The meaning of Starbucks

The coffee company announces plans to close 600 stores, while simultaneously watering down its primary house brew. As if we needed any more evidence that the economy is in the dregs.

Published July 2, 2008 2:22PM (EDT)

Two months ago, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told Time magazine that "For the first time in our history as a company, we have negative traffic this year vs. last." This week, the other shoe dropped. In what Schultz called "the most angst-ridden decision we have made in my more than 25 years with Starbucks," the company is planning to close 600 stores, resulting in as many as 12,000 layoffs.

As an economic indicator, that's just plain bad news. If Americans are giving up their Starbucks lattes and settling for the dregs from the office coffee machine instead, you know they're truly desperate. An impulse toward penny-pinching can be understood, but not such an abject embrace of the dark side. Coffee's important, people!

Which brings me to an even more disturbing Starbucks subplot. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that Starbucks' rollout of "a new, milder brew" as its primary drip coffee had "alienated a small yet vocal group of longtime patrons." Sales were up, noted the Journal, but so was consumer discontent.

Dig around on the Net and you can find some hurtful comparisons of the new brew, Pike Place Roast, to such monstrosities as Dunkin' Donuts house coffee. "Bring back the bold" is the new rallying cry.

From the Journal:

But the new strategy, which played down the company's more-established robust roasts, has touched off a debate about what customers think Starbucks should stand for: bold coffee for connoisseurs or a tamer brew for the masses?

To some coffee aficionados, the idea of Starbucks as a watering hole for connoisseurs might seem risible. But those wont to such mockery likely do not remember, or never experienced, what it was like to live in Dunkin' Donuts land in the pre-Starbucks era. Starbucks, for millions of Americans, offered a clear step forward.

And in that respect, despite its mass market drive toward a Starbucks (or two, or three!) on every city block, the coffee company conveyed a message of cheery symbolic potency with every cup of java. The quality of life will improve, Starbucks told us. Coffee will get better.

But now Starbucks has looked at the depressing figures in its account books and decided that to boost sales, it must water down its brew; it must give into lowest common denominator pablum and renege on its liberational promises. As a tactical decision, perhaps the strategy, in combination with the layoffs and store closures, will brighten up Starbucks' bottom line. But as a metaphor, the message is a glum acknowledgment of defeat and surrender.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Coffee And Tea Globalization How The World Works U.s. Economy