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An illustration of people sitting at a Starbucks. Ella Trujillo for Vox

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Starbucks: A reconsideration

As the coffee giant approaches its 50th birthday and 32,000th store, what exactly does the siren song of Starbucks mean anymore?

There are people who can remember a world without Starbucks, but I am not one of them. For as long as I have been conscious, the existence of the Green Siren has been a fact of being alive. “Oh, there is the sky,” you might think. “There is a tree. There is the bank. There is a Frappuccino.” I am not a Starbucks loyalist. I have no go-to order and own no Starbucks-branded collectible mugs and had not, until last fall, tasted a pumpkin spice latte. I would have said I had no relationship with Starbucks at all, but of course, that is wrong. To say I had no relationship with Starbucks would be like saying I had no particular relationship with the sun.

In the past decade at Starbucks, I have changed clothes for a job interview; interviewed for a job; conducted a job interview; used the internet; used the bathroom; taken a phone call; taken a pregnancy test. I have also bought coffee, especially in airports, and sipped coffee, especially before boarding airplanes. “The first 100 times I went to Starbucks,” a friend told me, “I only used the bathroom.” When he told me this, we were sitting in a Starbucks.

Starbucks is the biggest coffee chain in both the United States and the world. It is available in at least 78 countries on six continents. In the US, 40 percent of coffee shops are Starbucks stores. In China, which is now Starbucks’s fastest-growing market, a new location opens every 15 hours. There are roughly twice as many active members of the Starbucks loyalty program as there are residents of Michigan.

It is more than a coffee shop. It is a semi-public utility. Along with coffee drinks and coffee-adjacent foods and accessories, Starbucks offers a temperature-controlled environment, seating, wifi. And, of course, bathrooms. Starbucks — in part because it is ubiquitous — fills a niche that is so fundamental to existence that it’s hard to talk about without feeling very stoned: Starbucks is a place to be. In theory, this should not be notable. Are we not, all of us, always being somewhere?

Monday, 2:56 pm, 225 Fourth Ave., Brooklyn

My closest Starbucks looks more or less like every other Starbucks, part Milanese cafe and part suburban rec center. Every color is neutral, and every surface is smooth. There are tiny round tables and slightly bigger square ones, and anywhere you sit, you’re on display in the giant floor-to-ceiling windows, an advertisement for the particular modern phenomenon that is the Starbucks lifestyle. It is a lifestyle of extreme productive leisure: It’s 3 pm on Monday and you’re at Starbucks, but that’s only because you’re also on your laptop thinking highly creative thoughts.

Most people at this Starbucks, though, are not living the Starbucks lifestyle. Alternatively, we are all living the Starbucks lifestyle now, because the Starbucks lifestyle is whatever you happen to be doing at a Starbucks. To watch people at Starbucks is to get weirdly intimate access to their lives. I watch an older man drink coffee that definitely did not come from Starbucks. I watch a very thin girl methodically spread cream cheese on a bagel. There are so many children in so many different sizes. There are kids talking about Magic cards. There are kids talking about lactose intolerance. There are little kids eating cake pops with their nannies. There are older kids dressed like tiny cool adults, with bright, oversize parkas, drinking bright, oversize Frappuccinos.

Above the condiment bar, which is stocked with straws and other straws and little wooden stirrers and milks and sugars, there is a custom watercolor map of the neighborhood, suggesting that these are not just any wooden stirrers: These are wooden stirrers from GOWANUS. On the back wall, there is the story of coffee, as explained through posters about Latin America and Africa and Asia Pacific.

There are very few definitive things you can say about Starbucks. Every Starbucks is basically identical to every other Starbucks, and yet no two Starbucks are alike. Even if the coffee at each store was always the same, which it is not, the people would be different, and if the people were all clones, there would still be the matter of the weather, the season, the management, the light. Starbucks is supposed to feel like an organic part of thousands of different neighborhoods, but it is also supposed to feel exactly like a Starbucks.

Before it was a global phenomenon, Starbucks was a one-off labor of love, a product of the back-to-the-land, Diet for a Small Planet ’70s. Gordon Bowker, Jerry Baldwin, and Zev Siegl thought there should be a source of good coffee in Seattle, and so they opened one. In 1971, they started Starbucks Coffee, Tea, and Spice, selling whole-bean coffee to what they assumed was a niche market of people who cared about that kind of thing.

