Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture
Expensive. Ubiquitous. Frightfully cheerful. Soothingly tony. These adjectives characterize the inescapable Starbucks chain, a Seattle-based behemoth whose outlets dot the globe, dispensing overpriced coffee from posts situated-sometimes within mere yards of one another-in malls, Wal-Marts, grocery stores, and even the Great Wall of China. Not for nothing did a March 2001 Onion satire, titled "Starbucks to Begin Sinister 'Phase Two' of Operation," strike such a tensed, caffeine-starved nerve.
With Starbucked, author and former Willamette Week writer Taylor Clark investigates how the company changed from another bit player in Seattle's unassuming, hippiefied bean-roasting scene to a brand as or more visible as McDonald's-with almost 600 locations in 1989 and 24,000 and counting today. His book isn't the hit job some readers might hope for but a deep-steeped, lightly amused look at the Babe Ruth of java.
Launched in 1971, Starbucks was the brainchild of Seattle investors Gordon Bowker, Zev Siegl, and Jerry Baldwin, who were "in it for the adventure more than the money," Clark writes. The business initially thrived on sales of coffee beans more than anything. In the early 1980s, the company began its ascent via the hiring of former Hammarplast Vice President Howard Schultz, a persistent, ambitious visionary who would eventually buy and head Starbucks, expanding it beyond its founders' wildest imaginings by switching the focus to hawking hot gourmet cups of coffee, espresso, cappuccino, and other specialty "beverage entertainments." Taking the helm in 1987, Schultz "aimed at what most everybody considered a very optimistic goal of 125 stores within five years."
What no one could have predicted is how thirsty customers were for the products the chain hustled. So thirsty, in fact, that Starbucks could occupy vacant real estate by offering to pay higher rents or open outlets across the street from one another, quickly turning a profit in each case. The anti-capitalists and small-town denizens who protest the company's market incursions often wind up shopping there themselves; many even take the addition of Starbucks to their burgs as a sign that their town has "arrived." And while Schultz and his minions have absorbed any number of tiny coffeehouse chains in the process, Starbucks also has so boosted customers' appetites for caffeine that some mom-and-pop shops have experienced considerable sales boosts.
During his probing of Starbucks' perceived sins, Clark acknowledges that the company's tendency to clothe its world domination quest in New Age-y, therapeutic rhetoric is as creepy as it is disingenuous. More unsettling is the fact that even while reading Starbucked and commiserating with its critics, I caught myself jonesing for a venti vanilla latte-a luxury I can't really afford and am routinely disappointed by.