiot Cake for a dinner party last night and wanted to comment on that post, but comments seem to be closed on it. Your description was spot on: lovely forkfuls of rich dark ganache (which I firmly believe deserves to be the actual desert sometimes, not just the topping). We topped it with fresh whipped cream and huge, in-season raspberries – couldn’t have been better. Thanks!

  • Light espresso sounds almost as painful as instant coffee

  • Here’s why I’m seeking out Starbucks these days: http://www.npr.org/2012/06/12/154793475/starbucks-order-gives-ohio-mug-maker-a-jolt. Choosing to support a small town, breathing new life into a locally owned pottery, over cheaper China-made mugs, has earned them my business.

  • I think you meant ‘Korean fried chicken chain’. While I understand that Koreans eat dogs, I don’t think they eat their friends.

    Oops! Amazing what an extra “n” will add the meaning of a phrase – thanks! : ) – dl

  • Early on, when it became clear that Starbucks was going to get an awful lot of my disposable income I invested in a home espresso machine. So now more than 15 years latter I drink most of my coffee at home, but I will always be grateful to Starbucks for introducing me to “real coffee”

  • When I was in Europe over 10 years ago one of the only places we could find to go pee was a bathroom at Starbucks, so I’m thankful for that. Also, I loved your sentence about the restaurant owner you worked for in college because it reminded me of my grandfather…he is of Scandanavian decent and insists on good, strong, dark coffee. And that is what I got used to too!

  • I was trying my best to go to the independent coffee houses here in Atlanta, but they keep closing. So I go to Starbucks to get my grande nonfat latte. :) The one near my offices has a low staff turnover and they know me when I go in. Plus – and I had to laugh when I got it – Starbucks sent me a “gold” card with my name on it. That was a smart marketing move. :)

  • My only issue with them is that…they can never seem to remember my name even though I frequent the same two Starbucks (there’s only so many on Christopher Street). I’ve been Andy, Amy, Ann, Aline…Sigh.

  • Starbucks definitely isn’t my favorite coffee, but I do love their iced soy lattes on a hot day.

  • I never go to one these days if there’s a local alternative, but I share your soft spot for them. When I was pregnant with my first child I was having to spend a lot of time in Manhattan, and Starbucks were a godsend. It was easy to find one when I needed a bathroom (which was pretty much all the time); it was a quiet, calm place to get off my feet; and I could replenish body and soul with a cup of steamed fat-free milk (a healthier choice than most of the quick street food offerings).

  • I am in agreement. I never knock Starbucks; as you say, they have enabled us to get good coffee anywhere in the world. And don’t forget oatmeal, theirs is not bad, and when you have an early flight out of Chicago, it is great to know you can get your morning oatmeal to sustain you on the long flight.

  • Nice job – as a friend of mine who travels internationally for business mentioned lately, it is nice to be able to find a decent cup of coffee not matter where you are without having to spend a lot of time looking.

    It will be interesting to see what changes will take place to the quality of the food now that Starbucks bought La Boulange.

  • I don’t disagree. I like their lattes and Americanos. But I find that their regular coffee tastes like a cup of hot sadness. And seeing Starbucks inside the Louvre kind of made my head explode.

  • Starbucks here took over an excellent chain of local coffee shops, at which point the prices rose and the quality declined. I don’t drink much coffee (I do drink a bit!) and resent paying nearly £2.00 to dip a tea-bag into a mug of not-boiling water!

    Even McDonald’s does better coffee than Starbucks!

    And as for France, where you can get fabulous coffee in almost every corner café, I really can’t see the point, other than as a novelty drink! The French weakness for chains worries me, as it points to the decline of seasonal, local foods which were such a feature of French cuisine. Mind you, we just came back from a trip there two days ago, and my husband couldn’t get his usual fix of “tarte aux pommes” – and then he realised this was a Good Thing, as apples couldn’t be more out of season right now!

  • P.S. I asked a barista if people gave their real names with their orders more often than not. She said, “Well, if your name is Spiderman, then yes.” And then there was the order for someone named Voldemort. The barista was about to call the order and said, “Vol…He Who Shall Not Be Named.”

  • (especially for the last reason made me smile a lot)

    However, I do not love starbucks, and as far as I know Italy is still starbucks free… but when I went to japan, this was one of the only places where I can find a coffee and a western piece of cake.

    So well, starbucks has is reason afterall :)

  • I don’t drink coffe but I love their Chai tea- hot in the winter, frapachino style in the summer. And you can drink it in a comfy chair while checking your email.

  • The last time I was at my local Starbucks they didn’t have free WIFI — now they make you pay for it….

    • There was a bit of a ruckus when they started offering unlimited free WiFi, because people wouldn’t leave and they would sit there for hours (and hours) using their computers. I know when I was in NYC last time, you could not get a seat in one of their shops because everyone was camped out there. The most of them had long-ago finished their coffees.

