It's a Starbucks world. (We only sip in it.)
A journalist asks: How did a modest Seattle coffeehouse become a global juggernaut?
Paying $5 for a paper cup of beans infused in tap water is surely an act of stunningly bad personal economics. Plenty of us commit it regularly, of course, queuing up for gourmet coffee while complaining about the price of gas – a relative bargain even if we can’t get it half-unleaded and with a tank-topping froth of STP.Skip to next paragraph
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You can just flick that fact into the H.L. Mencken file: further evidence that no one ever went broke low-balling our collective capacity for thinking. Or you can view it as an opportunity for a little sociological investigation.
Taylor Clark works that second approach in Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture. One of five recent books examining the Seattle-based day-spa-cum-coffee-dispensary, “Starbucked” is a breezily written business yarn with plenty of big-picture punch.
Clark, a former alt-weekly writer from Oregon, also has his Mark Kurlansky moments, taking readers all the way to the Ethiopian highlands, maintaining that Beethoven liked to count out 60 beans for his ideal cup, and describing the Mr. Coffee revolution of 1972, in which the cheap drip-brewer opened US consumers’ eyes to variations in quality and flavor. Frankly, by the time Gabriel de Clieu – who sailed to Martinique with a coffee seedling between his knees – comes up late in the book, you might feel you’ve read enough about the commodity through time.
The book’s best unbundling is the expected one: How and why did this one brand – a stock-market juggernaut, despite recent dips – get to be king bean?
Seattle, Clark writes, had something to do with it: gloomy weather, lots of northern Europeans, even the perfect water hardness. A bigger part of the answer: Howard Schultz, the aggressive chief who understood not only neat little twists in urban-market penetration – working in from the suburbs, clustering shops – but also the “coffee theater” required to make latte-sipping as much of an American cultural staple as espresso bars are in Milan.
Starbucks, it seems, nails a magical American success formula: Its core product is both elitist in appeal and also altogether massified, even inescapable. Call it high-volume exclusivity. To amp up its appeal, the company built a gilded stage – lots of them, actually – on which its community of consumers could preen.
“Coffeehouses hit the mainstream so hard in the mid-1990s, one might have thought the nation was just emerging from a prolonged national shortage of overstuffed chairs and giant muffins,” Clark writes. “Designer coffee became more than just a chic thing to drink; with the third-place idea as its lodestar, Starbucks was making coffee into a way of life.”
In “way of life,” too, is certified controversy. Starbucks has at one time or another embodied both populist coffeehouse culture and also the kind of monolithic corporate blackheartedness that’s sometimes associated – fairly or not – with firms like Wal-Mart. Mostly the big coffeehouse gets a pass. Coffee has clout.