I’m sorry that 685 employees – sorry, “partners”, to adopt the fiction in the official term which implies that they have a generous financial interest in the company – of Starbucks Coffee are going to lose their jobs. But I’m not at all sorry to hear that 61 of our nation’s 84 Starbucks branches are going to close. My only regret, in fact, is that the company hasn’t decided to close all 84. If the nation’s espresso aficionados are lucky, the branches will be replaced with cafes that sell something a little different from what’s on offer at Starbucks – a beverage we like to call “coffee”.
It would be hypocritical of me not to admit that at times, my own caffeine addiction has driven me to pay Starbucks’ exorbitant prices for a substandard “cup o’ Joe”, as the Americans call it. But those were times when I was overseas. I’m even willing to confess that I went to what was probably the most sacrilegious Starbucks in the world – among the ancient buildings of the Forbidden City. And I’m glad to find that it recently received the traditional penalty for those who violated the inner sanctum of the Chinese emperors – the death penalty.
So I’ve actually welcomed the Starbucks logo in places such as China and Thailand. In Australia, though, you can get better coffee, more cheaply, almost everywhere else with the effect that, unless you’re one of those people who likes iced coffee with absurd quantities of whipped cream on top, there is essentially never any reason to shop at Starbucks.
The mass closures of Starbucks outlets in the US have been linked to the economic downturn, and fair enough. In America, Starbucks coffees count as expensive luxury items. And if you’re serious about coffee, you wouldn’t be drinking it, so it’s understandable that in tough times, taste-insensitive customers want to go somewhere cheaper. But I’d like to think that, in Australia, the failure of Starbucks doesn’t reflect the tightening of belts as much as the fact that it’s pretty hard to find a place right next to one of Starbucks outlets that isn’t serving considerably better coffee.
And in decent sizes. When Starbucks first opened here, its small size was the regular Australian small coffee size, as opposed to in the US where it started at medium and went all the way up to the obscene “Venti”. But that soon ended, and we now have the American sizes, where even the smallest has far too much milk in it. Still, at least it means you can’t taste the coffee. Which is also why Starbucks likes to put caramel and toffee and other variants of sugar in the coffee to make it more palatable, and the milk taste less burnt. I can still taste that horrible milk … but I’m digressing, when I should be gloating.
And I’m willing to bet that most Aussies won’t mourn Starbucks’ passing, in contrast to the US where people are organising petitions to save their local branches. That linked article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer also references the tragic phenomenon of Starbucks outlets being perceived as a yuppie status symbol in much of America, illustrating the terrible deprivation many Americans suffer under, never having known anything better.
There’s also the quite amusing phenomenon of Starbucks opening so rapidly that it only hurts its other outlets by cannibalising their sales, ultimately doing to itself what it did to so many other small coffee outlets. Really, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer multinational.
But there is one thing that’s truly great about Starbucks, which I will miss. (This is my vain attempt to inject balance by thinly veiling my delight in dancing on the graves of closed outlets.) And that’s the atmosphere in its outlets. Yes, I know it’s highly corporatised, and that Starbucks’ attempts to make it feel like a neighbourhood coffee-house are, in the end, naff, with all those posters about the amazing coffee varieties from exotic places around the world that Starbucks manages to make taste uniformly bland. But there are precious few places where you can sit for hours without feeling unwelcome, and Starbucks, to its credit, offered that.
Sure, part of the reason is that because, since you can now get better espresso even at McDonald’s, there’s never much demand for tables. But having just spent a few months travelling around major cities, I can say that I often found myself checking into a Starbucks to do a bit of tapping away on a laptop. Sure, I always ordered a mineral water. But nevertheless, its generous attitude to their space was welcome. J.K. Rowling famously wrote much of the Harry Potter series in an Edinburgh Starbucks, which is perhaps where she got the idea for the foul concoctions in Professor Snape’s laboratory. Nevertheless – and I say this as someone with Scottish heritage – she is from the land that gave us haggis and deep-fried Mars bars.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of real estate available at Gloria Jeans, and Dome, and a bunch of other similar chains that have shamelessly copied the formula, but with better drinks. Sure, lots of coffee snobs attack GJs, and it’s hardly one for the gourmets, but I reckon that it can generally rustle together a half-decent latte. Sure, I’m scared that part of every dollar I spend there will ultimately end up in the coffers of Hillsong Church. But, as opposed to Starbucks, the coffee’s tolerable. And that’s probably why GJs is not sacking much of its workforce.
The truly sad thing about those “partners” is that their skills won’t be transferable. Sure, everyone hires good baristas, but if I was a café operator, and someone turned up with a CV noting that he or she had graduated from the Starbucks Coffee University, or whatever they call it, I would send them immediately to some kind of re-education camp.
OK, so I’m a horrible coffee snob. I admit it. This entire article has been full of the same irritating smugness that makes me go into a café and ask, with a straight face, for a “piccolo latte”. So please forgive me the pure joy I feel after the failure of the world’s leading vendors of inadequate coffee has shown me that, in Australia at least, I’m far from the only one.