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Everything but the Coffee casts a fresh eye on the world's most famous coffee company, looking beyond baristas, movie cameos, and Paul McCartney CDs to understand what Starbucks can tell us about America. Bryant Simon visited hundreds of Starbucks around the world to ask, Why did Starbucks take hold so quickly with consumers? What did it seem to provide over and above a decent cup of coffee? Why at the moment of Starbucks' profit-generating peak did the company lose its way, leaving observers baffled about how it might regain its customers and its cultural significance? Everything but the Coffee probes the company's psychological, emotional, political, and sociological power to discover how Starbucks' explosive success and rapid deflation exemplify American culture at this historical moment. Most importantly, it shows that Starbucks speaks to a deeply felt American need for predictability and class standing, community and authenticity, revealing that Starbucks' appeal lies not in the product it sells but in the easily consumed identity it offers.
I started my quest to understand Starbucks' appeal at what the company now bills as its original store, opened, it says, in 1971 in Seattle's Pike Place Market. It is a different kind of place than the Starbucks store on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus, the closest company outlet to my house. Situated at a busy intersection, this two-story, oddly shaped store is decorated, like all Starbucks these days, in natural-looking reds and greens and slightly upscale touches of chrome lights and wide overstuffed chairs. The first store, by contrast, is a plain rectangle. There are no fireplaces or lofts with comfy couches. Like many newer Starbucks outlets, this first store has wood floors, though these are not the light-colored stylish hardwood you usually see but wide dark planks scraped and worn by the heavy steps of work boots and the weight of two-wheeled steel dollies carrying bulky crates and boxes. Above the dropped lights, ducting—real ducting—runs the length of the ceiling. Deep buckets line one side. You can tell from the pictures on the walls that they used to be filled with piles of fresh-roasted, whole bean coffee.
Over the entrance of the Pike Place Market store hangs the company's original logo. Inspired by sixteenth-century Norse woodcuts, this circle-shaped early design is, like everything else in the first store, natural looking, an earthy shade of brown, the color of coffee with a little milk. Surrounded by the words "Starbucks" on the top and "Coffee, Tea, and Spices" on the bottom is a siren. Calling attention to her crafty design, the details of her tail are clearly and carefully drawn. So is the crown on her head. That is all she wears. Her full, soft-looking Rubenesque white body and breasts are exposed. "You can see her nipples," a tourist who had just gotten off a bus pointed and giggled with a friend. Her tail is split down the middle, giving her an even more explicitly sexual aura. But that is the way she is supposed to be. She is after all a siren, a seductress who lures men from the sea to their death.
As the company grew, Starbucks didn't want customers to focus on the siren symbolism too much. But the sign did announce that the product that it represented was natural and untainted. That was an association the firm wanted to establish. Items like this—really, ideas like this— had wide appeal in postwar America as mass-produced sameness spread across the country and made life seem more sterile and dull. Some consumers rebelled against the men in gray flannel suits and the regime of the supermarket by dropping out or creating agit political theater, but most of the protests were contained in the marketplace. Most registered their discontent by looking for new things to buy not by destroying the larger system of buying.
JERRY BALDWIN'S SEARCH FOR THE REAL
A year after visiting that first Starbucks store, I got in touch with Jerry Baldwin. Along with Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegl, Baldwin started Starbucks in 1971. I wanted to learn his coffee story, but I also wanted to know about his politics, if he thought about authenticity and sameness as much I thought he had. Did Starbucks spring from the rebellious waters of the 1960s, as I had heard? Was it, like Ben & Jerry's, built to serve the ends of countercultural capitalism? After going back and forth, we set up a phone interview. Baldwin came off as warm, funny, insightful, and talkative, kind of like the ideal dinner party guest. Before I started asking him questions, he asked me about my project. I told him that I was trying to understand why people went to Starbucks and paid a premium for its coffee. Before I finished my explanation, he said, "What I really wanted was people to come to the store interested in coffee."