      Interestingly, many cafés in Paris don’t have free WiFi. But those that do are usually password protected and/or have a 20mn limit. (Or something like that.) The last time I was in Starbucks in Paris, I just logged on and was connected.

  • Nicely said!

    (FYI, I believe the Chicago-based roaster you were referring to is spelled Intelligentsia.)

    It’s funny because I checked that against their website, but I had too many windows open on my computer and think I closed the draft of this post I was working on. Thanks ~ dl

  • *Intelligentsia ( intelligentsiacoffee.com )

  • I can’t hate Starbucks. After college, I moved to Seattle in the very early 80’s and there were a few Starbucks shops here and there. The first time I bought a cup of coffee at a Starbucks,my mind was blown. Totally. From that point on, my own home coffee bar was raised exponentially.

  • I always seek out Starbucks when traveling. It assures a good cup of coffee that can be oh so comforting in certain coffeeless lands. As a current Seattleite, I do get amazing locally roasted coffee. As a former Starbucks employee, I disagree with the last paragraph. I saw the links, but I worked there after I was unable to be employed in the field of my masters degree. I made more there, especially with tips, then most of my non-profit friends. Also, even as a part-time employee I had paid maternity leave! In the United States, maternity leave, let alone paid, is not universal. I will always be a fan, because they supported me when I needed it.

  • Have you heard the big news that Starbucks bought the local SF French-style bakery Le Boulange? Starbucks plans to sell Le Boulange pastries and sandwiches starting next year (the Bay Area first, then the rest of their empire). I read that their major plan is to turn into a dining establishment similar to Panera Bread. How do you feel about this shift? I’m just hoping they’ll make French macarons all the more accessible.

  • I agree about the bathroom comment, I was able to use the Starbucks bathroom upstairs in the Starbucks in the 6th, and I was thankful! Their iced Americano is always good, and I agree about bringing the cafe culture to the U.S.
    Yes, I would rather go to a local guy for my coffee, and not a corporation, but I don’t find the local guy any better or less expensive, and Starbucks does employ many people, so I agree w/ you David, they aren’t that bad afterall!

  • As a student, the free WiFi definitely came in handy. Still don’t like the taste of the coffee, but Starbucks has remained for me, from the moment I began living à l’universitaire, a place where I can go for cheap-ish joe, bum the WiFi until my paper is done, and no one will try to talk to me. I save the café experience for when I’m feeling more sociable.

  • In Portland, it’s really popular to hate on Starbucks (and other corporate things), but it’s because of Starbucks that the little coffee shop on the corner can have such high-end stuff.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with the last paragraph, especially as an American (used to widely available free “public” toilets, i.e. McDonalds, Starbucks, etc) in Europe (free public toilets are nearly unheard of, and asking for one singles me out as a foreigner)

  • I remember Starbucks fondly when I first arrived to NYC and on days when I felt like I landed on another planet, Starbucks was an inviting, familiar sight.

    In Belgium, where I’m right now, I don’t see them at all. I think that there are only 2-3 Starbucks in the whole country. My husband remarked the other day that you hardly ever see people carrying coffee cups around. If someone is drinking coffee, he/she is usually sitting down at a cafe.

  • The bathrooms are free in the US, but when we were in Paris 18 months ago, the Starbucks by the Pompidou Center required a code to get into the bathrooms. A code that came on the receipt.

    As buying another coffee would just perpetuate the problem (plus be really expensive because of the exchange rate), I just looked for someone who looked American and got the code from her.

  • Those of us who grew up in the SF Bay Area in the ’70’s will always pay homage to Peet’s, especially in North Berkeley. As a Cal grad, this was the place to go. Peet’s opened the door for Starbucks who expanded the model and took off for the masses.

  • Ray: Yes, Peet’s was really a pioneer – although nowadays, I find their coffee very over-roasted and it so caffeinated, I get the jitters if I drink a cup. But I used to like going there a lot and always bought my coffee there.

    Narineh: I heard about them buying the bakery but since I haven’t lived in the US for a long time, am not sure what the strategy is or how they plan to incorporate the bakery (which I think is just a Bay Area ‘small’ chain?)

    Erin: I’ve read various accounts, and I know some people complain about the benefits and others are happy with them. I think it’s great they are offering them, so thanks for adding your personal experience and story.

  • David, thanks so much for standing up for Starbucks. I, like you, think they have had an enormous and positive cultural impact in America. Unlike so many people, I do enjoy their coffee at home and the occasional latte at their cafes. I recently purchased some locally roasted, organic “blond” coffee, the type of brand and roast that is supposed to be the anti-Starbucks model, and found it to be flavorless. No, Starbucks is not without it’s flaws. Who or what isn’t? But it is a far cry better than where we started in this country, and I believe that Howard Schultz is one of the most effective and social conscious CEOs of any major US corporation. Hopefully, people will stop throwing the baby out with the bath water, or perhaps I should say, the stale coffee.

