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Lifted from comments: "I am a bad woman, because I am happy with my local Starbucks." - Elf M. Sternberg
Lifted from comments: "I am a bad woman, because I am happy with my local Starbucks."
Someone wrote, "I am a bad woman, because I am happy with my local Starbucks."

No, you're not. You're making the best of a lousy situation.

It became a lousy situation because you, and everyone like you, who lives in that neighborhood, each and individually, made a self-interested short-view decision about what you wanted, and Starbucks met that need well enough.

Starbucks is a corporation, a soulless, sociopathic entity in a struggle with other soulless, sociopathic entities for control of a niche within an ecology we call "the marketplace." It is made up of human beings, but no more cares about them than we do about the bacteria and mites that colonize and even maintain our bodies. Their marketplace ecology is made up of human beings, but human beings notoriously make short-term decisions that in the long run can ruin an ecology-- the classical example being the denuding of Easter Island-- and publicly traded corporations are pressured to make decisions about their short-term stock price over long-term viability that lead to "self"-interested decision making that can trash their own ecology just as much.

A Starbucks cafe' is a box owned by one of these corporations, and stocked with the tools of a uniform experience. That experience looks and smells like a law library, and when it's not sounding like a distant but automated railyard it's filled with music chosen by an algorithm and approved by a committee, the bulk of which is packaged as "edgy" or "innovative" but is generally inoffensive, nondisruptive, and occasionally ethnic enough to re-assure the listener that he doesn't just listen to white people singing to other white people.

You make the best of that situation as you can. The people in that box are still people, and they're people from your neighborhood. Their struggle is to find and maintain a personal, local identity within that uniformity, and to somehow maintain the neighborhood. The owner of that Starbucks struggles to maintain her neighborhood even as franchise and distribution costs mean that local dollars flow to stockholders rather than neighborhood grocers.

I'm not ragging on Starbucks particularly here. The same thing is true of McDonald's, or the Olive Garden, or Home Depot. I'm particularly sensitive to restaurants and cafes because eating is one of those super-intimate things human beings do with their bodies, often in public, that I really dislike seeing distorted into a uniform experience by the leveraging opportunities of an economy of scale.

But we've reached the point where even our vocabulary has become distorted by our market experience. We talk about solutions as "stakeholders" and "stockholders," we have a single notion about money and currency that's not a fiat of God or nature but a convenience of government. Corporations evolve strategies to take advantage of our narrowed worldview and the innate, natural, short-term thinking of the human brain, not out of any conspiracy but because that's the natural evolution of a successful corporation.

Sure, lots of people like their local Starbucks. There are two Starbucks within walking distance of my home. But nowadays I have no alternative without getting into my car: Starbucks successfully drove the local roaster out of business last year. Their location was poor compared to the one Starbucks could afford, they were two blocks further away from the concentration of the local population, and they tried to compete with the chains by imitating the chain's flavor rather than having any distinctiveness of their own.

If I want expensive coffee, Starbucks is where I go, too. But I can't help but wonder if a local cafe', with good coffee, where the place smells like a roaster, where each barista gets to set the music, and where the owner got to choose his own wallpaper, wouldn't be a more local, more intimate, more neighborly experience.

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22 comments or Leave a comment
(Deleted comment)
shunra From: shunra Date: May 6th, 2009 01:35 pm (UTC) (Link)

And there are quite a few such places in walking distance of my home. If there weren't, it might be time to move.
trinsf From: trinsf Date: May 7th, 2009 12:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Please see my response. There are more than a half dozen of them, and no, they're not all that.
edichka2 From: edichka2 Date: May 6th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Can't remember the last time I resorted to Starbucks. It seems such a faraway reality, when your only town coffee house is...

They roast every morning, and every cup even of house coffee is made to order.

- E

trinsf From: trinsf Date: May 7th, 2009 12:33 am (UTC) (Link)
There's Philz in the city here, near where we have Spiral Dance meetings. Every single cup of everything is made to order.
slutdiary From: slutdiary Date: May 6th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC) (Link)

"The Experience"

"But I can't help but wonder if a local cafe', with good coffee, where the place smells like a roaster, where each barista gets to set the music, and where the owner got to choose his own wallpaper, wouldn't be a more local, more intimate, more neighborly experience."