"My first adolescent cup of coffee," he chuckled, "was, I guess, when I was fourteen years old." Baldwin had gone to an event at his Bay Area high school. When it ended, he called home for a ride. His dad told him he was running a little behind. "Why don't you head down to the diner at the corner and wait there?" his father suggested. Baldwin hopped onto a counter stool and ordered a cup of coffee. The waitress slid a mug of steaming hot dark brown liquid over to him. Baldwin looked at it. He loaded it with milk and sugar and still remembers that "it tasted awful."
That bitter coffee baptism didn't scare Baldwin away because he had discovered the caffeine part. Throughout his college years at the University of San Francisco (he started when Bob Dylan still sang folk songs in coffeehouses), he drank coffee every day. Most afternoons, he went to the student union to study and hang out. The coffee there was often strong and thick from sitting on a burner all day. When he went into the army in 1966 at twenty-three, he continued to drink coffee. In those days, he drank what they gave him, Folgers or Maxwell House or instant—it didn't matter, and he didn't have a choice. Wherever he went, coffee usually looked the same—light brown and almost see-through. And that is the way it looked when he made it at home. Away from the kitchen, it still looked the same. It came out piping hot at the diner in a chipped white porcelain mug (with endless refills) or at the corner deli in a blue paper cup with a picture of the Acropolis on it.
Tom Waits sang about this coffee. In his whiskey-soaked, nicotine-etched voice, he told a fable about sitting in a diner one night when his veal cutlet suddenly got up and walked "down to the end of the counter and beat the shit out of my cup of coffee." The singer joked, "I guess the coffee just wasn't strong enough to defend itself." That was coffee for Baldwin and almost everyone else in the United States in the 1960s. No wonder overall consumption in the United States was on a slow decline. Culturally, at this moment just before the generational divide broke open, coffee posed—outside beatnik circles—as an adult drink or, even more, as an unhip beverage for the over-sixty set.
After his stint in the army, Baldwin stopped taking what he got. He started to pay more attention to food and drink. What he ate became a form of self-expression and the city a perpetual scavenger hunt for new, less prepackaged tastes and experiences. Reflecting his growing interest in the natural and real, he began watching Julia Child on TV. Taking his inspiration from her, he started cooking his own meals from scratch. With friends, he wandered around San Francisco checking out fishmongers, fruit stands, and ethnic grocery stores, looking for fresh and unadulterated ingredients for his feasts.
Whenever he had a few extra dollars, he told me during our phone conversation, he stopped at Petrini's. Located at the corners of Fulton and Masonic streets, the store, he remembers, was broken down into separate departments: wine, flowers, and meat. A specialist ran each division. In the meat section, Baldwin's favorite, butchers in white coats displayed mounds of chuck, chains of sausage, slender flank steaks, stubby legs of lamb, and thick pork shoulders. Everything was right there to see. Plastic wrap didn't cover up precut meats. The butchers watched over things. What most impressed Baldwin was that they themselves cooked and knew how to prepare each cut the right way. To Baldwin, Petrini's, with its emphasis on knowledge and freshness, represented the "anti-Safeway."
Lots of people were anti-something in the 1960s. Revolt electrified the streets of San Francisco and the rest of the nation when Baldwin started to make his Petrini's runs. Revolt against Jim Crow. Revolt against war and imperialism. Revolt against neo-Victorian notions of sexuality. Revolt against environmental degradation. Revolt against keeping up with the Joneses and the madcap buying of suburbia. And revolt against the mass-produced, prepackaged, freeze-dried, space-age foods of Kellogg's and McDonald's.