They were wrong. A lot of people cared about that kind of thing. Most importantly, Howard Schultz cared. The first time he tasted Starbucks coffee, he was so overwhelmed by the experience, he launched a year-long campaign to become the company’s head of marketing. Then he went to Milan and was overwhelmed all over again, and came back convinced that Starbucks wasn’t meant to be a coffee store but a coffee experience, a tiny vacation from the coldness of real life.

He opened more Starbucks, and then more Starbucks after that. There was a rocky period for a while, in the later aughts, when he had to close some Starbucks, but then the company bounced back. Forty-nine years after its founding, so much of the globe is coated in a thin film of Starbucks, and because it is so nearly universal, it is perversely easy to ignore.

It is not a failure of Starbucks that it’s lost its youthful edge. Here is how youth works: Either you die or you grow up. That Starbucks has matured to slightly pudgy middle age is its greatest success.

Saturday, 3:46 pm, 3951 W. Ina Rd. #101, Tucson, Arizona

I am dog-sitting for a month and don’t know anyone, except the dog. The dog’s house is large and beautiful. There is a landscaped garden with two sitting areas. There is a walk-in pantry filled with tomato paste and extra rolls of paper towels. There is a washer and a dryer. There is a coffee maker you can program so it’s percolating when you wake up. I keep trying to think of tasks that would require going somewhere, but there aren’t any. This is when you need a Starbucks.

I order a coffee I don’t want and read a one-paragraph story in Tucson’s one-page Coffee News (“News to be Enjoyed Over Coffee”) about a shiba inu who runs his own food stall in Sapporo. I watch a girl make flashcards. I watch a couple in matching athleisure outfits sit in silence. A hiker with a two-gallon water bottle comes in to use the bathroom.

“Starbucks” is not an identity, but a circumstance: More than age or race or social class, what we have in common is that we are all here. It is like being in an aquarium in a dental waiting room. What do those fish have in common but location?

Every time I look up, something is different: A grandmother-mother-daughter trio are replaced by a different grandmother-mother-daughter trio.

An illustration of children dressed in Iron Man costumes at a Starbucks.

Thursday, 4:59 pm, 476 Fourth Ave., Park Slope, Brooklyn

It is Halloween, and all the boys are dressed like Iron Man. There are so many different Iron Men, in so many different sizes.

They come and go, the Iron Men, collecting their bite-size Snickers. A table of high school girls in hijab eat chicken wings from somewhere that isn’t Starbucks and study. “We have four tests tomorrow,” one of them tells the middle-aged barista, who is wearing a fedora, “and I’m going to fail all of them!” A lanky dad who’s kayaked in from the REI catalog pulls out a copy of Swann’s Way and stares into it, aspirationally, before switching to his laptop. This is the Starbucks dream, I think.

For a few minutes, a teen in a mask perches on the chair across from me. I don’t recognize the character, but I assume he is also Iron Man.

Most of my Starbucks experiences are anonymous, because the crowd is changing all the time. My schedule is irregular, structured by either having deadlines or avoiding them. I find it soothing to be in the company of strangers. I like the tangible proof that other people also exist and are feeding soup to babies, and hating their jobs, and playing games, and yelling at their divorce lawyers. The stifling reality of human existence is that you are perpetually yourself, and it is reassuring to see that there are other options, that other experiences are possible. I like the reminder that I could, if I wanted, still blow up my life.

As a public square that is a private company, Starbucks is a mess of contradictions. For decades now, it has been considered a harbinger of gentrification: There goes the neighborhood, here’s a Starbucks. Starbucks opening means things are getting blander, more expensive, and probably more white. This isn’t just a matter of perception. When a new Starbucks opens, researchers at the National Bureau of Economics found, home prices really do tend to jump.

There are a whole lot of white people at Starbucks, and some of them are indeed wearing Uggs en route home from SoulCycle. But it is also true that the clientele at Starbucks is more visibly diverse — in terms of race and age and social class — than the standard crowd at pretty much any other coffee shop in a given neighborhood. Starbucks has no single type of customer, because culturally, Starbucks has gone wide.

“In a diverse country, and in a diverse place like New York, they’ve attracted a cross-section of everyone,” says Bryant Simon, a Temple University sociologist who literally wrote the book on Starbucks. It is upmarket fast food, or downmarket slow food. It is aspirational, but it is an unusually achievable aspiration: In New York City, you can buy into the Starbucks lifestyle for $2.45. It is democratizing in the same way that good public transit is democratizing — it brings many different people into close proximity by filling a basic need better than anyone else. Everybody needs to get somewhere. Everybody needs an air-conditioned place to sit.

