Getting the jitters

Starbucks' "third place" concept is under pressure from laptops, McDonald's, and a decline in snob appeal.
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Starbucks' "third place" concept is under pressure from laptops, McDonald's, and a decline in snob appeal.

Had things turned out a little differently, you might have sipped your morning latte at Cargo House. Or maybe Pequod's. Back in the early 1970s, those were two of the names considered for a new coffee company, which finally settled on Starbucks. There's been speculation about how far the company would have gone had it offered customers a cup of "Pee-quod" in the morning. The corporate coffeehouse culture we take for granted today might never have happened.

In the go-go Howard Schultz years of the Starbucks saga, the Seattle company grew to 16,000 outlets and became a cultural phenomenon. In addition to selling java, Starbucks has published books (including New York Times best sellers) and won eight Grammy Awards. More ambitiously, Schultz sought to sell something more than sugared milk laced with caffeine. He set out to turn Starbucks outlets into carefully groomed "third places" for his customers: a haven from home and workplace where people can gather and connect.

It worked for a while. A new Starbucks opening up was an occasion, a sign that civilized tastes had arrived at the local strip mall. In poorer areas, a new Starbucks was gentrification's equivalent of a spring crocus. As old-time third places vanished–taverns, bowling alleys, barber shops and all-night diners–Starbucks became a new possibility for building community, albeit a suburbanized one where baristas offered Nordstrom-style service and not a stir stick was out of place.

One wonders if culture can really blossom in such places. In Europe, coffeehouses generated new life: French existentialists and painters debating at Paris cafes or the merchants of empire creating Lloyd's of London at a coffeehouse of the same name. If such things go on in your neighborhood Starbucks, you'd hardly know it. Some, I grant you, look to be community hubs, like the one at 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street in Seattle's Central District neighborhood, where people gather to commune in a place that was once one of the worst corners in the city for crime. But others are as social as airport waiting areas. Folks tap on their laptops, apparently talk to themselves (until you notice their Bluetooth headsets) or sit with their faces buried in the paper while soft jazz plays in the background. Instead of being third places, many Starbucks cafes are pit stops for caffeine and downloadable music.

Community and character are more likely to be found at the independent coffeehouses that have blossomed along the trail Starbucks blazed with its charred grounds. These indies are less corporate, more idiosyncratic and the coffee is often better. Plus, in their variety, you can often find one that caters to your particular tribe or demographic subgroup: starving artist, desperate housewife, incorrigible poseur. And those who want to dispense with third-place notions altogether are satisfied with drive-through espresso stands in parking lots of even the smallest of towns. These days, Starbucks is being mocked by competitors for its high-falutin' aspirations. McDonald's has a TV commercial airing that touts its own espresso drinks, which, it says, are available in an "unsnobby" atmosphere sans the strains of Kenny G in the background. Sure, the McDonald's atmosphere isn't much, but during a recession, a Starbucks latte is about as popular as $4 gas.

Starbucks isn't stupid, so Schultz has it getting back to basics. The company is embracing its crafty past and Seattle roots by rolling out a new Pike Place blend. It's buying new espresso-makers and retraining baristas. In some outlets, it's brought back the $1 cup of coffee. Even a retro version of the logo has made an appearance: the double-finned Starbucks siren has her breasts back!

In short, the coffee chain is now trying to emulate what it once was: a smaller, hands-on affair that created a cult-like following dubbed the Church of St. Arbucks. But the magic of that cult has been broken; Starbucks can't re-create its past any more than Disney can build a real Main Street. The third place has morphed into something more protean as mobile customers spend most of their time online or driving from place to place in the complex orbit of daily life. The real third place is probably your car, where you can sip your latte and listen to NPR while stuck in traffic en route to day care and the dry cleaners. When it comes to coffee, Starbucks might have given you your first taste of the good stuff, but now you want it with fewer pretensions. I'll bet even Frasier Crane is getting his daily buzz at Micky D's.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.