Standing up for Starbucks

It's not just a corporation looking to cash in on caffeine.
Crosscut archive image.

A Starbucks mug.

It's not just a corporation looking to cash in on caffeine.

I prefer Starbucks.

There, I’ve said it. My shame is out there for the world to see. And I’m glad.

Coffee, I’ve found, is a very cultural thing. It’s a badge that says something about us. My elderly parents for instance? They’re half-caf Folgers types. My mother buys enormous cans of the stuff — both caffeinated and non. Then she pours them into a huge bowl and mixes them together. A full three month supply. She makes it in a Mr. Coffee and leaves the burner on all day. By afternoon, you could stand a knife up in the pot.

When they’re out, my folks get plain black coffee — the heavy-white-cup-and-saucer diner kind. They might pour in a little skim milk, but never cream. Vending machine coffee is perfectly OK in a pinch. But they wrinkle their noses when I mention espresso. “How can you drink that stuff?” my mother will ask.

(One of the kindest things my father ever did for me was stop at a Starbucks and buy me a Venti Americano for $3.68 after I’d had surgery. I know it hurt my dad deeply to go in and pay three times what he felt that cup of coffee was worth. And I swear I am not being snide — and you’d have to know my father — when I say that this was a sure sign of his love.)

The majority of my friends, on the other hand, habituate only independently-owned neighborhood coffeehouses — places with peeling paint and mismatched cushions on the chairs, no air conditioning, and pictures of the proprietor’s dog in cute outfits lining the register. Or they seek sleek, dark Portland-esque kind of shops with chest-pounding indie music and goateed wait staff and fickle organic beans that they brew one six-dollar cup at a time.

These are people who will pass three Starbucks on the 10-mile drive to a more authentic spot. And they do it because they believe, deeply, that supporting local business is the right thing to do. Often, they’re right.

Most of my friends are 7-12 years older than I. Because I married and began having children at 21, the community I joined were 30-something Baby Boomers, now about 55. They caught the tale end of the 1960s while I was still an infant. They graduated from college and shipped out with the Peace Corps when I was a teenage girl in the suburbs listening to Human League and Wham! And they’ve taught me many great things. These are the same people who rejected Amazon long before it developed an app that encouraged customers to shop in brick-and-mortar stores, scan barcodes, and order for less online. The former flower children were right about that. And they stayed principled no matter what the cost, forking over full-freight hardcover prices while we Gen X’ers blithely ordered books at 40 percent off, as if some magic Internet fairy had changed the rules of commerce specifically for us.

I admire my now-aging, left-leaning, world-changing friends. And I understand that they’re far happier in a coffeehouse that isn’t a lookalike box in a chain. They’re willing to put up with a little inconvenience or discomfort — or even bad, weak coffee — because Starbucks feels sterile to them. More to the point, it doesn’t accurately represent who they are.

So when I’m meeting one of these lovely, socially-conscious citizens, I have never once said, “Let’s go to Starbucks.” I have never admitted (until now) that I find nearly all of their small corner coffeehouses too loud/hot/dirty/cutesy/surly/expensive. I have never complained about the fact that I live a completely cashless life and never remember until it’s too late to stop at the ATM. Instead, I find myself facing the hand-lettered CASH ONLY sign and scrounging in the bottom of my bag or ordering just water or paying the $4 extortion fee for the cash machine that the cozy neighborhood coffee shop has conveniently stashed behind the bar.

What’s odd is, I want variety in nearly every other experience in life. I travel to foreign countries and blindly order local dishes in restaurants where no one speaks English. I read every manner of thing, from the Wall Street Journal to magical realism. I change jobs, houses and cities more than anyone I know. But the one consistency I desire is a decent Americano handed to me by a well-groomed barista wearing a green apron. Just what I expect: dark with a good head of crema and exactly the size I ordered. Not some drink they call The Golden Mountain served to me in a chipped baby blue cup by a many-pigtailed kid wearing a t-shirt so sheer his nipples show through.

But after years of skulking into Starbucks to write each morning, or dashing in for a tall Pike Place after drinking organic dishwater with my crowd, I’m finally fessing up. Because in January the chain came out in support of Washington's gay marriage bill  (which has since passed and been signed into law). Their statement was simple yet elegant: ”This important legislation is aligned with Starbucks’ business practices and upholds our belief in the equal treatment of partners,” it read.

Damn, I was proud and also relieved. Because, let’s face it, unlike my friends I was not making a political statement with my coffee preference. But lucky for me, I turned out to be on exactly the right side.


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