As Baldwin grew up in the 1950s, American food became more processed and standardized. At just about every turn, convenience and predictability trumped taste and naturalness as TV dinners, Cool Whip, Minute Rice, and instant coffee crowded supermarket shelves. Pockets of resistance to the bland standardization and industrialization of the American palate sprung up here and there as women and men rebelled against one-size, one-taste-fits-all foods delivered without any human contact. They said no to canned Folgers, crystalline Tang, and frozen dinners from Swanson. Like Baldwin, they cooked their meals and made their drinks with the freshest, least uniform, closest-to-the-original-source ingredients available.
For some, picking the right coffee and getting the right cut of meat were culinary equivalents to burning draft cards and putting flowers in National Guardsmen's gun barrels. Many took their rebellious cues from the countercultural bible, the Whole Earth Catalogue. Part how-to guide, part manifesto, the best-selling book told readers:
Everything's connected to everything.
Everything's got to go somewhere.
There's no such thing as a free lunch.
That included food. Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse, the legendary Bay Area bistro showcasing foods made from fresh, locally produced ingredients, immersed herself in Berkeley politics—the free speech movement, the antiwar movement, and the counterculture. She insisted, a contemporary remembered, "that the way we eat is political," telling her cohort, "It's not enough to liberate yourself politically, to liberate yourself sexually—you have to liberate all the senses." Eating healthy, natural foods and savoring their unique tastes, she proclaimed,
Jerry Baldwin never saw his food adventures as expressly political acts or as a radical critique of society, except maybe of the supermarket. Even though he started his culinary explorations in the same era that Ken Kesey staged his acid tests and napalm dropped on Vietnamese villages, he was in some ways what David Kamp, the author of The United States of Arugula (a smart and funny book on how organic whole-wheat bread replaced Wonder Bread from Palm Beach to Peoria), has called a "post-hippie foodie," a depoliticized culture explorer. 6 Not satisfied with the tastes America offered, these well-informed and educated consumers went in search of a more natural product, yet they didn't question the larger economic structure that delivered the goods. Still, that didn't mean Baldwin and other posthippie foodies weren't rebels of a sort. They rejected the insipid artifice of mainstream American diets. They searched out foods and tastes that were more genuine, more savory, spicier, and harder to get. Unlike the most ardent of the counterculture, however, Baldwin didn't reject the market or consumption as a way to express longing for authenticity. In other words, while he fashioned a strong critique of the mainstream, he didn't challenge the central role that buying played in identity making. Later, when he went into business, he sought to sell the authentic without letting the selling corrupt the very the idea of authenticity.
Authenticity is difficult to define. It is not so much a thing as a feeling or the search for that feeling. People interested in the real, and seeking the real in the marketplace, look for products that seem more textured and less mass produced. They want things that are locally made and closer to nature or to their original source, and as untainted as possible by commerce and the naked ambition to get rich. Of course, this kind of thinking contains all sorts of contradictions. There are obvious tensions created by buyers rummaging through branded stores owned by multinational corporations looking for crafty items or things untouched by the market with their implied localness. Yet these contradictions don't mean there isn't a rough continuum when it comes to authenticity. Some products are more genuine and closer to their origins than others. The tacos at a Mexican restaurant in East LA look and taste more like Mexican tacos (Mexico being one of the original sources for the taco) than the ones at the midmarket chain Baja Fresh. Baja Fresh tacos, though, look and taste more like "real" tacos than the ones at Taco Bell. Or, to take an example from Baldwin's era, the folk music of Ramblin' Jack Elliot and even Bob Dylan was closer to the sound and spirit of Woody Guthrie, the presumed holder of the authentic, than the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul, and Mary.
* * *
By 1970, Baldwin had moved to Seattle and started teaching English in a trade school. He met two other posthippie foodies there, history teacher Zev Siegl and communications design company partner Gordon Bowker. Each was restless and wanted to do something different, and they were all dissatisfied with what they saw as the plastic, inauthentic nature of American culture. They talked about making films, starting a classical radio station, and putting out folk records. But they kept coming back to food and the idea of opening a wine store or a shop filled with chef-quality baking equipment. Then they came up with coffee. "Only," as Baldwin joked, "we didn't know anything about coffee." But they knew they wanted something that reflected their emerging food values. They knew they wanted to run something closer to a corner grocery store than a restaurant, and they knew how to study like a graduate student exploring a dissertation topic. They read books on coffee and visited coffee roasters, the few that existed at the time, from New York to Vancouver. Baldwin told me they found their model, in terms of tastes and rebellion against artifice, down the coast, at Peet's in Berkeley.
