Macchiato morons

Are Americans too dumb to order their own "grandes" and "ventis" without a 22-page instruction manual? Starbucks says yes!


Dale Hrabi
February 23, 2004 11:04PM (UTC)

Do the people at Starbucks think we're all morons?

Judging from their latest initiative, a 22-page booklet called "Make It Your Drink: A Guide to Starbucks' Beverages," they've decided that Americans are meek, anxiety-wracked naifs who need shitloads of coaching when it comes to ordering coffee. The booklet's mission: to help us "build confidence in beverage ordering."

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Huh?

This wallet-sized volume, which recently debuted in all 5,690 U.S. outlets as part of a huge promotion called "Customize Your Cup," seemingly has two goals: 1) to teach ever more panicky Americans how to bark out precise commands like "grande, quad, ristretto, nonfat dry cappuccino" with perfect Starbucksian diction; 2) to encourage us to spend more on pricey flourishes. Extra shots. Noxious flavored syrups. Luxurious ice.

"If you're nervous about ordering," the booklet murmurs with no detectable irony, "don't be."

Who knew beverages were so terrifying? Who knew we were so dense? Simultaneously patronizing and intimidating, the booklet begins by reviewing the "lingo," 38 key ordering terms from the exotic ("misto," Italian for "mixed") to the folksy (diner-slang descendants such as "with legs" for "to go"). It moves on to tackle espresso dilemmas and syntax challenges (should you specify cup size before or after syrup selection?). A special milk section reminds you that "the moo is where you can be most expressive."

Dotted with fey, wobbly illustrations to offset its preachiness, it is a curious document: "We've noticed," it reads, "that triple, grande, decaf latte people aren't the same as tall, iced caramel macchiato people." What Starbucks' research has failed to reveal is that neither of these people has anything in common with annoyed, adjectival-string-eschewing people who just want a cup of coffee.

"We think of it this way," says Brad Stevens, director of marketing for Starbucks North America, shortly after the company announced a dramatic 41 percent rise in first-quarter profits for the fiscal year ending September 2004: "Espresso consumption is still growing in the U.S. There are still a lot of people to whom we can introduce the joys of espresso. And a booklet like this will help our new customers understand and uncover the fun of being a fan of espresso." He pauses and adds, "It's really about fun."

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That may be, but even the baristas at my local Starbucks seem confounded by the program. When I showed up, armed with my booklet, well-rehearsed, and robotically ordered a "Decaf, Grande, caramel, no-fat, dry, latte with legs," the girl looked quite stunned by my prowess. As she concocted my drink ("So ... by caramel, you mean the syrup?"), I saw that the old menu board had been replaced by a new one that distills the lessons of the booklet and its five zillion easy steps. I asked another staffer if customers were responding to the opportunity to customize their cups and become cocky complex-beverage requesters. "Not so much," she admitted. "Most people are too scared."

How did Americans, for whom a "cuppa joe" was the essence of simplicity for most of the 20th century, fall into the Starbucks trap? Despite Starbucks' much-vaunted attention to quality and its reliably yuppie ambience -- mournful Billie Holiday piped in, mournful homeless people marched out -- it's hard not to wonder if we're not worse off for having allowed ourselves to be bullied into its baloney. Tall, grande, venti? "All it means," says Mark Pendergrast, author of "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World," "is small, too much, or way too much. I refuse to speak Italian to order a size." He's not surprised, though, that so many of us do respond (25 million each week, generating $268 million in profits in 2003). "If you feel a bit humbled," he says, "when you approach the great Wizard of Oz Coffee Maker -- 'I'm so scared, can I get through this ordering process correctly?' -- that can be appealing. It's very clever marketing."

Adds Steven C. Topik, a coffee historian at the University of California at Irvine: "Coffee prices are at an all-time low, but Starbucks prices are still extremely high. They're selling mostly ritual and snob appeal. And foam."

Ordering coffee was not always a test of courage. For decades, any American who wanted a cup could walk into a cafe, catch the eye of the waitress slinging her pot, and ... nod. A word or two may have been required, but it's unlikely either of them was "Valencia." It was possible to do this without consulting a 22-page booklet, or spending surreal sums. The all-American "5-cent" cup of coffee was so much an article of faith, reports Pendergrast, that in 1947, when many restaurants raised the price to 7 cents, angry customers smashed their mugs and dumped cream and sugar on the counters in outrage.

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Of course, much of this coffee was terrible: percolated, burnt, watered-down, ground from poorly roasted blends heavy with cheap African Robusta beans, the bitter alternative to the rich Arabica beans from Colombia or Costa Rica. (Even so, this was a vast improvement over American coffee in the 1800s which was polluted with additives such as chicory, barley, pumpkin seeds, brick dust, dog biscuits, sand, dirt, and more.) There were exceptions -- coffeehouses and restaurants whose java was roasted locally and served fresh. This coffee wasn't elaborate or nuanced, but if you drank enough, it did the basics: woke you up, got you talking, warmed your hands.