Universality is the fantasy of Starbucks. The company has long insisted it is an open-access “third place,” a place that is not your home and not your job, but where you are always welcome. It is only recently, though, that the company was forced to clarify exactly who it meant by “you.”

In 2018, two black men were arrested in Philadelphia for the “crime” of sitting in a Starbucks. The arrests were caught on video. The video went viral. People called for boycotts. Starbucks sprang into high gear and codified what is now the company’s official Use of the Third Place Policy: “any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase,” assuming they are “acting responsibly” and “communicating with respect.”

This does not mean that everyone feels, or is, equally welcome at Starbucks, but it does mean the company has formally decriminalized the act of sitting down. After the Philadelphia incident, Starbucks closed all 8,000 company-run US stores for a four-hour “racial bias training.” A joint report from the NAACP and the progressive think tank Demos called it a “laudable” start to what they hoped would be a “first step in a longer, deeper and more engaged commitment to an equity transformation.”

It is true that Starbucks has not fixed racism in America. But it’s also true that Starbucks doesn’t feel quite so much like the gentrification indicator it once was. Now we track rarer, more artisanal coffee shops instead.

Thursday, 8:55 am, 2401 Utah Ave. S., Seattle

At the sprawling Reserve store on the first floor of Starbucks HQ, which used to be a Sears Roebuck catalog distribution center, I eat fancy avocado toast and listen to two businesspeople vent about business while watching a man feed his springer spaniel crumbs of his muffin. “The only reason we’re getting this consultant is that they won’t fucking listen!” says one of the businesspeople. The springer spaniel lies down under the table, like a rug. The avocado toast is excellent.

I am in Seattle to immerse myself in Starbucks. I meet with representatives from Starbucks, who tell me about Starbucks, and when I am not talking to them at Starbucks, about Starbucks, I am walking from one Starbucks to another. Once, I am on a city bus, on my way to Starbucks, when my phone rings. “Let me call you back,” I say, and then I go to the first place I can think of, which is Starbucks.

The more time I spend at Starbucks, the more comfortable I am there. My world has become a giant continent of interconnected Starbuckses. In Starbucks Nation, we speak Starbucksian, an Italian-English-Corporate hybrid that signals that we all belong. The day before, I’d visited the Seattle Reserve and Roastery, a 15,000-square-foot coffee wonderland. Schultz envisioned it as “the Willy Wonka of coffee,” which doesn’t exactly make sense — he’s the Willy Wonka, it’s the factory, I’m Augustus — but it captures the essence of the experience.

It is part coffee cathedral and part coffee theme park, coffee Notre Dame meets coffee Disney, a maze of tubes and pipes with three types of coffee bars, and one for alcohol, and single-origin micro-lot coffees from East Timor and Malawi. A barista in a leather apron with a name tag that also specifies their native city (all the baristas are also single-origin) will make you a whole flight of different coffees, like a cross between an old-timey apothecary and a wizard.

It is Starbucks’s answer to post-Starbucks coffee culture. You want single-origin coffees? Because Starbucks will give you fucking single-origin coffees. You want a cool tattooed barista? Fuck you, here’s 60 of them, all at once. You thought Starbucks was basic? Tell that to these fuckin’ $40 beans from the Galapagos.

But I like the Seattle Roastery. I like that it cannot help its fundamental goofy earnestness. It is like a golden retriever dressed up in Supreme.

An illustration of fancy coffee machines at the Starbucks Reserve store.

Wednesday, 6:06 pm, 242 West 34th St., Manhattan

In early November, Starbucks opened its inaugural “pickup” store just outside Penn Station. It is designed to be a frictionless experience: You place your order through the Starbucks app on your smartphone, and then you roll in and a barista hands it to you. I wanted to hate the pickup store. I believe in friction! I think waiting in normal-length lines is an act of solidarity; there is nothing that unites people quite like sharing the experience of being mildly annoyed.

But I loved it. The pickup store is minimalist, because it offers only one service, which is picking up. It is light brown and minty green and generally appears to be made of futuristic cardboard. I was miserable the day I went. I’d had a bad meeting, where I said silly things. Also, I was wearing heels, on account of the bad meeting, and my feet hurt. So I ordered a pumpkin spice latte — my first — and when I got there, there was a pumpkin spice latte for me. This was because I ordered it on the Starbucks mobile app, but it felt as though they’d read my mind.

