Space vs. Taste – What Makes a Coffee Shop?

Starbucks (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The best cup of coffee I ever had was in a coffee shop on Lygon Street, in Melbourne, Australia. That cappuccino, rich, strong, and smooth, convinced me that Lygon, where the Italian cafés and restaurants were located, would become the perfect place to find a coffee shop in which I could both work and happily feed my caffeine addiction. So I started looking for the perfect place – somewhere with good coffee, tables big enough to hold my laptop and books, outlets, and maybe even an upstairs or back room where people sat and worked in silent solidarity. I wanted a blend of socializing and working, but in Australia, the cafés I found were not work-friendly. Most of the customers were engaged in conversation at the rickety, round tables with the capacity for a coffee cup or two, no one had a laptop (not to mention that there were absolutely no outlets), and the lighting inside was dim.

As the search for the perfect coffee shop on Lygon Street became an increasingly frantic journey, I found myself frequently ending a futile morning of searching at Starbucks. This was particularly frustrating, because not only was the coffee worse than at the cafés along Lygon – where every cappuccino I ordered had a heart drawn into the foam and the espresso was strong but not bitter–but the coffee was exponentially more expensive. Whereas I could get a delicious cup for around $2 anywhere else, at Starbucks I paid close to $6 for the exact same burnt and bitter coffee I could buy back in the States. But Starbucks had what I needed, an expansive upstairs area where students sat and studied, outlets for my laptop, and good lighting.

Oh! the irony of having found the most delicious coffee in the world but not served in the space that I needed. In my six months of searching, I only found one coffee shop that met all of my criteria. It astounded me that a country with such delectable caffeine missed the wonder of the all-purpose coffee shop. In an attempt to understand why every city, town, and hamlet in the US boasts an independent coffee shop, I started looking into the history of the modern coffee shop, and found, to my surprise, that it all began with Starbucks.

Starbucks, founded by Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordown Bowker, was originally a place to buy freshly roasted beans back in the 1970s, when most coffee came from poor quality beans mass-processed by companies such as Folgers or Maxwell House. By 1980, when Siegl sold his share, Starbucks was the largest roaster in Washington and had six retail outlets, and in 1982, when Starbucks hired Howard Schultz as head of marketing, it was primed for expansion. Schultz, however, had a radically different vision for the company than its owners. Baldwin and Bowker were committed to selling beans and reluctant to let Schultz pursue his dream of starting an Italian-inspired coffee house where people could either grab a cup on the run or stay and socialize. Baldwin and Bowker allowed Schultz to experiment in one Starbucks store with a small stand in the back of the shop. It was an immediate hit.

Today, there are over 7,500 Starbucks in more than thirty countries. The next largest chain, Caribou Coffee, languishes behind it at 300 stores. Starbucks, the Goliath of the coffee community, has received criticism for its aggressive expansion and overpriced drinks, but clearly someone is buying the coffee. Schultz believes this lies in the concept of the third space, a place that is not home and not work where people can either socialize or be alone. This principle is something deliberately and carefully constructed in each Starbucks. In the book, From the Top, Schultz says, “In the focus groups we’ve done, people talk about how social Starbucks is. And then we say, ‘How many people did you talk to while you were in the restaurant?’ ‘I didn’t talk to anybody.’ So we have learned that it’s the experience–the music, the theater, the romance of coffee and the break that we provide.”

Starbucks, with its deep green or maroon walls, pop art pictures of coffee beans and lattes, its dim lighting, is a soothing place to be, for some. For others, the repetition of design and of experience is nauseating. “I feel like a Starbucks–you get what you get. It’s always the same thing, nothing changes–you know what I mean?” says Megan, a barista at Courthouse Commons, an independent coffee shop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The cloned feel of a Starbucks is precisely what spurs many caffeine consumers to seek out local, independent coffee shops, where the baristas know “your” drink and the beverage list is artfully chalked up on a blackboard.

However, what people don’t realize is that without Starbucks, independent coffee shop culture would not exist. According to Taylor Clark, author of Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Culture, and Commerce, “Starbucks didn’t invent coffee; it just did something with it that no one thought possible. The company took a commodity that Americans could get for a quarter at carts and diners, reshaped it into a luxury product, convinced customers to buy it at hugely inflated prices, and built stores only a few blocks apart in every major city, yet patrons continue to line up in ever-greater numbers to fork over their money.”

Pre-1990s, coffee was a middle-class commodity, a blue-collar drink watered down and served in seedy diners and breakfast joints. Starbucks made drinking coffee a social event, and the price of their coffee reflected the experience you paid for as much as the jolt of caffeine. Their bizarre lingo of English and Italian has become the most prevalent way to order coffee–the smallest cup of coffee is called tall, medium is called grande, and venti, the Italian word for “twenty” or “wind,” is as obtuse as they come. Dawn Pinaud, one of Schultz’s first employees, says, “It’s amazing to me that these terms have become part of the language. A few of us sat in a conference room and just made them up.”

Parker, a barista at Summit, a local coffee shop in Davidson, North Carolina, complains about the frequency with which customers ask for coffee in a Starbucks sized cup, yet also recognizes the importance of Starbucks in the independent coffee shop ethos. “Starbucks is the reason this place can exist–it got America hooked on coffee.” He goes on to explain that people are looking for the same sort of place wherever they go, whether they are the kind of person who wants to buy coffee from a Starbucks or from an independent coffee shop. He once made a drink for a woman who travels across the country trying out independent coffee shops. “It’s the same kind of different.”

And yet, independent coffee shops make a great deal of effort to distinguish themselves from Starbucks. The label on ground coffee sold at Courthouse Commons has a slogan that says, “Not bitter, just better!,” implicitly criticizing the bitterness of Starbucks’ coffee. At Smelly Cat in Charlotte, North Carolina, a sign on the counter reads, “We’re not Starbucks, it’s ok to say hi.”

While the catalyst for the existence of the coffee shops I so admire, Starbucks is no longer on the same level. Its aggressive expansionism, mechanized beverage production, drive-through windows, and exaggerated prices have made it the symbol for corporate America.

Starbucks is a relatively new phenomenon in Australia. Perhaps in ten more years, it won’t be so hard to find a coffee shop where I can plug in my laptop and write for hours. But maybe that change will also mean a change in the quality of coffee or the replacement of the casual, sit-down cafés for grab-a-cup-and-go sort of places. It’s a tough call, but I tell you that that cappuccino on Lygon Street would be a sad thing to let go.



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