Monday, October 17, 2005

Coffee Conundrum

Where do you get your coffee? Apparently, your answer says a lot about your socio-economic status, your political leanings, and your ideals. And you just thought you were getting a little caffeine.

I have almost always hated Starbucks. At the beginning of their chain explosion in the early '90s I was uninterested in any coffee drink other than the Cappuccino Blast at Baskin Robbins which, let's face it, is just ice cream. During college (mid '90s now), Starbucks was just a place to do a little half-hearted studying in between celebrity sightings, seeing as my local shop in Montecito was the mecca for Steve Martin (bike helmet), Rob Lowe (every morning, with his kids), and Julia Roberts (just the one time, and didn't order anything because she already had ice cream in her hand--my kind of girl.) Somehow over the decade, Starbucks got super huge and corporate and became known for shoving out local coffee shops and for snobby customers who liked that you had to order in Italian.

As the heady, frenzied days of late '90s prosperity passed me and my entry-level job right by, coffee insinuated itself into my surroundings. At the Carlyle Group, the coffee and the Republican group-think were both free, and their consumption encouraged. Each kitchen was stacked with tiny Evian bottles and small, tight green packages with the Starbucks logo, ripped open to be brewed and served to the steady stream of billionaires dropping by. I myself mostly tanked up on coke (a-cola).

It wasn't until graduate school and the last gasp of the '90s that I finally accepted the fact that real coffee, sans ice cream, would be fundamental to my survival strategy if I was to finish four 20-page papers at the end of every semester. It was then that I finally tasted Starbucks coffee, straight-up. And realized it tasted like hot water mixed with a little char. Those of you with a Starbucks habit will immediately start squawking, but that's only because you're used to it after years of mega-dosing. You are in fact addicted to the alarming levels of caffeine particular to the Starbucks brew, levels that keep you buzzed and twitching all day. But people: it doesn't taste good. What's more insidious is that Starbucks coffee is so unabashedly stronger, so recklessly noxious, that once you've developed a taste for it, all other coffee actually tastes bad. Those corporate guys up in Seattle are no dummies.

I needed my coffee though, and I realized Starbucks coffee tastes like shit, and I found myself in Massachusetts. What's a poor, transplanted graduate student to do? It was clear. I joined the church of Dunkin' Donuts, a New England institution on par with Fenway Park, and it was there that I became a true Bostonian. In California, there is one small, sad and grimy Dunkin' Donuts for every three or four suburban cities. People go there to buy (small, sad and slightly stale) donuts. Imagine my bewilderment then, when I encountered gleaming, bustling Dunkin' Donuts on every corner of my new city, five branches at the airport, and lines out the door of every one! (One store for every 7,000 Massachusetts residents, compared to just one Starbucks per 15,000 people in Washington State.) People in New England don't go to Dunkin' Donuts primarily for the pastries, they go for the coffee: soft, comforting varieties such as French Vanilla and Hazelnut that don't make your eyes water as you read the Boston Herald. And they go a lot. Dunkin' Donuts is a way of life, familiar and respected like the blue-collar workers that are as plentiful around here as the chain. Although DD has moved slightly upscale lately, adding cappuccinos and other nonsense to their menu, at heart the franchise says simplicity, speed (the efficiency of the workers is amazing), Red Sox endorsements, and yummy stuff. As a result of this chain's ubiquity and its good-tasting coffee, I developed a legitimate habit. I had my standing order--"medium French Vanilla, skim milk, four sugars"--and I slowly incorporated Dunkin' Donuts' products into my life as a major food group. It was a wonderful relationship.

Unfortunately, the relationship turned bad. Not because things stopped tasting good, but because of the sheer number of ham, egg, and American cheese on-a-bagel sandwiches that I consumed per week along with my extremely sweet coffee. At some point, I added "Coolattas" to the rotation--foamy concoctions made with real cream and lots of sugar. Then they introduced steak bagels. Then I realized how good the Coffee Cake muffin was. Then I feared for my triglycerides. It became time to put an end to the madness. I ended my affair with Dunkin' Donuts at the same time I broke up with my native New Englander boyfriend. Cut all ties.