I’d like to say I hate the Starbucks app, too. On the Starbucks app, you convert real money, which you can spend on anything, into pretend money, which you can only spend at Starbucks. For one thing, it is constantly tricking me into putting more money than I meant to on my digital “card.” But I am addicted to it. You get “stars” when you make purchases, and there are constant Starbucks “challenges,” which you “win” by buying more things at Starbucks. It is satisfying to win, like you accomplished something real. Which you did, sort of. You didn’t buy three different fake Starbucks breakfast sandwiches.

There were 165 Starbucks stores in 1992, and 3,501 in 2000, and as of the most recent count, there were 31,795 around the world, if you include the ones in grocery stores and airports. You can get Starbucks in the air. You can get Starbucks at sea. It is not only transnational but trans-elemental.

At Starbucks, drinks are “tall” or “grande” or “venti.” There are iced drinks and hot drinks and a category of non-coffee drinks called “Refreshers,” which include but are not limited to “pink drink,” “violet drink,” and “dragon drink” — a “drink” menu designed for princesses. In the “Starbucks Secret Drinks” Facebook group (not to be confused with the “Starbucks Secret Menu” Facebook group or the “Secret Starbucks Recipes” Facebook group), I learn that you can customize a drink so many times it transforms into a different drink. I discover “recipes” for drinks that taste like sugar cookies, or Twix bars, or Mardi Gras king cake. You can sub blueberry juice for water. You can sub vanilla syrup for white chocolate syrup. You can add “extra caramel drizzle.”

Have you gotten coffee that is not from Starbucks? In a way, that is thanks to Starbucks, too. “I think it’s extraordinary that you can now walk into pretty much any room in America and say ‘cappuccino’ and people know what you’re talking about,” says the coffee writer Oliver Strand. “They created this market. Like, they did it.”

Starbucks did not single-handedly invent modern US coffee culture, but it’s hard to overstate its impact. “Starbucks taught people it was reasonable to walk into a cafe and spend five bucks on a cup of coffee,” says Sam Lewontin, a Seattle native who is now one-half of New York City’s Everyman Espresso. “Without Starbucks creating that context in the United States? I think it’s arguable that none of us [in the coffee industry] would have jobs today.”

Starbucks is no longer rare. It is not cool. It does not signal discerning taste. Aesthetically, it is closer to a McDonald’s than to the more artisanal, though increasingly corporate, Blue Bottle. Yet even now, every move that Starbucks makes reverberates through the industry. “The week Starbucks put flat whites on the menu, the number of flat white orders in our stores quintupled,” Lewontin says. The fact that you can get cold brew everywhere, all the time, in any season, including — not coincidentally — at McDonald’s? That, Strand says, is Starbucks, too: “Once they put their finger on the scale, that changes everything.”

And according to Strand, who would know, the coffee itself is ... good. It is a very dark roast; that’s on purpose. “They have a very developed aesthetic,” Strand tells me when I ask him how I’m supposed to feel about the whole thing. “They make exactly the coffee they want to make. Whether or not that’s your style is a different question.”

A Starbucks order takes a lot of words. It is a little monologue about your identity: You are almond milk; you are two pumps skinny mocha sauce. “I know you,” Starbucks says. “I understand you.” This is why it matters when Starbucks gets your name wrong. It breaks the contract: Starbucks was supposed to know you, but they don’t understand you after all. I keep thinking about a passage from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: “If you are not being touched at all, then speech is the closest contact it is possible to have with another human being.” The idea of modifying an order in public freaks me out, which I thought was because I didn’t want to be a person who is difficult. Now, I wonder if I am just afraid of intimacy.

Tuesday, 7:14 am, 1912 Pike Place, Seattle

Everything is earthy brown at the holy site of the first Starbucks, which I imagine is generally what the 1970s were like. The worn wood counters are original. It still has the original (brown) logo, the full-body siren with the nipples, and no seating. But now there are nautical-inspired ropes set up outside, for crowd control, and a designated barista whose job is to help the never-ending stream of Starbucks global pilgrims choose their exclusive 1912 Pike Place merch. It is a line of strangers, from different countries, speaking different languages, yet they are all here for the same reason: Spiritually, this is as close to Starbucks as it is possible to be.

