Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I hate coffee, but I love Starbucks

Seth Gitell has a good column in the New York Sun about the trouble brewing for Starbucks, as rivals like Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's get into the premium coffee market -- without the high prices and precious terminology ("grande" for small) of the Seattle chain. Unlike some left-wing anti-globalists, Gitell doesn't see Starbucks as evil, though he does write, "If Starbucks has been guilty of anything, it is its annoying, almost embarrassing, omnipresence." I agree on narrow aesthetic grounds. There are five Starbucks within a couple of blocks of my office, and it is tiring to see that logo, with its flagrant West Coast sensibility, on the gritty streets of Boston. At the same time, I'm grateful to Starbucks for its omnipresence. If the chain disappeared tomorrow, I doubt that more than two or three of its dozens of Boston sites would be turned into independent cafes. Most would stay vacant or become cellphone stores; it's just not economically feasible, given Boston's real estate market, for anything but a chain to operate businesses at which people can hang out on comfortable chairs for hours at a time. I never drink coffee (or any coffee-like drink) while walking around, and I never take coffee back to my office. The only time I have a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha is when I have time to relax on a piece of Starbucks furniture, preferably with a friend to talk to. That's why it horrifies me to think that Dunkin' Donuts or McDonald's could one day drive Starbucks out of business. With their harsh lighting and uncomfortable seats, those chains are designed for quick turnover. I can see why coffee drinkers who get it to go might get impatient with Starbucks and prefer to save a few pennies at a flourescent hellhole. But coffee drinking started out as a social activity, and I'd hate to see yet another place for public congregation driven out of existence at the hands of people who don't like to leave their cars or office desks. And I'm still waiting for a Starbucks in my new neighborhood of Malden Center. Don't worry, there are no independent cafes there anyway. All I've got are two Dunkin' Donuts, and they don't get my business outside of an annual craving for apple-flavored hockey pucks.

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