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I am writing this on my palmtop (see my convenient Psion Series 5 review) in Starbucks at 7.30 in the morning. So if I can't convey the atmosphere under these circumstances, there isn't much hope for me is there . . . Prices added 19/11/2001.
Nitty Gritty ------------
Starbucks is an enormous American chain of coffee shops. As such they are the target of anti-globalisation campaigns, which may or may not be just. They aren't a restaurant chain, so this category is slightly misleading, but they do sell food. Prices are high. Quality is good, but not as it might be for the prices which are driven, I believe, by popularity. Why is Starbucks so popular ? Because of the service. Purely and simply, they give the best customer service on the block.
So a gap eyed pean to Starbucks then ? --------------------------------------No. They don't do everything right by any means. I'll list a few of my pet annoyances and then get onto what they do well.
Firstly, there are too many branches. They target a town and clean out the opposition, or try to.
Their drip (filter) coffee is horrible.
Their base beans can be a little stale.
Their buying power re-enforces the cartels that keep coffee farmers in poverty. If you want fair-trade expresso, go to Costa and pay the extra 10p.
So why do I spend an hour every morning in Starbucks ? ------------------------------------------------------The Idea. That's why. The Starbucks idea is that people want somewhere to relax between Work and Home. Few people have time to sit and think at work these days with deadlines and crises to attend to. Similarly, people often have lots of interruptions at home. I don't think the idea is that people don't want to be at work or at home, but that people want a place where they can sit in an armchair, have a drink, not be bothered with anyone else. There is a second strand too. I don't know if you've noticed but alcohol is rapidly becoming passe, especially amongst the young. Instead, people want stimulation and they want to drive home afterwards. Twenty years ago, an after-work drink might have been four pints. Now its a quick coffee and a read of the paper.
My experience of Starbucks is that you can sit in peace with a book for an impossibly long time over a single expresso and not be bothered by anyone. I also like to get to work early, and Starbucks earlier. The one in Liverpool used to open at 6.30 and I arrived with the paper-man five minutes later.
Describe the atmosphere ? -------------------------
I promised to describe the atmosphere. Silly me. Well around me is a room filled with comfy chairs in two's and threes, with occasional long, well lit tables that you can stretch a paper out on, or lay a laptop on in comfort. The walls are earth toned with designer graphics dotted around. There is also an art display - today it's a set of photographs. The room is comfortably lit and warm, even though it is freezing outside. The air is filled with the smell of coffee (no really ? Yeah) and muffins. It isn't too noisy at the moment, though it can be, and soft rock is playing. I don't know who picks the music, sometimes it can be bad, usually its good, sometimes it's arresting - I first heard The Light by David Gray here and had to go and buy it right then but the record shop wasn't open. (There is a review of that too by the way . . .).
Many Starbucks have a feature somewhere, like a nice fireplace. Most have a super comfy leather chair somewhere, but you have to get their early. A lot of branches have a hideaway too. An upstairs or a basement which isn't always obvious. Here you will find regulars, some of whom will not have left for days.
So what's on offer ? --------------------
Drinks. The coffee falls into three camps. Drip, Expresso and Expresso with stuff. Forget the drip, it tastes like asphalt in my experience. Too strong by a mile. Trust me I drink double expresso's. The drip is too strong. The expresso is the mainstay. It costs £1.25 for a single which is high but the quality is consistent and the turnover good. A double is about £1.60. On top of that you can have cappucinos (£1.60), lattes, mochas with lots of chocolate syrup, seasonal specials such as gingerbread or eggnog lattes at Christmas, these all tend to be around £2.35-£2.75. In the summer you can have variants of most of those things iced. This summer I had an iced mocha which made my jaw ache it was so cold. There are also teas (tazos) and various grades of fruit juice.
Food. Starbucks do sandwiches which are big and too full of rabbit food for me (£2.95+), pannini (£3.50+), muffins ($1.60) which usually come in a low and high fat version for each. There are also bagels - not toasted saddly - granola bars which are a kind of super-flapjack (£1.40) and a scary range of cakes which I get fatter just looking at (£2.75+).
What was that about service ? -----------------------------
The service is usually excellent, even at peak times. The counter is designed to be fast and efficient, with a barrista making your coffee as you pay. In theory any way. The staff are almost always friendly, welcoming and there does seem to be a low turnover. The same faces turn up time and time again. It is easy to become a regular. The service is never pushy and if there is a problem, it is always corrected immediately. For me, the highpoint was a barrista changing my coffee without being asked because she had given me caff instead of decaff. She even remembered what I sprinkled on top. The low point was being short changed by a sly, smiling newbie who, I notice, didn't last two days.
Be sure to ask for 'no whip' on mochas and so on. Instead of the spray * on cream, you will get cappucino foam instead which is much nicer.
Chocolate for sprinkling is supplied, but try the cinnamon and nutmeg as well for a change.
Ask if there is a quieter room to sit in, sometimes it is hidden away.
Don't be tempted to buy their beans to take home, they are pricey and sometimes stale.
Some Odd Facts --------------
Starbucks may be named after Starbuck, the pacifist Christian who was Ahab's near nemesis in Moby Dick or it might be after a 70's Sci-Fi character. It features heavily in Austin Powers. Starbucks own all their own branches, no franchises. Some branches give away coffee grounds for your compost heap.
website: www.starbucks.com uk antiwebsite: www.starbucks.co.uk world wide antiwebsite: www.ihatestarbucks.com
There is a myth that Starbucks stiffed the New York fire service for bottled water on September 11th. The truth, supposedly, was that a new employee asked for payment. Whether that's true or not, it doesn't fit with the image of the company or its employees and I just can't see anyone who has ever served me in the UK doing that. I did see Starbucks staff in Liverpool selling coffee to the queue at the passport office when there were delays there a couple of years back. They produced a coffee-dispensing backpack from the back room and off they went, obviously, they have an emergency master plan.
Not perfect, but pretty damn good. Good service, high quality, a bit pricey. Good attitude to mistakes.
The Great White Whale is me, in case you were wondering, and its a literary allusion, geddit . . . oh well.