  • David,

    I agree that Starbucks took coffee café cultures into places unheard of – as a youngster growing up in the 80’s Bay Area I discovered good coffee North Beach and never looked back. However, I spent my summers with my father and family in Tennessee and coffee was still in the bunn pots.

    However, I’m not sure I agree that all the local, artisanal roasters would not have existed if it were not for Starbucks creating the demand. SF already had a lively local roaster culture as did another of my one-time home towns, Boston, until Starbucks obliterated it. I’m glad to see a resurgence.

    K.

  • thank you for this – i feel exactly the same way: Not so many years ago, we took a road trip beginning in California and ending in Iowa. Elko, NV was the last stop for a decent cup of coffee (or tea). By the time we got back to Nevada a week later I was desperate for that Starbuck’s outlet to come into view! Starbuck’s is what we call our lifesaver – we don’t give them all our business but, when traveling, they are completely reliable, and we really appreciate them.

  • Great post David. Recently I “rediscovered” Starbucks and have started frequenting them around once a week. I enjoy sitting in the cafe atmosphere and feeling a part of the culture. Thank you.

  • I understand that Starbucks has now bought Bay Bread – a boulangerie group in San Francisco.

  • Thank you, David as a Cuban American grew up knowing good, strong coffee but nowhere to buy other than as you say the drip kind and not till Starbuck did I start noticing an appreciation for espresso and so on. I went to college in Northern California and I remember how I looked forward to walk in Mill Valley and get a great coffee in Coffee Roastery and also Peets and to this day I will say that after traveling a lot, My three meals at Chez Panisse are the best and most memorable(treasured memories), as always enjoy your writing and always look forward to seeing your name in my email box.

  • Oh, no, no, no. In the 1960s in Berkeley, there was Peet’s coffee. And there were also restaurants with good coffee — I was introduced to both filled crepes and lattes at Cafe House Renaissance, well before Starbuck’s ever opened its doors (My parents drank execrable percolated coffee until my Mom got to Italy in 1979 and her eyes were opened). Whenever I go anywhere, including airports, I ask if there is a local alternative to Starbuck’s. I find their coffee weak and their business practices rapacious. Peet’s has been ruined by efficiency experts who require the baristas to use scripts. But local operations like Peerless Coffee have been in business for decades (They’ll sell you good beans — you have to make your own coffee.

  • I grew up in a family that made coffee from one of those blue tins. I never could understand why anyone liked it. I managed college without coffee, preferring a Coca Cola for my caffeine fix then. Twenty some years ago in Denver a local company opened up shop selling coffee drinks and I fell in love. I was swayed over to the dark roast and yes, might have enjoyed a hazelnut latte too. They seemed to have every flavor imaginable in the form of a coffee bean.

    Then this company called Starbucks came to town so I decided to try them. What? No flavors; just straight coffee? Fast forward a few years and good luck finding a small local shop; they simply can not compete with Starbucks. But I think Starbucks learned something from them too. Their spaces became more coffee shop and less office sterile and I for one am OK with their coffee; as a matter of fact, the notion of flavoring a coffee today makes me cringe.

    I most often drink coffee at home using Starbucks beans. OK, the brand may say Kirkland (Costco) but read the print…roasted by Starbucks. The coffee I have every morning is a far cry from what my parents drank so I’ve never jumped on the ‘let’s beat up on Starbucks’ train. I like it just fine.

    Don’t even get me started on Chipotle. Started here in Denver with one little place I used to drive a half hour to get to; I can’t decry their growth…now one is only five minutes from me and I say YES!

  • Sorry the first word in the post should be “Great”. I apologize.

  • I wouldn’t DREAM of starting my day without them:)

  • Starbucks has definitely replaced McDonalds as the go-to road trip bathroom. We can always count on it being clean(ish) and frequent, and some coffee & leg stretching is just what we need.

  • some can see the big picture, some can’t. thanks for this one, David. I am tempted to get a twitter account just to be a follower of you.

  • I ran into Starbucks in a little kitchenwares shop in a Seattle suburb in the late 70’s. The shop owner brought in people for cooking classes. She said we needed to do the coffee class. At that point in my life it was Choc’Full o’ Nuts in a one pound can. But we went anyways. It was Jerry Baldwin, a slide projector presentation of his trip to coffee producing areas around the world, and a few french press coffee makers. We tasted coffees and realized that there really were different flavors and tastes. Bought our first burr grinder, french press, and some beans that night. Never looked back.

