Ode to Coffee: 1015 on a Saturday Night

I became a java junkie late in life, despite being Puerto Rican (most Puerto Ricans drink coffee like water). I didn’t start the habit until about ten years ago. I was finishing my dissertation, which is the equivalent of saying I was spending several years poking my own eyeballs out while listening to other graduate students talk about their esoteric research areas, all of us wondering if we would even be employable at the end. I was living in Berkeley, California – a virtual smorgasbord of mind altering chemicals, and I decided that I needed a regular pick-me-up in the form of a dopio espresso.

Now, in Berkeley, the businesses you patronize are considered a statement of your politics, and coffee is the consummate political product. You can’t swing a bat without hitting a coffee shop of some sort in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they seem to try to outcompete each other in their level of political correctness, eco-friendliness, and coffee-snobishness. If your coffee patronage is not given to the corner café owned by some guy who was at Woodstock,  and that offers gluten-free, dolphin-safe, free-trade, sustainably-farmed, and whale-freeing products you are clearly a representative of the man doomed to the fires of hell for your ignorant complicity in worldwide oppression.

Being an essentially contrary individual, I decided that rather than risk the chance of a death by political correctness at the corner coffee house, or the next best acceptable corporate replacement (Peet’s Coffee being somehow more acceptable in northern California), I did the morally unthinkable, and started mainlining my daily dose of caffeine at Starbucks. And, I’m not ashamed to say, I loved it. Order your coffee any way you want it with whatever you want in it, and nobody argues with you about the best way to drink it, or whether you’ve adulterated the pure, natural style that represents the Platonic ideal of a latte. I may be a corporate stooge, but I’m a wide awake corporate stooge with way too much to do.

I now live in New York, and do what I can to make sure I don’t have too much blood in my caffeine system. People complain that everywhere you travel in the world you find Starbucks. I find this delightful. It’s my anchor to reality. I travel constantly, live out of hotels for weeks at a time, and find myself insanely happy when there is a Starbucks in the lobby. I rest assured that my addiction will be satisfied, and in precisely the way I like it. I had my first drive-thru Starbucks in Cromwell, Connecticut, and maybe it was the caffeine, but I giggled about it for hours, even more than about the drive-thru liquor stores in New Orleans. And my love letter to Starbucks extends beyond mere coffee. The cheesecake in Harrison, New York is simply delicious. I enjoy the Mallorcas at the San Juan Puerto Rico Starbucks. Starbucks in Tokyo are no more expensive than New York City, have impeccable service, and offer cherry blossom and matcha green tea lattes. I mean, we are talking cross-cultural competence here folks. A nearly universal and standardized brand that simultaneously manages to effectively customize at the local level. Community based organizations can learn something from Starbucks. Consistency, standards, quality, and protocols are important, but flexibility and attention to local preferences and needs are equally important.

So, you are probably sensing that I’m a fan of Starbucks. I’m also a die-hard New Yorker. One would think, that in New York, where you can leave one Starbucks, cross the street, and go into another Starbucks, would essentially be my idea of paradise. Unfortunately, not so much. No ultimate lovefest for Starbucks in New York City has resulted. Service at Starbucks in New York City, pretty much in contrast to everywhere else on the planet, tends to be disappointing. One of the things I loved about Starbucks was they will make your drinks any way you like them. In New York City you would be lucky to get any coffee within ten minutes of your order, and while it’s still hot. Further, somehow my skinny vanilla latte comes out a  carmel macchiato. Don’t get me wrong, I take caffeine any way I can get it as long as its strong and sweet, but since I consistently can’t get what I order, it seems there is something else going on. Others have complained that Starbucks in New York City, again in contrast to every other Starbucks on the planet, discourage people from staying too long or using the WiFi. They lock the bathrooms, which if you’ve ever seen Seinfeld, is a cardinal sin if you’re trying to be customer friendly. Bathroom access needs to be easy and reliable. There also doesn’t seem to be anything uniquely New York to them. Every other Starbucks in every other city seems to be attuned to some unique aspect of the local culture. It’s almost as if Starbucks resents having to be open in New York City at all. Now maybe if they hired surprisingly obnoxious baristas, who nonetheless made you the perfect cup of coffee, that would be done in truly New York style. Being obnoxious without actually being competent is an unforgivable transgression in New York. Just because caffeine-fueled New Yorkers walk a mile a minute, it doesn’t mean that we don’t occasionally want to sit down, enjoy a good coffee just the way we ordered, munch on a local delicacy, and make a million dollar deal at the same time. (or not-I do work in a non-profit but you get the point)

1 reply »

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