Now, in a cruel twist of fate, I have come full circle. There is a Starbucks beneath my gym, and that curious green/burning odor peculiar to the chain wafts up into the club at all hours. From my treadmill I have a view of the parking lot and an endless stream of commuter-ants scurrying into the store below, emerging with cups surgically planted into their palms. After my workout, I join them. Sadly, there is no other air-conditioned spot in my entire neighborhood where I can plug in a laptop and eat while working on my dissertation. I also have collected what seems to be hundreds of dollars' worth of Starbucks gift cards from my stepmother over the preceding five Christmases. All of which have put me square in my plushy chair at the local Starbucks, ordering $3 tea and trying to buy the "serenity" the chain is now apparently selling while I pound out a few pages. It rarely works, if only because invariably a gaggle of Boston College sorority girls traipse in to talk loudly about L.L. Bean and boys.

I am sad to have ended up here, among the slacker-chic baristas and the XM music. It feels like a defeat, like a violation of my honorary New Englander status. I am told that I belong more at Starbucks than at Dunkin' Donuts--Starbucksters vote Democrat, have advanced degrees, and read the Boston Globe. Dunkin Donutsters work construction, vote with the red states, and know the box score from last night's game. (Well, I'm with them on that one.) So, I belong here, even though I hate the pseudo-European fakery (I will never order a "venti" anything unless I'm in Rome) and the slick packaging of a product under the guise of "relaxed sophistication." I actually don't drink coffee anymore at all--I gave it up completely two years ago and no longer have crushing headaches in the morning as a result--so maybe this is why I am no longer blinded by the effect of all that green and caffeine. After all, anything you do each day, every day, becomes more than a habit and something nearing an identity: that's bad for both crowds, of the New England or Seattle variety. So I suppose it's best not to pledge allegiance to either side.

But I'm curious to know about everyone else--are you hopelessly addicted to the green bean? Do you have a weakness for the Dunkaccino that I used to love so much? Or have you broken free of the cycle altogether, maybe frequenting one of the nearly extinct local coffee shops in your neighborhood, or forgoing coffee stores altogether for trips to the library, the museum, and your own living room couch (who are we kidding about the library & the museum). Anyway, let me know. Perhaps your answers will inspire me to break free of the Starbucks cycle once and for all, slamming the door on its air-conditioned splendor and grossly expensive coffee forever!... with one more toffee-almond bar for the road.


At 5:49 PM, Blogger benji said...


their coffee is wicked strong

their coffee cake is delicious.

i have never ordered a venti, grande, or tall only a small. i am not corporate dammit!

i have never ordered anything other than a "small coffee". cappachino, latte, blah blah blah

at first, while living in new york, i would only get my coffee at a starbucks. then i discovered the joy of the coffee cart right by my work. this guy of middle eastern decent was always there, i wouldn't have to tell him what i wanted, he just remembered. a scoop of sugar, vanilla nut coffee mate and the little blue coffee cup. it was delicious and for 75 cents, one of the best deals in new york. i miss that walk in to work, i miss the coffee(i would actually drink the whole thing unlike coffee i would get from starbucks). i'm in portland now and i have a place right by the MAX stop(the T or subway) that makes me my coffee. she still hasn't learned my order yet, but she's close, i can feel it

At 12:40 PM, Blogger James Apostol said...

Dunkin and Donuts med French Vanilla with a little milk. 2-a-day habbit for years, especially during the club years. and about once a week I would end up with a cup that tasted like starbucks--very disappointing. However, before quitting my habit along with the author, one of my most treasured coffe experiences came at a local shop as well. Angora served the best french vanilla cofee i've ever tasted.

what i miss is the ritual. the sitting and enjoying of the cup(and the company, which the cup often was). somehow, my red bush tea at my desk each morning just doesn't feel the same. especially with the overbearing corporate types at countrywide monitoring our internet free workspaces. but i definitely don't miss the caffeine.

besides, every once in a while i get a little fix when visiting moms in the woo. nothing quite like a little greek coffee on sunday mornings over gossip and nostalgia(even if it is decaf).

At 10:46 AM, Blogger scs said...