    This was the pre-espresso days at Starbuck$. They roasted the beans to match the flavor profile of the coffee. The Charbuck$ roast seems to be a Howard Schultz idea. Now days I buy fresh roast coffee at Victrola in Seattle.

  • As many of you may know, Starbucks recently purchased La Boulange, which makes great pastries/breads in the San Francisco area, even though it’s a chain. Brilliant move, as this is one area at which Starbucks has really sucked. (Not sure how that will translate internationally, though.) Starbucks gets such a bad rap, but I think it’s mostly sour grapes. However, it is true that their beans were over-roasted for a long time. We can thank Peets for that trend, but it seems to be turning. Have any of you tried Pike at Starbucks? A short brewed cup is only about $1.50. It’s full-bodied and not burnt. You have to give Starbucks credit for listening to their customers’ comments. We speak with our wallets.

  • what do you think of the selection and quality of wines at Nicolas? :)

    • I don’t buy a lot of wine there – they have sort of a middle-of-the-road selection (although I’m not a wine expert) – however I do get their house rosé in the summer, which is pretty good. And when I need cooking wine, I buy one of their house offerings as well since I know what I’m going to get.

  • A well balanced article David. I agree wholeheartedly with you – especially about using a loo in Paris or getting a reasonable coffee at CDG.
    I am one of the few Brits who detests the taste of tea so coffee is very important to me, I need a regular morning cappuccino fix. I have tried every café in our local town and all the coffee I have tasted is revolting. Ask for a cappuccino and they put spray cream on the top instead of milk!! I’ve given up and have my own expresso machine now so at least I get a decent coffee and with fresh frothy milk too. Not quite café culture though..
    If only they’d open a Starbucks in this area of Burgundy, I’d keep them in business.

  • Interesting post.

    I go to Starbucks in Zürich because it’s okay to linger there and work on your computer. Unlike SF, where I lived before, the coffee shops here are not dominated by people on laptops. I like having a place to go where I feel okay using my computer, and also knowing that most other places are not computer-zones.

    I also appreciate the wifi and washrooms! The wifi is free for 60min and then they let you stay online but lower your bandwidth – a smart idea, I think.

    They are also pretty good places to meet ex-pats since people seem to meet up to study, do language exchanges, etc., probably because lingering is not discouraged.

  • Your thoughts sound very much like my husband…he’s been a major coffee drinker nearly his entire life. The introduction of Starbucks everywhere has meant that he didn’t need to settle for some diner coffee which has been sitting for hours and hours. We also love the wifi thing — while waiting to move into our new house, we had a period of time that we relied heavily on Starbucks and fee wifi to get our work done. For me, I’m a Starbucks coffee drinker too, but I think my main pull to Starbucks is the café culture.

  • Starbucks brought specialty coffee to the masses. It is one thing to live in a metropolis where restaurants in all price ranges, of all descriptions, are every hundred yards – or less. It is another to be in more suburban areas where the choices are not so many, so nearby.

    I am not a fan of Starbucks coffee. It always seems too bitter to me. But we still go to the Starbucks adjacent to our Barnes & Noble and sit a while, sipping our usually too-hot coffee and watching the people. Starbucks became, on a chain basis, the local coffee house (or diner?) that many locales did not have.

    My favorite everyday coffee is still the Jose’s Colombian that I buy in beans at Costco and grind myself. Mellow and delicious.

    I still enjoy the coffee samplings at our local Trader Joe’s, but always come back to our own brew of choice.

    Interesting to see your mention of Chipotle. We have never eaten there, but planned to after my husband’s daughter mentioned last night that their food was very fresh and good. Seeing your mention has reinforced her comment. We’ll try it.

    Thanks, David, for your very informative and enjoyable blog. I have always loved Paris. You bring it all back and add more of your own. The prospect of another trip there is the carrot in front of our noses….when health and circumstances permit. In the meantime living vicariously through you and your posters is very pleasant.

  • Loved your post. I live in Seattle so we are bred for local, dark, small roasters and predisposed to disliked Starbucks. I’m from the suburbs outside of Boston where Starbucks is the only place to get a good cup o’ joe is Starbucks since I really dislike Dunkin Donut’s coffee ( they have a clover machine which makes a big difference). I lived in England for 6 months and totally fell in love with Cafe Nero.

    There is a much bigger picture going on though and you hit every nail on the head. It’s so fun reading your posts! Always makes you think…

  • When my mother visited from Sweden, she always brought a jar of instant coffee,
    to add to the “dishwater” served in restaurants. This was pre Starbucks, thank you David for making me appreciate what a difference they have made. Now there are many places in NYC where you can have a good cup of coffee and a piece of cake.