It still does, at the sort of small-town cafes that have so far escaped the threat of Starbucks, which notoriously opens outlets adjacent to local coffee shops and drives them out of business. In Sheridan, Wyo. (pop. 16,000), a rancher's town guarded by the Bighorn Mountains, the Silver Spur Cafe has been serving breakfast on North Main Street, a still-Hopperesque stretch, for 70 years. It's a tiny place with room for 15 at the counter, where ever-vigilant waitresses top off your cup every 30 seconds, and regulars, who stay up to three hours, have slowly melded with the stools.

"Coffee? I've heard of it," deadpans current owner Barbara Ross, 57. "We make it all friggin' day. And they drink it all friggin' day." She serves two types, regular and decaf, for 75 cents in a 12-ounce white mug. Contractually, she's supposed to brew Farmer's Blend, a quality 100-percent Arabica brand that's a major player in the restaurant-supply field, but the customers groused. "They told me it's too strong. So we just run out to the grocery store and buy Folgers and mix it in. These old farts don't know the difference."

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When I ask if the farts might benefit from a program that would help them build confidence in ordering beverages, she snorts: "These guys don't need help asking for coffee." (Not that they are entirely self-sufficient. "I told the waitresses it was their jobs to get the customers up and massage their butts," she says, "so the customers could walk out of here.") Ross is considering asking the ceramics store next door to make up mugs, personalized with the regulars' names that she could hang on a pegboard, a popular tradition at many small-town cafes. (A tradition Starbucks may be trying to echo with their new $9.95 Customization Tumblers you can personalize with cute stickers -- "Grande," "Soy," "Peppermint" -- specifying the umpteen variables that hours of study time with the fun booklet have helped you narrow down.)

So far, the Silver Spur has gone unchallenged by the Seattle Behemoth, though a Starbucks did open recently in the Holiday Inn at the other end of town. "I didn't know what a Starbucks was," says Ross, suddenly sounding a bit like a pod person, "but my granddaughter told me it was just expensive coffee. Not worth it, everybody said." Her clientele remain loyal, especially those who still, believe it or not, refer to coffee as joe or even a cup of mud. What would happen if someone walked into the Silver Spur and asked for an iced, decaf, triple, grande, cinnamon, nonfat, no-whip mocha? She laughs. "The girls would probably just tell them you'd have to go next door to the mini-mart. They have cappuccino, comes out of a vending machine."

The beginning of truly mass coffee consciousness-raising in America predates Starbucks, and can be traced to the arrival of the fictional Juan Valdez, a proud romantic savage invented by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia in 1960. In a full-scale advertising assault, Valdez trudged into the hearts of Americans, as if to say, "Though my coffee is exhausting to produce -- regard my poor demoralized mule! -- it tastes so much better." It worked: Five years later, over 40 all-Colombian brands were being sold in America, including General Foods' Yuban. Soon, regional "specialty coffee" outlets such as Peet's in Berkeley, Calif., followed, converting isolated pockets of Americans to coffee elitism, but it wasn't until Starbucks (founded in 1971) hit its stride in the mid-'90s that "coffee education" became the absurd crusade it is today. Originally, the goal was to draw parallels between coffee and wine, a very adult pursuit, but judging from this new booklet's kindergarten tone -- "This is when you tell us what milk you want. And if you want something else, like 'extra hot' or 'extra foamy'" -- you might wonder if Starbucks has decided to broaden its educational efforts to include children, in a sort of caffeinated take on "No Child Left Behind."

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The analogy between Starbucks and a brainwashing cult is well-worn. Online wits call the company the "Church of Righteous Oneness with Coffee and Knowledge, or C.R.O.C.K.," and gossip that a certain intersection in Brentwood, Calif., boasts a Starbucks store on all four corners. ("I believe that is an urban myth," a Starbucks spokesperson clarifies.) The company satirized its own reputation for control-freakiness by allowing the producers of Austin Powers to locate Dr. Evil's headquarters atop a Starbucks skyscraper. But with this massive new "Customization" promotion, chairman Howard Schultz and crew seem to have lost perspective and blundered well past cultiness. Did the devotees of Jim Jones need a 22-page booklet to order poisoned Kool-Aid?

There may be relief in sight but not from Starbucks. One competing brand, at least, has apparently decided to market itself as a sort of anti-Starbucks. That is to say, anti-pretension. Anti-gibberish. Anti-faux European. And most distinctly pro-American.

Chock full o'Nuts, a classic American brand that was born in 1926 as a series of Manhattan nut shops before expanding into coffee in the '30s, is launching a major regional campaign designed to remind New Yorkers that it was their brew of choice in the old un-Venti-lated days. At its peak in the '50s and '60s, Chock full o'Nuts was the Starbucks of its time, with over 100 coffeehouses in New York, serving its signature nutted cheese and whole wheat raisin bread sandwiches, pies, soups, and a "heavenly" brew that founder William Black refused to compromise even as his competitors snuck more and more Robusta into their blends. "Better coffee Rockefeller's money can't buy," he bragged, until Nelson Rockefeller sued. "Chock full o'Nuts coffee was very good," says Pendergrast. "You could always count on it."