I love the "my journey with coffee" stories. Keep them coming! Also, you would not believe how many people have told me they read this post while actually drinking Starbucks coffee in some form! This is an epidemic, people. :)

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Starbucks as an organization reminds me of the New York Yankees. You can be in any city in the United States and be able to run into someone wearing a Yankees' cap. This is no different than being able to get the same tasting Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino on Greenleaf Ave in Whittier, CA or on Boylston Street in Boston, MA - they are everywhere.

I must admit I can't stand the Yankees and refuse to take part in the Starbucks cult (for all the reason you mentioned).

But I am a loyalist and need the juice in order to function and stay regular. So I have dedicated my life and pocket book to Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Coffee Bean's Ice Blended Mocha's give me the working knowledge of what an everyday crack addict would feel with or without his/her crank. They are the best! JQ

At 4:42 PM, Blogger scs said...

Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf may be the thing I miss most about California (well, other than my family of course). Their blended mochas and vanillas with special imported beans from deep in South America or whatever are AMAZING. I am having renewed withdrawals right now, thanks jq.

At 6:26 PM, Blogger benji said...


my coffee shop by the MAX line has a sign in the window: FOR RENT.

damn you starbucks. damn you to hell...

At 10:46 PM, Blogger huntsmanic said...

starbucks isn't such a tragedy.

i am obligated to say this cos mr. starbucks re-signed ray allen. the connect four-style obliteration of mom & pop may reek of tragedy, and ... and okay so i can't muster much in the way of a defense, but ... but, hell: the opposing defense won't be able to muster jack in the face of a team that can shoot from anywhere. any. where. nice post, sully.

At 7:40 PM, Blogger kristinachen said...

sull strap. always was a drip coffee kinda person and so starbucks never appealed b/c it was wicked strong, to quote benji. i am, though, pro fair-trade coffee in all respects so these days, that is the only thing i will drink. even the starbucks fair trade that i grind and prepare will do, that is delivered to our office by a fair intern lad part-time starbucker out of the goodness of his heart b/c he knows my office contains coffee addicts. you can't blame him for working there...they DO have part-time benefits.
i think it would be very hard to give up coffee. i'm always amazed by people who do. i'm not a sugary coffee kind person either so the coolatta and french vanilla w four sugars isn't my 'cup o tea.' :)

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Sam said...


with mixed emotion I must tell you that there are now THREE Starbucks on State Street in downtown SB, making a total of like 11 in the area. When the new one opened a couple months ago it was blasted with graffiti that said, "Buy Local Beans". Obviously a miffed local coffee purveyor.

I agree that their coffee tastes like burnt poo, but their iced mochas are terrific. My wife really likes the pumpkin spice lattes they roll out this time of year. And their selection of goodies speaks for itself.

I go to Starbucks a lot. It is convenient. From my office, I can walk to all three State Street joints (plus the outlet inside Barnes and Noble). But I often go to the local shops or Coffee Bean to mix it up. Thanks for the writing.


At 2:16 PM, Blogger Toddy said...

Well, I guess along with Mark I will be the voice of the devil. I am pretty used to it in these circles anyway.

I don't drink coffee very much. When I do, its always iced. I don't drink Starbucks coffee because it tastes bad. Their chai tea is to sweet as well.
I like English Breakfast tea in the morning and recently in the afternoon.

Now... I don't know my facts, but isn't Starbucks a relatively good company to work for? Part time benefits and well adjusted pay?
Doesn't Starbucks do more than nearly all other corporations of it's size and reach to take care of indigenous workers? Starbucks also has a very good environmental record if I remember right. (I don't know if any of this is true, it may just be coffee propoganda collateral working in my head.)

While I am far from a corporate go-getter, and the loss of cultural heritage to a giganto-consumer machine like Walmart and Barnes & Noble are certainly in the make to saddening degree, I am unsure that Starbucks is the place to be lobbing missiles. We all hated Microsoft for a while yet Bill Gates is a philanthropist nonpareil. Now Apple is the big monster...right? At least thats what the current logic would lead to.

What I am getting at is that it is certainly good to spotlight our enemies and get them out inn our sights, I wonder if simply hating a corporation is productive. I think perhaps it might be better to follow the lines of power back to those who make Mom & Pop killing machines a necessity. Starbucks is simply a product of a system. The system is a product of a set of values. Values that are held by specific people. Scary specific people. Scary specific people who wear pants.

I wish the Sonics could have held on to Nate.
He is one of my favorites of alll time.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger scs said...