  • I love this post. The points you raised were very valid. Though I don’t drink much Starbucks coffee now that we have more indie joints in Singapore, I appreciated the times when I was desperate for a caffeine fix (eg in predominantly tea-drinking Beijing) and Starbucks was there to save the day with drinkable cup of latte.

  • As a former employee of Starbucks (college job, college job!!), I can tell you that in most Paris Starbucks, the drinks are made incorrectly. The service is lamentable and the sitting areas (and bathrooms) are not cleaned, nor are the napkins and condiments re-stocked, every 10-15 minutes as written in the Sbux “code”. But it’s convenient and on the off chance that the Starbucks at Opéra isn’t busy, it means getting to look at the beautiful ceiling :)

    • A few weeks ago I went to the Starbucks in Paris, because it was hot, and I was having a bad day, and I really wanted one of those iced coffee drinks. The service was atrocious – incredibly slow and really inefficient. I know it’s hard to find good help, but they were really lacking someone to oversee what was going on behind the counter. I think the whole time – start to finish, just to get my coffee, took about 20 minutes.

  • it is interesting. i agree with your statement from a widespread perspective. however, I also look at it from the local perspective. I live in a small college town, where our main street featured 5-6 independent coffee shops before the Starbucks came in. Granted, once none of the “indies” shut down (to my recollection) once Starbucks arrived, I do see the place constantly full, and wonder with so many other options available here, why people go there.

    However, to the airports and other towns where there was no Starbucks OR another nice, “indy” option, I agree with your position.

    It is much the same that although I cannot stand to watch Emeril on TV, i am glad for what he has done to wake up food culture in the US.

    • I think you’re lucky to live in a place that had coffee culture. I lived in San Francisco and there was no shortage of places to choose from. But I do remember traveling to places like NYC and LA a few decades back and the situation was pretty bleak.

      (btw: I had dinner with Emeril one night, at the height of his popularity, and I was surprised – and delighted – at what a great guy he was. He has that bam! schtick back then, but he was actually just a very nice person.)

  • I can so relate to the this post. While Starbucks is by no means my favorite, and I support the amazing local roasters in my hometown of Louisville, KY, it certainly serves a purpose in mainstream America. I lived in Portland, OR for six years, home to tons of amazing local roasters churning out heavenly piles of coffee beans.

    When I would occasionally make the cross country drive between Oregon and Kentucky there was an entire swath in the middle of the country where the only coffee option along I-80 was McDonald’s. I would relish day 3 of the trip when we finally hit I-29 that dropped down into Kansas City, MO, home to the first Starbucks in over a thousand miles. It was a stop I made every time for an Americano. It may not have been the best cup of coffee, but it sure beat the previous roadside alternatives.

  • David-
    Thank for your daily blogs — I enjoy reading them! You made me smile about your bathroom comment………. Our family of 5 includes 3 children. We always look for the Starbucks sign when we travel abroad because we know the kids can use a clean bathroom for free. And, it doesn’t hurt that my husband can order a latte!

    Of course, here in the Bay Area, we have the common argument of Peet’s vs. Starbucks………….. I’m not a coffee drinker so, I don’t have to choose sides. Where do you find a good cup of spicy chai tea in Paris?

  • I hope Howard Schultz or one of his marketing people read this. They would be both heartened by some of the posts and get some good PR tips. I happen to like Starbucks coffee (Sumatra Decaf) and have been a loyal Starbucks coffee drinker almost since they opened a store in Seattle down at Pike Place Market. Now that I live in the desert of Arizona, I still buy bags of coffee at my local grocery store…its what gets me started in the morning. And in Paris I like the clean bathroom and a good tall double shot grande with no foam…usually at the cafe on Boul Miche.

  • Sometimes you really crack me up! Intelligentsia, Chez Panisse, Chipotle and Scharffen Berger in the same post? It’s like you’re writing the script of my life! I’m not a big Starbucks fan, but the tiny chocolate and Birthday Cake mini doughnuts were my kids all time favorite treats when we lived in the States.

  • Re your last comment about the bathrooms, I remember being in Bebek, a suburb of Istanbul, a few years ago, when I felt the urge. And, by God, there was a Starbucks! Problem solved!

  • Starbucks has become so big I doubt their baristas even know how to make a great espresso. Especially since they sold their souls to the devil and now use automatic espresso machines that do all the work and any old fool can use. They’ve come a long way from the original concept of selling beans and teas only. Unfortunately the farther they have come the more quality has declined. But you’re right…they did make a whole lot of Americans aware of a better way to enjoy coffee. I became a coffee snob and I rebelled. I bought a good grinder, a good machine and found a source for great freshly roasted espresso beans that are usually sold the day they are roasted. I sip happily away on some pretty damn good espresso everyday….

