A libertarian goes to Starbucks
Dave and I come from often opposed ends of the political spectrum. He runs a "red meat" progressive weblog, while I'm loosely affiliated with the libertarian public policy scene in Washington, DC. But we're united by our desire to cross ideological boundaries and by our love for great coffee. So when Dave invited me to write a guest post on "a libertarian perspective on coffee," I was intrigued.
By way of an introduction, I should note that I'm not a full-time policy analyst. I left the 9-5 think tank world a couple years ago to work behind the bars at two of Washington's top coffee shops, places committed to elevating coffee and espresso preparation to a culinary art. In this world, Starbucks is an apparent nemesis, replacing skillful baristas with automatic machines, driving indie coffee houses out of business, and submerging its burnt espresso in heaps of milk and syrup.
Yet as a libertarian, I'm tend to have a more optimistic view of culture, seeing a corporation like Starbucks as, if not a hero, at least as a neutral or relatively harmless force amid robust and dynamic consumer preferences. I shouldn't denigrate the company just because it's big and successful. After all, it succeeds by offering people a product they want and willingly purchase.
So what's a guy like me to do? If I find that my generally favorable view of consumer culture falls apart in the area I happen to care most about, that's a real test of my views. So after talking with Dave, we decided a post about Starbucks' ambiguous role in promoting cafe culture would be a good place to start thinking about libertarianism and coffee.
Let's begin with the easy issue: Starbucks is driving independent coffee shops out of business. Anecdotally, this may seem obviously true. Many people can name a favorite coffee shop that went out of business soon after a Starbucks moved into the neighborhood. The fact is, though, that Starbucks is creating a market, not destroying it. Growth in both independent and corporate coffee shops has been huge over the past fifteen years, thanks in large part to consumers being introduced to specialty coffee drinks in the safe confines of their local Starbucks.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America, a leading trade group, tracks American retail sales. In 1989, the SCAA estimates there were 585 coffee houses operating in the U.S. By 1995 that number had risen to 5,000. By 2003, there were 17,400 shops in operation.
Starbucks growth is notable, but it's far from the sole factor driving these new shop openings. The SCAA reports that 57% of the shops open in 2003 were independent, having only one to three locations. Microchains (4-9 units) made up another 3% of the market. All the large chains combined make up the remaining 40%. [Source .pdf]
A 2004 article in the Willamette Weekly finds a similar pattern at work in Portland. In 2003, a misguided miscreant attempted to blow up a new Starbucks in a neighborhood where residents claimed to not want the imperial corporate giant. But a survey of the local yellow pages reveals that indie shops were doing just fine in Portland:
According to the Portland Yellow Pages, before Starbucks came to Portland in 1989, there were 28 coffee shops in the city. Today, there are 91 non-Starbucks coffeehouses in Portland proper, compared with the chain's 48 stores within city limits.
Bellisimo Coffee Infogroup, a consulting company for coffee shops, notes that Starbucks plays an important role in giving people their first gourmet coffee experience, after which they can and often do branch out to try out other sources. Tully's, a smaller chain, agrees, intentionally locating new stores in the vicinity of existing Starbucks locations. In the same Willamette article, one coffee expert gets perhaps a bit too effusive, but his point is well made:
"Every morning, I bow down to the great green god for making all of this possible," says Ward Barbee, publisher of the Portland-based coffee trade magazine Fresh Cup.
So on the charge that Starbucks kills small business, the Mermaid is mostly off the hook. But what about the coffee itself? I'll probably offend a few Starbucks fans by saying this, but there's a lot to dislike about the way they prepare it.
Despite promising beginnings, in recent years the coffee lovers at Starbucks have lost out to the MBAs in the company's rapid expansion. Instead of skillfully tamping espresso by hand, today's Starbucks baristas employ push button machines that take much of the art out of the job. Add to that the bulk milk frothing, the frappuccinos, and the increasingly sweetened varieties of latte, and the company has become less and less like a gourmet coffee operation and more like a fast food restaurant. Don't even get me started on the crime against naming conventions that is the "caramel macchiato."
Given this list of sins, it would be easy for me to slip into coffee snob mode and lambast the company for degrading consumer preferences, but to do so would be to misunderstand the formative role it has played in American cafe culture. On net, Starbucks has done more than any other company to introduce people to quality coffee and espresso drinks. I was one of those initial converts. Growing up in the Houston suburb of Spring, TX in the 1990s, it was where I had my first taste of espresso drinks and, just as importantly, discovered the pleasure of relaxing in a coffee shop. At the time I enjoyed big lattes and mochas, sipping them awkwardly through a straw as I sat in a big, comfy, purple chair. (I eventually learned to ditch the straw, but I still love those chairs.)
The history of coffee retail is more complicated than simply good coffee vs. bad coffee. People involved in the specialty coffee industry describe Americans' love of coffee transitioning through three waves, a concept promoted by Trish Skeie of Taylor Maid Farms. In the first wave, coffee was served as a mostly undifferentiated commodity, marketed more for its stimulative qualities or as a breakfast accompaniment than for its flavor. Pre-ground or even instant coffees were the order of the day. A great example of this mindset is this 1984 "coffee achiever" ad, showing how celebrities like David Bowie, Kurt Vonnegut, and Kenny Anderson attain success running on caffeine fuel. Notice the slight wince as Cicely Tyson takes a sip during rehearsal. It's so bad, she has to slap her director in the face. Now that's motivation!
In the second wave Americans begun hanging out in coffee shops and drinking espresso based coffee drinks. While its roots stretch back to the espresso revolution of the 1950s, it didn't reach its peak until Starbucks emerged out of Seattle and swept the country. The company rapidly expanded this market, introducing consumers to new ways of enjoying their coffee, raising their standards, and giving specialty coffee a trendy, gourmet cachet.
In the third wave, the goal is to complete the evolution of coffee from commodity to connoisseur beverage. In essence, specialty coffee needs to become more like wine. You wouldn't buy a bottle of wine labeled solely by country of origin and with no vintage date, yet people buy coffee like this all the time. Changing this means using detailed labeling, not just by country but by the specific grower or even the individual lot of beans. It means putting the roast date on every bag, ensuring freshness. And it means investing in the equipment and the training necessary to make sure that the best qualities of each coffee are brought out when it is finally served to the customer, or else the rest is all for naught.
Starbucks is clearly not a part of this third wave, but so what? For there is no third wave without a second to precede it. Even now, while Starbucks can't deliver the quality I'd like on the scale on which it operates, I'm glad to see one of its kiosks when I walk into an airport lobby for an early morning flight. I can get better coffee in the airport now than I could a decade ago. The same could be said for almost any other spot in America, thanks either directly to Starbucks or to the smaller shops filling in the market it helped create.
Coming back to the original question, my take on Starbucks has to be more nuanced than loving or hating it. Starting out by raising the bar of high end coffee, it created niche markets for even better specialty coffee retailers even as its own quality leveled off. Similarly, though it has been a homogenizing force as it has spread into every retail corner imaginable, it has left consumers with a far more diverse selection of coffee drinks and coffee houses than they had access to ten years ago.
I realize consumer culture doesn't always have such happy resolutions, but in the coffee case things seems to be working out quite nicely. The artisanal cappuccino sippers and the venti caramel macchiato gulpers can co-exist, each of them finding more possibilities for enjoyment than they've ever seen before. Drink up and be happy.
-- Jacob Grier authors the weblog Eternal Recurrence and drinks way too much espresso.