Traveling from one to three days a week the past six weeks or so for Sam's thesis research it has been my happiness to spend some hours each of those days in towns looking for that experience while she has been in her museums. From Sydney BC to McMinnille OR, the only "corporate" caffeine/wi-fi I've settled for has been Powell's Books in Portland, and that's a special universe of it's own anyhow. Otherwise I've sought out the little ma-pa local places and never considered Starbucks. It has really been a quite yummy part of the trips.
pixel39 From: pixel39 Date: May 6th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
There was a friendly local place in the St. Paul skyway that my husband used to frequent, back when he worked on the skyway. They got forced out by their landlords because they weren't Caribou (our local coffee chain which has the advantage of being tastier than Starbucks and can pay higher rents than small privately-owned businesses). So it isn't always the store that's making those decisions.
From: codeamazon Date: May 6th, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't eschew all big-box stores. Home Depot, for example, has some of the best return and credit terms I've ever seen. They are humane, affordable, and friendly -- consistently.

We stopped by a local paint store before buying our (20 gals or more) of various paint products, and they were rude, dismissive, and much more expensive. We didn't look back.

At the same time, we make a point of patronizing smaller places over larger as a basic principle. I'd rather have lousy food at a new hole in the wall once in a while (and find some great places) than eat consistent but mediocre food at a chain.

It is, as you say, a decision to consider the non-monetary values. We go to Hardwicks looking for gifts or odd tools semi-regularly, just to try to help insure there is such a variety store for some time to come. Similarly, I will go out of my way to get coffee from the shops I prefer on the rare occasions I get it out.

What really chaps my ass is events like the loss of Coffee People. The small Oregon chain was WONDERFUL. So Starbucks bought them and closed them.
hydrolagus From: hydrolagus Date: May 6th, 2009 04:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Coffee People is gone?!? They were one of the few good things that happened to me when I lived in Portland.
R.I.P. Velvet Hammer
From: katybeth Date: May 6th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Stone Way Hardware is also good, though not as eccentric.

I like Home Depot for friendly, but they frequently don't have what I'm looking for. :(
From: codeamazon Date: May 6th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're probably not looking for a five gallon pot of shellac or a dozen sheets of 4x12 drywall. ;-)

LSB used to work at Hardwicks! Some of his oddest friends are from that time. ;-) (So far I'm fond of all of them. But they rival WL for "a bit different.")
clemtaur From: clemtaur Date: May 6th, 2009 08:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I used to also work there.. Miss it sometimes.. Yes, Hardwickians are a little strange..
mouser From: mouser Date: May 6th, 2009 07:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Starbucks is the McDonalds of coffee. No, it's NOT an exceptional product, but people get addicted to it and can get it anywhere.

I though Starbucks locations were franchises, but checking their website I appear to be incorrect. LACK of franchise does tend to mean a better product, IMHO.
srmalloy From: srmalloy Date: May 7th, 2009 12:21 am (UTC) (Link)
The analogy is even more apt (I've often referred to Starbucks as the 'McCoffee') because both McDonald's and Starbucks have an essentially identical corporate policy -- you can walk into a McDonald's anywhere in the country, order a Big Mac, and what you get is exactly the same as you'd get at any other McDonald's. And the same is true of Starbucks. They're both delivering a mediocre but predictable product. You know when you go into one that you're not going to be badly disappointed, the way you might be if you picked a random local restaurant or coffee house. But to gain that predictability, you give up the possibility of finding something exceptional.
(Deleted comment)
trinsf From: trinsf Date: May 7th, 2009 12:26 am (UTC) (Link)
The thing is, Elf, I've been a customer at many of those 7 or 8 (I lose count) other cafes. There's one two doors past "my" Starbucks. They don't accept credit cards. The people at the counter are bored looking. They don't make eye contact. When I asked about sugar-free syrups, I was told they didn't do that. Half a block down, there's another one. Old men sit around reading papers. The coffee comes in styrofoam cups. They sell stale donuts, which everyone knows to avoid. The guy at the counter yells at kids and makes them leave the store. Across the street from that, there's a place that roasts its own beans. People outside sit and smoke, because there's a cigar store next door. They had wifi, but got rid of it because they didn't want "those kinds" -- people with laptops, maybe? -- taking up tables.