    • I remember when Illy came out with pre-portioned espresso things for restaurants to use in the states, apparently to assure the same quality of coffee, without relying on ‘user error.’ Kind of like those Nespresso pods, which I’m not a big fan of, but they are better than a lot of the espresso coffee that I’ve had. I used to grind my own coffee, too, but at one point, I realized the noise in the morning was a little more than I could take – in spite of the better cup.

  • I heart Starbucks(shameface). I don’t like hot coffee, and until McDonalds started offering them, Starbucks was the only place I could get an iced coffee–especially when I was traveling thru Germany and in Paris a couple of years ago. So, for me, it’s Viva la Starbucks :)

  • Lovely article! I am rather surprised that having lived in the Bay Area that you never visited Mr. Toots in Santa Cruz. It was (and still is thriving) nestled right on the beach of the corner where the San Lorenzo River runs into the ocean in Capitola Village. I am not certain exactly what year it opened but it was my daily stomping ground back in the late 70’s and early 80’s (well, it didn’t hurt that I lived just a block away – LOL). Perhaps because Santa Cruz was a bit ahead of its time back then is why we residents were graced with many wonderful little coffee houses like Mr. Toots. I wonder if the founder(s) of Starbucks was inspired there? ;-)

  • I cannot dislike Starbucks. They’re around every corner, and therefore, if I’m not at home brewing up my own cuppa joe, I need resources available. Even if I’m brewing it in a Bunn. However, I draw a line when it comes to the beans. Gotta be fresh, roasted just right, and from the West Indies.

    ;)

  • I’m not a big Starbucks drinker. I find the flavored coffees and no coffee drinks are too sweet. Surprisingly, I like the pastries and foods that they sell at the counters. The reduced-fat cinnamon coffee cake is really good and I usually don’t like stuff that is reduced/low/non-fat. That and the addictive blondie with bits of chocolate and toffee. And say what you will about the oatmeal, it’s shockingly good (not too sweet) for instant.

    Funny story about Chipotle… years back when Chipotle started branching out into the East Coast (US), my friend who lived in Manhattan was raving about this place that had really good and fresh burritos. She pronounced it “Chipotul”. I thought that this was just an aberration, until few more friends from the East pronounced it the same way. Haven’t eaten at Chipotle since I’m surrounded by fantastic taquerias (in SF Bay Area), but it’s nice to know that the food is fresh and mostly local.

  • Well said… I agree. Thank you for your insight and honesty.

  • I have to admit that Starbucks was my “gateway” coffee. I never much liked coffee, but when I traveled it was nice to have a place to use the internet and relax, or use the bathroom. I was always kind of enamored with the fact that Howard Schultz and I went to the same college.
    My experience with coffee was always the BUNN burner type served in Midwest restaurants. Starbucks seemed pretty good. Without Starbucks I probably would have never stopped by a little coffee shop called Stumptown (not so little anymore) in Portland, OR in 2000. I have been addicted ever since. Now, I seek out small roasters and good coffee wherever I travel. I rarely go to Starbucks unless I want a Green Tea Latte!

  • Hello David,
    Howard Schultz is a little less popular in Seattle since he sold our beloved NBA Sonics; however, I very much admire how he changed the face of the coffee world, so he deserves the kudos. On a related note, if you’re ever in Seattle, hop across the bridge to Bellevue and check out The French Bakery. They have the most exquisitely lush and creamy lattes you’ll ever find. And the owners are from France, so the pastries and croissants rock as well. Thanks for the great post as always!

  • This is a great article – I got my taste for fine coffee when I was 12 on my first trip to Paris with my dad. We were sipping espresso and “chasing” it with Grand Marnier (I know, a little risque for a 12 year old). Ever since I like my coffee extra strong with a little bit of milk.

    However, I don’t hate Starbucks either – it helps soften the “coffee shock” for when these non-acclimated middle Americans visit the great city of Paris.

    Just bought your book and I cannot wait to read it!! It’s next in my queue. Merci bcp, David!

  • Alright David; you have a few points here. Nevertheless, St’b IS terrible, has always been so…. sorry to say.
    Now that you explained why founding this chain has been good for the Americans I feel so much better :) – we the Swiss, probably learned to drink proper coffee from the Italians and it took a long time for us Helvetians too to appreciate the REAL proper stuff. But once you KNOW IT you just can’t go back to any of the rubbish that’s being sold as coffee.
    Good post though…

  • I don’t know why people are so hard on Starbucks here in the US. Could it be that everyone has become a tad too snobbish? Starbucks has always provided something that will never be found in European coffee shops: the option to customize. To quote Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) in “You’ve Got Mail:”

    “The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, no-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 (Tom Hanks)

    Try doing that in Paris and see how you do. People have short memory spans, and they are so ungrateful! :-) Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  • I lived in Seattle in the early 80s, when you had to go to Pike Place Market to get Starbuck’s coffee beans–I always loved the darkness of their roast. Even though the quality hasn’t entirely survived the company’s mammoth expansion, I agree that I’m grateful for what Starbuck’s hath wrought, nationwide.