A $2 million to $3 million wave of advertising has plastered buses, water towers, construction sites and other "quintessentially New York" surfaces with images of real people shot by legendary Life magazine photojournalist Eugene Richards: weary but stubborn waitresses, thuggish but charming butchers and average Joes screaming their way through a ride on Coney Island's Cyclone roller coaster. "Chock full o'Attitude," snarls one ad. "Chock full o'Strength," claims another. The ads are refreshingly raw. And they successfully trigger nostalgia for a pre-Starbucks world.

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"We're drawing on 70 years of history that's authentic," says brand manager Jennifer Stein at Sara Lee, which bought Chock full o'Nuts in 1999. "We didn't make it up." And while that history also includes the brand's wretched decline in the '70s after Black's death, when the once-spotless cafes became filthy holes cluttered by surly staffs, there are still lots of good memories to exploit. Stein was happy to connect me with two loyal patrons in Queens who are still sufficiently alive to recall the brand's glory days, and sufficiently babbly to veer off into footwear tangents. "The coffee was delicious," says Willie Catherine Graves, 60, who visited the Chock full o'Nuts cafe at 34th Street and 8th Avenue when she was an office girl in the late '50s. "I'd tippy-toe in there in my high heels -- and I could wear them as high as they'd come, because I was young! They didn't allow no dungarees then. Everyone was dressed up." For her, the main attractions were the possibility of meeting a man, and a solid deal. "I had to go where my little pennies could take me," says Graves, "where I could get the best lunch," which meant a raisin bread sandwich, Heavenly Coffee, and coconut pie for less than a dollar. She'd sit at one of the sunny horseshoe-shaped counters with her girlfriend in the midday rush, tended to by a mile-a-minute waitress. Not a lot of dialogue was required to order: "I don't think the waitresses talked to us at all. They couldn't lean over and hold no conversation. They had to move!"

Graves' gentle mother, Bernetta Graves, 83, while not so loquacious, was also a fan of the 34th Street location. "They don't make coffee like that now," she says wistfully.

They're certainly trying to. Stein says that not only has the blend been improved, but that Sara Lee is committed to bringing Chock full o'Nuts back to New York as a full-fledged chain of cafes. The plan: to combine old Chock favorites like the whole-wheat doughnut and the cheese-nut sandwiches with new millennial design. For now, they're starting small with two kiosks in the Herald Square area, but are actively looking for storefront locations in Manhattan. The company, which famously handed out free Chock coffee to shell-shocked New Yorkers on Sept. 11, feels the time is right for a return to a classic American brew. "It's a lot easier to tug at people's heartstrings right now after the Iraq War and the World Trade Center," says brand publicist C. Zawadi Morris, a little too transparently. "There's just been a coming together of New Yorkers. When you feel threatened, there's a tendency to wrap your arms around what's yours." Instead of, say, pseudo-Italian mystifications?

Conscious of the risks of having my heartstrings tugged, I decided to visit one of Chock's new kiosks and wrap my arms around a large "Soho blend." It would seem there are still a few kinks to work out. Without consulting me, the reckless staffer began dumping three teaspoons of sugar into my cup with no sign of slowing down. Ay-yi-yi-stopppp! After her tut-tutting colleague dumped out the sugar and delivered my Heavenly Coffee, I tested it with considerably less optimism than the young Willie Graves in her sky-high heels. It tasted more like Purgatory Coffee, no better or worse than any Greek diner brew. As my nostalgia rush faded and a mild stomachache, surely psychosomatic, set in, I'll admit I began to yearn for the Stepford competence of Starbucks.

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There are, after all, many good things to say about Howard Schultz and his empire, which may soon be facing much stiffer competition than Chock full o'Nuts if that much bigger monster Wal-Mart -- which tops the Fortune 500, overshadowing Starbucks at 465th -- sees positive results from a cafe concept it's currently testing inside a Plano, Texas, store. "Yes, Starbucks is pretentious, and yes, they're making a fortune," says Pendergrast, "but it's also true that they're selling fair-trade coffee, which is a very good thing, and they're giving money back, and trying to develop a real relationship with growers." It should also be noted that Starbucks pays well over minimum wage and grants even part-time employees full medical benefits. And then there are Schultz's plans for more stores with drive-thru windows, the closest he's come yet to openly admitting that Starbucks is really just a glorified version of McDonald's.

"I have a hard time calling Starbucks evil compared to most of the corporations in the United States," Pendergrast adds. "They're certainly doing a better job with their suppliers than Procter & Gamble or Philip Morris. If you can get past the pretension, I think Starbucks has been wonderful for this country."

Maybe it is better to just endure a little baloney in exchange for dependably good coffee. What's a freaky, obsessive Customization program next to winning foam? Perhaps if we all buy $9.95 Customization Cups, we can just mutely shove them in front of the Starbucks cashier, and let him yell out the damn lingo? Maybe we should just accept that "there are certain mornings when you need to indulge in a handcrafted beverage prepared by your very own barista (Customologist)," even if "you feel somewhat uncomfortable ordering your beverage."

On second thought -- Customologist? -- maybe not.

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Dale Hrabi

Dale Hrabi is a regular contributor to Elle and Radar. He lives in New York City.

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