An illustration of people waiting in line at the first Starbucks.

Sunday, 9:55 am, 157-41 Cross Bay Blvd., Howard Beach, New York

On my own multi-hour pilgrimage to what I have determined is the closest Starbucks to Howard Schultz’s childhood home, I watch women study for their nursing exams and a middle-aged tattooed man read a local paper printed in a language I cannot identify (Ukrainian?); by the fireplace, a group of people who don’t appear to be related are doing something that may or may not involve religion. Nobody seems to be talking to anyone they don’t already know, but it feels like a community center, or a Norman Rockwell painting. Everyone here is doing such aggressively wholesome things. I take this all-American opportunity to try my first sous vide egg bite. It is a triumph of egg engineering.

Saturday, 11:28 am, 774 Broadway, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

In the interest of “providing economic opportunity in underserved rural and urban communities across the country,” Starbucks has been opening designated community stores. All stores are community stores, of course, but these stores are even more communal, with employees hired from the neighborhood and meeting rooms designed for community events. The first one opened in Queens, New York, in March 2016, followed by a Ferguson, Missouri, store that April, and by 2025, there will be at least 100 of them. The community store in Trenton, New Jersey, hosts weekly open mic nights; in Birmingham, Alabama, the community store hosts a library of business books for local entrepreneurs.

I convince a friend to meet me at the one in Brooklyn, which is beautiful, with a huge glass conference room, because I think it is close to his house and I try to be accommodating. It is not, it turns out, at all close to his house. Also, a few minutes after we arrive, the store stops serving coffee. They apologize. They are having “a little bit of a situation.” They’re so sorry, but they’re closing now, we need to leave. We spend the afternoon at a different coffee shop instead, one with worse bathrooms but more oat milk.

Starbucks wants to be a place for conversation and a sense of community. It is right there on the About page: “A place for conversation and a sense of community.” Originally, Schultz had envisioned Starbucks as a stop-and-slurp Italian-style espresso bar, but what Americans wanted, he discovered, was a place to linger. “Our stores become an instant gathering space, a Third Place, that draws people together,” he wrote in the first of his three memoirs, and for years, I had found this reasonably persuasive, until I realized I never talked to anyone at Starbucks that I didn’t already know and who wasn’t paid to talk to me. Nobody else was bonding with strangers, either, as far as I could tell. One time, someone asked me what time it was, and I told them, and they said thank you.

But a “sense of community” is not the same as having one. Cultivating a “feeling of connection” is not the same as actually connecting. It’s not an accident that Starbucks catapulted from chain coffee shop to cultural phenomenon in the early 1990s, just as Americans, who had supposedly retreated from public life to bowl alone, were coming out of hiding. They wanted connection but not too much connection, argues Simon, the sociologist. Budget cuts had ravaged government funding for many truly public spaces — parks, libraries — but maybe that was okay, because connection-but-not-too-much is exactly what Starbucks sells.

This is not what Starbucks means when it brags about creating so-called “third places,” where “customers can gather and connect.” But not all encounters require sustained contact to matter. Studying the dynamics of the city, sociologist Lyn Lofland observed that “the line between stranger and personally-known other is a fluid one,” and even two strangers passing on the street is a kind of meeting. “For a brief second, each perceived the other as a concrete individual, a historical event,” she writes. “For a brief second, each was personally known to the other.”

Starbucks delivers what it promises: not community — although it definitely happens — but the performance of it, which is both more consistent than the real thing and easier to scale. It is a simulation, adopting the aesthetics of intellectual exchange without exchanging any intellect. There are warm lights and ambiently pleasant music, and a steady stream of friendly baristas calling out customers by name. It is like a stage set for a place where one might forge meaningful connections, and it doesn’t really matter that one almost never does. It’s almost like you can’t depend on private companies to build a robust social infrastructure. And how could you? Starbucks is a nice coffee company, but it is still, at its core, a company selling coffee.

Saturday, 9:33 pm, 5970 W, Arizona Pavilions Dr., Tucson, Arizona

My mother is visiting for one night near where I am dog-sitting, and we have eaten dinner already, and now we are looking for a place to sit. Our main requirement is that it is open. But it is 9:30 pm, and nothing is open off Cracker Barrel Road, near the Comfort Inn Hotel in Tucson, except maybe the eponymous Cracker Barrel.

“Let’s see if there’s a Starbucks,” I say.

There is a Starbucks. There is always a Starbucks.


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