    I noticed when I was in the UK last December that McDonald’s commercials there boasted all-organic meat! It’s been decades since I’ve eaten at a McDonald’s, but I have to applaud this move at their stores in the UK–no doubt due to public pressure for better quality ingredients. In the US, Chipotle is one of the only fast-food places I will occasionally patronize, specifically because of their ingredients.

    • Being from San Francisco, where Mission burritos reign supreme, I would never dream of going to Chipotle. But if I’m in an airport, or somewhere where there aren’t any alternatives, I’m fine going in there. The one in Paris was mobbed when I went (it was a week after they opened) and the burrito was €9 (!) – and not as copious as those in the US – but still, they are using quality meats and poultry, and other ingredients, which is a welcome change.

  • Aside from all the reasons you mention, especially about being able to find a palatable cup of coffee just about anywhere, my son is now employed by Starbucks.

    They offer health insurance to those employees that are at least 20 hrs/wk. Going through college, sometimes part time, sometimes full time, it has enabled him to make educational choices not based on health insurance, as my older son did. Many large (very large) corporations here in the US will intentionally hire only part time to avoid providing such access to health insurance.

    We appreciate the coffee beans he brings home (big smile) as well as their commitment to social responsibility.

  • One more perk (no pun intended), the Starbucks on Rue Monge in the 5th has A/C and uses it. At least, they used to. :) When my friend was pregnant and it was 90F+, we’d nurse a drink for 4 hours just to stay cool. Oh, and they filled that iced coffee with ice!

  • Hi David – I worked for Starbucks throughout my college years in the mid-90s in NYC. To add to the previous comment, Starbucks was one of the first companies to offer domestic partner benefits to their FT and PT employees – and with a shop on every corner, they had/have a lot of employees. Nearly 20 years later and so many major companies in the US still don’t do that. It’s about more than coffee, isn’t it?

  • I like Starbucks outside the US because it is about the only place I’ve found that sells decent travel mugs – and I use those extensively – that don’t drip on you when you drink! (I did buy a good travel mug at Disneyland Paris but that’s another American mega-chain).

    I remember when I lived in Berkeley there was Pasqua Coffee by UCB campus that I really loved (cheese bun!) and then Starbucks bought them and we hated Starbucks for it with all our hearts until we heard from a former employee of Pasqua’s that stayed on at Starbucks that now for the first time they were getting benefits such as health insurance. Sometimes there’s a silver lining to corporate America.

  • As an Aussie expat living in Seattle, I’ve learnt to appreciate Starbucks for its consistency, convenience and of course, bathrooms!

    As David Chang tweeted recently, Australians take coffee seriously and we’re lucky in Seattle to have local roasters (Victrola, Stumptown, Caffé Vita, Vivace) that are loved and supported.

    http://twitter.com/davidchang/status/209805412931866624

  • Hey David, Starbucks is my touchstone!! When I am in another country and I’ve been there too long or I’m jetlagged or having a bout of culture shock, going into Starbucks for a tall cafe latte helps ease the pain. Thanks for your insight!!

  • Amen! I’ve been having this argument with my coffee snob friends for years, and I have quite of few of them, living in Portland OR where we take our coffee very seriously. Sure, you can get much better coffee nowadays in a lot of places but I’m so glad you mentioned the “café culture” that Starbucks provides, especially to rural and suburban places. My Mom and Aunt lived in a rural area and would drive in to the nearest burb to have weekly meet-ups at their local Starbucks where they would catch up with each other. Such a nice routine, and without Starbucks I don’t think they would have seen each other nearly as often.

  • I love Starbuck’s because when I travel in the US they carry the NY Times!
    In Paris, it is the only place to get a Vente sized English Breakfast tea (Awake) .
    The Louvre will parch you due to the heat and crowds. Grab a tea and dessert from Paul’s and you can continue with loving the art.

  • I’m studying in Paris now, and every so often I go to Starbucks because it makes me feel like I’m at home. But it’s even more expensive here than in the States, so I rarely go in.

  • It’s good that Starbuck re-introduced the cafe culture but i like to explore and don’t want to short-change myself so i am always on the lookout for other shops and in doing so i discovered wonderful coffee elsewhere :-) If i have to eat fast food i go to Chipotle because of the hormone-free meat, and Rubio’s also serves wild salmon. Can’t wait to see McDonald’s serving organic meat here in Los Angeles but i am so glad that there are many places serving hormone-free, grass-fed burger now, i just had a wonderful grass-fed burger from Short-Order last Saturday :-)

  • In the 1960s, the San Francisco Bay Area had local roasters on both sides of the Bay. North Beach and Berkeley’s South Campus supported excellent roasters and coffee cafes. After Peet’s opened its flagship shop, Berkeley’s coffee action shifted to North Side. However, when Peet’s began to heavily roast darker coffees in the early 1970s, many steadfast customers returned to the old stand-by roasters in Oakland and San Francisco, as well as new small roasting shops that sprang up in reaction to changes at Peet’s. As for getting a decent cup in the 1960s beyond the major metropolitan areas of the country – it was all but hopeless. SB’s has remedied that.