And so on down the block, till we get to the "other" Starbuck's, the one with couches and too many children.

I am voting with my feet. If I want to have friendly baristas who make what I like, if I want a company responsive to my needs, then where I live, that's Starbucks. I participate in an online community that makes suggestions about changes at the chain; some of those changes have been implemented. So I've gotten to say, "I would like more high protein breakfast options, please", and lo! there they are now. I asked the locally-owned store if they could have something like that, once. The owner/manager/whatever rolled her eyes at me and said, "We have sandwiches at lunch, come back then."

I'm going to say a really terrible thing. I've been to the locally-owned coffee stops that are reasonably on my way to school, and it's clear to me that the one that gives a fuck about *me* as a consumer is the little (no couches, no library feel) Starbucks. I am not the target demographic of the other non-chain stores, and it shows. I don't push a stroller or a walker. I want Splenda in my cup, not agave syrup. I don't want to listen to the contemporary Christian of the bean-roasting place.

I said I was a bad woman because I know that sometimes, I *am* a consumerist whore. I buy my books from Amazon, and not the local independent bookstores. I engage in all sorts of terrible consumerist practices. But that said, I also frequent local business *when they're better*, and *when they meet my needs*. If the big souless corporate giant is more responsive to my needs than the rude woman two doors down who has sandwiches for lunch, I don't *care* how souless the corporation is.

I don't want coffee. I don't even *LIKE* coffee. I want a low-gycemic-impact source of a predictable controlled amount of caffeine which does not upset my stomach, made and handed to me by a hot baby butch who says my name in a way that suggests that she knows I think she's a hot butch, rung up by a kid who lets me poke fun at him just like I would my son, and who knows I have to be at the train. And honestly, I don't give a fuck about the music; I'm listening to my own over headphones, just like everyone else.
tagryn From: tagryn Date: May 7th, 2009 01:15 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, that. People vote with their feet, simple as that. "More local" doesn't always equal better: sometimes it does, but other times it means more uneven quality of service and product, whereas with Starbucks you have a pretty good idea what you'll be getting. That's to Starbucks' credit, and a notable achievement in and of itself. To be sure, economies of scale are at work too (one reason why WalMart is successful) and those tend towards a more gentrified experience for customers, but I wouldn't overromanticize the local experience, either.

trinsf From: trinsf Date: May 7th, 2009 01:51 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, that's my concern, the overromanticizing of the local experience. I love and support local businesses when they offer what I want, but I'm not going to go to a local coffee place just because it's a local place, if it means that I have to buy something that doesn't meet my needs. I might think differently if I cared about the taste of coffee, I suppose.
gromm From: gromm Date: May 7th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah. I was about to say.

The fact is that Starbucks outcompeted them. Typically, it's because they suck - places run by people who don't know business worth a damn and staffed by people who don't care. On occasion, it's just because Starbucks has better brand recognition.

Generally speaking, good coffee shops (or any other kind of business) that work well as small businesses take the same formula that made them popular and replicate it. Franchises start up all over the place all the time and succeed. Sometimes those franchises never branch out from their home town - I know of one such chain that has a dozen stores but none outside their hometown. I know of another one that opened up only about 3 years ago and has 20 or so franchises - which is already more than the original owner can handle.

These businesses come from giving people what they want.
trinsf From: trinsf Date: May 7th, 2009 01:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Yup. I'm in the Customer Hall of Fame at a local chain that is exactly what you're describing. Hobee's does what it does well. As a result, they've become a small local chain. Brad Templeton complained to me a while back that I was choosing to support a chain restaurant because of my support for Hobee's. My response was that yes, it's a chain, but it's a local one, and that the companies practices were important to support. Hobee's "wins" for breakfast for us over some bigger chains because they don't suck.

I was not a big Starbucks person, but they won by business by outcompeting anyone else locally, by listening to what I wanted and providing it. End of story.
trinsf From: trinsf Date: May 7th, 2009 01:58 am (UTC) (Link)
c/by business/my business
lisakit From: lisakit Date: May 8th, 2009 06:19 am (UTC) (Link)
I know of an excellent "local" roaster that sells their stuff on-line. And has very quick delivery, or you can pick it up at their roasting house. It's not as local to us being in Woodinville, but it's worth it.

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