Bucking the trend by pouring it straight

In Starbucked, a Portlander chronicles the rise of the coffee chain we hate to love.
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In Starbucked, a Portlander chronicles the rise of the coffee chain we hate to love.

Taylor Clark was a teenager growing up in Ashland when he was Starbucked for the first time.

Bumper stickers all over town scolded: Friends Don't Let Friends Go to Starbucks. The now-familiar pattern followed: Within a month, people were scraping the stickers off with one hand, holding a steaming green-and-white cup in the other. Clark was among them. Like millions of coffee lovers around the world, he fell for the seductive appeal of this carefully sculpted retail atmosphere.

Ten years later, Clark, now 27 and living in Portland, can't stop talking about Starbucks – even if he wants to. His lively 304-page book, Starbucked: The Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, is hot.

Published by Little, Brown and Company, the book examines the cultural clout of Starbucks as well as the evil-empire charges lobbed at the company. It is drawing thoughtful press in Portland (not a given for local authors) and beyond.

Clark packed the house at a recent appearance at Powell's Books on Hawthorne. (That's the funky Southeast Portland branch of the mother ship in the Pearl District.) The back-and-forth between Clark and the audience was taped for later airing on C-SPAN.

Clark, who hatched the idea for the book while working at Willamette Week (which ran an excerpt), gives Seattle-based Starbucks a fair shake – despite a firm personal preference for Stumptown Coffee and its un-cookie-cutter Portland coffee houses – and avoids the cliché of portraying the mega-chain as a victim of its own success.

His exploration traces the company's history from its quiet start at Pike Place Market in March 1971. Founders Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegel, and Gordon Bowker opened the store as Starbucks Coffee, Tea and Spice. Their notion was to concentrate on selling better-than-usual coffee by the pound, emulating Alfred Peet's coffee store in Berkeley, Calif. (Peet, the Dutch founder of Peet's Coffee & Tea, is credited as the grandfather of specialty coffee. He died in Ashland, Ore., in September.) But when CEO Howard Schultz took control of the company in 1987, he envisioned Starbucks as much more than just a coffee-bean retailer.

During the first boom years in the mid-1990s, upper management didn't always welcome the changes. As Clark puts it: "They spent one and a half days arguing over using non-fat milk. The spirit of innovation was not exactly roaming free."

But the invention of the Frappuccino, an impromptu remedy for customers who wanted to beat the heat in a Santa Monica Starbucks, revolutionized the business model and showed that product diversity would pay off in very big ways. That's when the company went from "small time latte peddler to a caffeine dynamo."

Clark does point out missteps by the company: a carbonated coffee drink that fell flat; the forgettable magazine called Joe; the so-not-happening Café Starbucks restaurants. Those abandoned experiments would have enormous negative consequences for most chains, of course, but this ship is so big that it takes more than a rogue wave to put it off course.

Each Starbucks brings in an average $1 million a year, and Clark reports that Starbucks drive-thru operations make even more, averaging $1.3 million. Even so, he believes drive-thrus could cause "a crisis in the company," by undermining the magic of each Starbucks as a gathering place – de facto community centers, really – where patrons can go to feel connected to others.

Clark also wonders about the future wisdom of the consistency mania evidenced by the chain. Quality control is one thing, but using machines to "pull" shots of espresso instead of human-erring baristas is another. When Howard Schultz visited a Shanghai Starbucks, he gave it high praise: "You would have thought you were in New York." Not everyone finds that a positive. Clark, for one, characterizes it as "chilling."

The release of "Starbucked," which its author calls a "business book, without being a business book," hasn't drawn any response from the company. Clark isn't surprised. "I haven't heard from Starbucks and I don't expect to hear from Starbucks. I don't think there's anything in it for them."


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