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You can't walk through Seattle on a Monday morning without noticing that something is different over there - apart from all the grunge, that is. It's that all the people, almost without exception, walk along on their way to work clutching a thermos mug of coffee as if it was the most natural and easiest thing in the world to carry. It's become part of the morning routine. The thermos cup is now also visible on morning public transport in the UK. It's spreading, just like Starbucks.
There are now more than 7000 branches of Starbucks worldwide, so they must be doing something right. Is it just that they make good coffee, I wonder? For much as they are maligned for their shaky ethics, they do make a mean cup of coffee. I can even stomach a skinny (low-fat) latte, and find it tastier than a regular coffee made elsewhere. Maybe it's more to do with choice and variety: We used to just be offered coffee, or maybe cappuchino if we were lucky. Now it's all grande-decaf-double-choca-mocha-vanilla-macchiato-frappuccino with whipped cream and a flake. Choice is everything, it seems. Or is it the chirpy American service that appeals to us grumbly stressed out Brits? Personally, I hate chirpy service, especially after a long day in the office. And chirpy can be taken to extremes, to the "must not show weakness" type of fixed smile that just makes me want to hit the person who is serving me. Take for example my most recent Starbucks experience, where the ordering went something like this:
Her: (Think SUDDEN, and think LOUD) "Hey you GUYS!! What can I get for you today?" *(do I know this woman? She's talking as if she knows me. Frantically racking my memory in case I have met her somewhere) Me: "Two lattes and a blueberry muffin please" Her: "Oh MARVELLOUS... good CHOICE! Those are delish! mutter mutter mutter incomprehensible mutter *presses buttons frantically on till* What size would you like those? Tall? Yes? Tall? Tall? Ok." Me: "Umm .. tall please" Her: "OKAY! Are you sitting in today? Yes?" *flashing manic smile before bursting into humming a cheerful if slightly manic tune* Me: "Yes please" *aching to get away, the entire queue of people behind me is mesmorised by this intense vocal spectacle and in truly British style, we are all beginning to blush at the sheer cheerfulness and frequency...* Her: GREAT! WONDERFUL! LOVELY! HAVE A NICE DAY! *her unrelenting stare and mad eyes following us as we scurry off*
A quick glance at her miserable looking colleagues confirmed that this was not a one-off Be Friendly For a Day Competition: this woman was like this "24/7". No, it's not the service that does it for me - in fact it's not even the coffee.
It's not just good coffee that I want from a coffee shop: I regularly spend time there waiting for my husband to finish work, and so I want somewhere comfortable, clean, relaxing, with friendly staff and somewhere where I don't feel I have to hurry. Starbucks is gererally more comfy than the other shops on offer: there are usually nice big squashy armchairs or sofas, and that's a big plus for me when I'm going to spending a while there. Usually of course there are more people than comfy chairs, and I'm relegated to a hardbacked upright: but I can't expect them only to stock large squashy chairs, cos then they would only be able to sit about half as many customers.
I like that I don't have to wait long for my coffee once I've ordered it and paid for it.
I like that I can see them actually making my coffee from scratch, or my "frappuccino" - which is a posh milkshake, and worth ordering just so that you can watch it being produced.
I like that I can examine the coffee beans on display and sniff them while I'm waiting. And that I can choose my favourite blend to buy and take away (they will even grind the beans for me).
I like that I can order a fairtrade coffee, although that severely limits my choices, since the majority of their coffees are not fairtrade.
I like that I can choose from normal things like lattes and cappuccinos to weird and wonderful things like white chocolate mochas, iced teas, and at Christmas time, eggnog or gingerbread lattes.
I like that their coffee smells and tastes like really good coffee.
And I like their posh sandwiches (smoked salmon and cream cheese, or roasted veggies, that type of thing), and wicked selection of cakes and pastries - but they all cost an arm and a leg.
Finally I like that they seem to be committed to the local community: often there is something in store which relates to the wider community - a charity bookdrop for the local school, for example. That makes it feel just a little bit less like a huge faceless chain.
What don't I like?
I don't like that a "tall", which is the smallest latte costs £1.79. For a larger, fancier brew, you can pay up to £4. That's a lot for a coffee, even if it is good. At one point I was ordering two takeaway medium coffees every night of the working week, but I stopped quite abruptly when I realised I was spending £100 a month on takeaway coffee!
I don't like that they don't clean the tables all that often, and that I often have to clear myself a space to sit while the staff are busy chatting about what they got up to at the weekend.
I don't like that they sometimes start to run out of blueberry muffins at about 4pm, when I don't usually get there until 6pm.
Most of all, I don't like that their use of fairtrade coffee is NOT exclusive - that they DO use coffee and chocolate which is produced under exploitative conditions. Pressure has been piled on to Starbucks for years from Fair Trade campaigners, who argue that offering the odd fair trade alternative doesn't go far enough, and that their standard coffees should also be fairly traded. It's taken four years of lobbying to get Starbucks to offer any fairtrade coffee at all, and even today it only makes up about 1% of their coffee purchases (in the USA). Not sure if the figures are any better in the UK. Anyhow, it sucks.
All in all, despite the wonderful aromas and the superiority of their coffee to any other chain I've tried (Costas isn't even close, and no one else is even in the running) I still can't wear a Starbucks baseball cap, clutch a Starbucks mug, or any of the other things they'd probably like me to do. It's too expensive, it's not fair tradey enough, and the service isn't that special: and when it is, it's frighteningly so.
I give them three Ciao stars: one for the gingerbread latte, one for the white chocolate mocha, and one for the comfy seats...