Alfred Peet's father roasted coffee in his native Holland. Before coming to the Bay Area in 1955 at the age of thirty-five, Peet had worked in the tea and coffee business in Europe and Asia for more than a decade. He couldn't believe what Americans drank. Why, he wondered, were people in the richest country in the world willing to settle for weak Folgers coffee made from stale, preground beans? In 1966, he decided to open a shop with a roaster right inside at the intersection of Vine and Walnut streets in Berkeley. He sold only high-quality, dark-roasted, smoky, and oily Arabica beans. Like a cranky teacher, he taught—sometimes in a scolding tone— customers to appreciate the tastes of different coffees and how to make their own quality brews at home. He showed them how to grind the beans and pour the water slowly through a small filter—the way good drip coffee got made in those days. He told them how to store the beans and heat the milk. 9 "When you walked into Peet's," Baldwin recalled, you heard that "Dutch accent, and the place smelled great.... No question," he added, "this was authentic.... We pretty much modeled ourselves on Peet's." The very first Starbucks even sold Peet's beans. When Starbucks started to roast its own beans, it also featured dark, smoky roasts, what one coffee guy called the "West Coast" style.
I asked Baldwin why he and his partners put that first store in Pike Place Market—known these days as a downtown tourist attraction where brawny guys in flannel shirts chuck whole salmons back and forth while visitors snap pictures. "That was where you shopped for food, if you were serious about food," he explained. "Buying it directly from vendors—that was about authenticity."
Once Baldwin and his partners had the place and the setting, they needed a name. For a while, he told me, they threw around nautical-themed monikers, like Cutty's Coffee or Cargo House, trying to tie the company to Seattle and the idea of the beans coming from oceans away. But Baldwin said they really wanted a surname for the company that would lend it a kind of family aura, even an authentic tradition like Peet's or Petrini's. Yet when they put their names together, Baldwin, Bowker, and Siegl, the combination sounded to them like a downtown law firm, definitely not the natural, purer vibe they wanted. A friend in the marketing business told them that words that begin with st stand out. During a brainstorming session, Siegl blurted out "Starbo," after looking at a map and seeing the name of a mining camp on nearby Mount Rainier. Then, he called out "Starbucks." They all nodded their heads. They liked the sound of it—easy to say and pronounce, but still kind of weighty and significant. Not long after, Baldwin recalled, they remembered that Starbucks served as Captain Ahab's first mate in Herman Melville's seafaring classic, Moby-Dick. That made the name sound even better, even less processed.
Excerpted from Everything but the Coffee by Bryant Simon. Copyright © 2009 Bryant Simon. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Introducing the Starbucks Moment 1
1. Real Coffee 21
2. Predictability the Individual Way 58
3. It Looks like a Third Place 82
4. Self-Gifting and Retail Therapy 122
5. Hear Music for Everyday Discoverers 149
6. Not-So-Green Cups 173
7. Sleeping Soundly in the Age of Globalization 201
A Note on the Research 247
Selected Bibliography 279
Posted December 5, 2009
Having owned a few coffee bars near Starbucks locations, I was very interested in their marketing methods and development of product. I did discover something which I already knew but did not realize how calculated the effort was: that is, that the amount of coffee consumed in most of the expensive, sugar and calorie laden drinks is a very low percentage; and, that this account for a large portion of sales.
I was also interested in the aspirational impression that Starbucks has made on the average consumer, which accounted for much of their phenomenal growth.