On Corporate Culture & Coffee

January 9th, 2010

I just finished reading a book called Starbucked, A double tall tale of caffeine, commerce, and culture, by Taylor Clark. The book is a 296 page dive into the world of coffee and how it came to prominence in the shape of a square green store with a mermaid logo, maybe you’ve heard of it?

Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with Starbucks. I love the coffee – tall soy no-whip mochas are my drink-indulgence preference, with a maple-nut scone if I’m into treating myself extra special. I hate the idea of patronizing a chain store that is sucking culture out of America and recently the whole world by sticking exact replicas of itself on every side of every street. I love the idea that when I’m traveling in India I can have a sip of something that reminds me of home, and I hate the idea that what comforts and reminds me of home is Starbucks. I love the fact that when I’m working out of the house or in between meetings I can sit in a comfy chair and catch up on email or read a book with free internet, with access to a clean bathroom for a $3.00 price-tag.

So there are clearly plusses and minuses. And I am not the only one noticing the two sides of this mermaid-faced coin.

The question the author asks however, is how much is too much. Starbucks was founded by a coffee-loving fanatic named Howard Schultz who was obsessed with quality and the creation of a third place - a safe, comfortable place where people could just be that wasn’t a bar. Now that sounds like a good idea – kind of like afterschool programs. But somewhere along the way he flipped from creating spaces to making money. The chain went from being a coffee connoisseur with well-informed baristas (Italian for bar-tender) to a drive-through spouting fast paced media add for Akkelah and the Bee with a little bit of coffee in a great big cup of milk, sugar, and caramel syrups. Whip cream on top optional.

Starbucks now operates in every country around the world, with the exception of Israel (where it opened and was forced to close). There is often an outcry when Starbucks begins it’s construction of a space. I was living in Berkeley, CA when the Starbucks on Telegraph by the University of Berkeley announced its grand opening. We all talked about how we would never let that happen. Protests and letters ensued. Three weeks later there was a line out the door and around the corner. Not protestors as you might hope, but caffeine-craved hippies waiting for their fix.

The author asks the question – is it the responsibility of Starbucks to decide it has enough stores around the globe, and to stop Americanizing every place it goes, or does Starbucks pop up around the globe because people keep showing up in droves to buy it’s product? What comes first – the supply or the demand?

The danger of course is that we can easily fall asleep to our values and what’s important. Small towns in America often contain no personality at all – filled with Pottery Barns, Starbucks, Home Depots and Macaroni Grills. What do we lose when small town local businesses consist of one street with 8 boutiques and independent coffee shops? I would like to believe that a place like Berkeley can hold onto it’s unique flavor and character, but it can’t do that without a consciousness of a community. The ability to reflect on what we want our communities to feel like, the quality we demand, and the personal discipline to act on our values become controllers of our future. In an economy where the conscience of businesses are driven by profit and stakeholder return, our only hope is to play the one card we have left – to stifle the demand for those services. It’s hard to make a point in a picket line when folks have a sign in one hand and a tell-tale starbucks cup in the other.