  • Seeing the green mermaid on your cover shot makes me long for a tall double shot skinny latte. We sadly do not have Starbucks in Marrakech.

    One more reason not to hate…They are a socially responsible company. Lets not forget that they were offering health insurance to all employees working at least 20 hours when most companies were cutting full time employee hours short to avoid.

  • This was a great post. We all take fresh roasted coffee for granted, especially in the UK. That said, the Spanish have a different take on the international chains, I posted this recently showing some of the differences between Europe and the UK high street.
    http://gerryskitchen.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/high-street-love-affair-with-coffee.html

  • Here’s another reason, they’ve gone American made on their mugs! And they have local business initiatives. I’m happy to hear this even if I don’t love their coffee, which I inevitably drink anyway.

    “Ulrich Honighausen owns Hausenware, the company that supplies the mugs, tumblers and other items that Starbucks sells. Generally, Honighausen sends his manufacturing work overseas. But he wanted to design a product that could be made in America. “When these small towns and these small factories are supported by a large customer that believes in it, we can make it happen, we can bring it back,” he says.”

    http://www.npr.org/2012/06/12/154793475/starbucks-order-gives-ohio-mug-maker-a-jolt

  • I will always admire Starbucks for the friendliness of their employees, for allowing Internet access w/o a password and time limits, even though it means that some people will abuse it, and for helping out with the jobs situation in the U.S. Also, when I was living in LA eight or nine years ago, they were the only “upscale” coffee shop to open stores in neighborhoods where many lily-livered white folks feared to tread. They were the first to open in what was then known as South Central, now South LA, I think, giving the folks there jobs, as well as a relatable cultural reference point.

    I have to admit to hating them when they first started out in my native NorCal, gobbling up Mom and Pops, forcing high rents, but they’ve done a good job of redeeming themselves. I so appreciated them when I moved and could not get an Internet connection for two months. Every evening I would walk half a mile to the closest Starbuck’s and use the Internet, often for a couple, sometimes three hours. (I timed it for the least busy hours.) The staff made me feel welcome every time, even though I skulked in guiltily, buying only a cup of tea and sometimes some food. The staff and some customers became my first community here, even though I’m old enough to be their grandmother.

    • Yes, there was an aggressive expansion plan awhile back and it was said that they were specifically opening in places to drive out the locals. I don’t know if that’s true today and think that perhaps they’ve learned to co-exist with the other shops. One could say that for many, SB is a “gateway” and once people got into the habit of drinking ‘better’ coffee – they would find local roasters and coffee shops. And while there were some shops and regional coffee chains that were around before SB, there’s a lot more nowadays.

      In Paris, while I don’t think SB has raised the bar as notably on coffee, it’s one of the very few cafés that sells coffee based on origin of bean – and consequently, a number of coffee shops (more notably the Australian-owned places) are quite busy, and thriving.

  • Thanks for making these good points about Starbucks. I don’t know about Paris, but in the hinterlands of the Languedoc, it can be hard to find good coffee; certainly not at every corner cafe. When we head to France we always tuck a bag of some dark roast SB beans into a suitcase, which we blend with French beans until our tastebuds have had a chance to acclimate to the tamer French coffee.

  • David:

    Thank you for a very thought provoking blog entry. When I still drank coffee, I was a self-identified coffee snob. I generally drank Peet’s, but being in the San Francisco Bay area I found several independent roasters from whom to purchase different blends and beans.

    I am grateful that when I had to give up coffee (medical reasons), I did not go through withdrawal — and I have seldom craved coffee since then (although when one of my colleagues down the hall brews his pot of Major Dickason’s in the afternoon, I do get up and close my office door! ;-)

    So, now I have become a tea snob . . . no “tea dust” for me! ;-) In addition to several different teas (and herbal blends) along with all the accouterments one can accumulate — and I have a “travel kit” and a “take along when I’m going somewhere for dinner” kit (unless I know that I’m going somewhere where folks take their tea as seriously as some folks take their coffee).

    Starbucks tea? Not so much . . . . but it WILL do in a pinch — or in an airport, or on a long drive when there’s a drive-thru at the next exit. And, as you say, they have free wi-fi and clean bathrooms!

    Thanks, again for your post!