THREE! I can hardly believe it. State Street, where have you gone? One of my favorite things about that street used to be the Earthling, which had good coffee, odd food specials, and the fireplace in the middle of the bookshop. Then that huge Borders moved in. Thank you Sam for the excellent on-the-ground reporting.

At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

State Street has a Coffee Bean! JQ

At 2:17 AM, Blogger scs said...

Scary Specific Pants guy (yes that's you Todd): I agree hating corporations isn't that productive. But it is super fun. And I am not so sure about the Starbucks-helps-indigenous-workers thing. That definitely smells fishy. Or a little like "burnt poo."

Also, I never hated Microsoft or Bill Gates. Nerdy is sexy.

At 8:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in terms of "burnt poo"... it depends on the kind of bean. some are more pooish than others.

i have to say i have obstained from either bandwagon. starbucks is not the ultimate coffee experience for me, and yet i don't hate them either

when i feel all "i am not corporate damnit" i have to remind myself that i drive an american car, often wear clothes made by companies with net grosses (is the correct plural grossi?) larger than many school budgets, and kodak develops my prints :: CBTL and/or Peet's are no mom-and-pops either; neither is the coffee cart in front of the university library (my closest fav); and some pretty evil bastards run stand-alone businesses too, don't forget

i've had fabulous coffee in italy, germany, etc but i've also had hideous, burnt-poo coffee there. not worth getting overly sentimental or romantic about it. i've also indulged in the guilty pleasure of going to starbucks in london. can't say it scarred me... nor did it keep me out of local, independent pubs. just satisfied a need for an american-tub-o-coffee. and an overstuffed ultrasuede chair. sometimes a girl's got do what a girl's got to do

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Toddy said...

The best coffe I have ever had have come from diminutive, brown-coloured people.

The first was during that whole Europe Semester fiasco in Israel. We stayed in a Bedouin tent and drank their strong, brackish and gritty coffee, pounded in a very large pestle. It was delicious, but I don't think I slept for two nights.

The second is here in New York and is served by a Sikh man at Punjabi on 1st Street at Houston and B.
It is hot and sweet and steamed and tastes just a hint like some kind of nut.

While I myself am not diminutive (relatively on average) or brown-coloured (never ever, only reddish at times) I can say that my enjoyment of these coffees are not the product of any kind of ethnic pride.



At 11:54 PM, Blogger Casson said...

Sara, the banter is for grins. You haven’t put a cup of coffee to your lips in years. Using Starbucks as some shill to get me sucked into another of your baseball rhapsodies. Clever. Replace Starbucks with Yankees and Dunkin Donuts with Red Sox. I get it.
Should I protest the strength of Starbucks coffee? If you want to stay awake, or get rid of your caffeine craving headache, which is what everyone, like it or not, uses coffee for, why would you half-ass it? Many times, I pay for black, bitter, Shell gas station coffee. This is so that I know that my headache is from my screaming infant. Every time that happens, I dream of the burnt corporate stuff (The Bronx is no Santa Barbara, I think there is one and a half Starbucks for about two and a half million people). Taste be damned. Did anyone start drinking coffee or beer for the taste? Although the poo thing is wrong and frankly quite offensive. Should I be politically piqued about the never-ending coffee wars? Does a crack addict care that the crack house is a run down trailer or notice the cookies under the glass to the right? Just keep it coming from every corner of the nation, and don’t try to cut it with milk or sugar, let alone hazelnut. Be glad you have a gym, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts nearby to sit around and ponder your ideals. As soon as a Starbucks opens next to the ninety-nine cent store on Bainbridge I will be cured.

At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is late and no one is going to read it but boo sara, todd, mark, sam, starbucks and boo coffee bean and tea leaf (not a positive starbucks alternative, fool). Sam, there are five, count them five starbucks on state street, not three. Cheers to those sitting around me right now enjoying their various forms of caffinated delight at the mom & pop owned coffee cat. oh, and fighting corporate is productive mother fuckers!

At 2:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey...Just Try Me...was it the Coffee Cat owners that spray painted all over my building??? Show some class SB?? Buy Local Beans?? Real classy. The Coffee Cat is a cool joint, and with the County Building right next door, they will be fine.


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