My name’s Jennifer and I’m a recovering Starbucks customer
We should resist the slow, creeping Starbucksification of our towns and cities
My baby’s second word was “Starbucks”. Photograph: Alan Betson
My baby’s second word, after “baby”, was “Starbucks”. “BABUCKS!” she would bellow, a chubby finger pointed out the car window whenever we passed the ubiquitous green mermaid logo.
It became our party trick. “Where’s your Starbucks?” I would ask, and she would obediently point to the takeaway cup of water with the green straw, or the little packet of Starbucks madeleines I always kept in my bag for emergencies.
My name is Jennifer and I am a recovering Starbucks customer.
When I say that I grew unhealthily reliant on the coffee chain during my family’s two-year stint in California, I am not exaggerating. Starbucks was my second office, my alternate home, my refuge from loneliness during those years as an ex-pat.
I knew that if I went into one my local Starbucks, I would bump into someone I knew from the school run, or when I was really desperate for human interaction, could at least rely on a bit of forced jollity from the baristas.
I was never better than agnostic about the coffee – a standard tall latte was my beverage of choice, or necessity. The food tasted predominantly of “fridge”. The special seasonal beverages – the pumpkin spice lattes, the eggnog lattes, the toffee nut lattes – struck me as, frankly, disgusting: you might as well boil up a bag of sugar, squirt in some sugar, and sprinkle sugar on top.
But still, when emigrant life felt overwhelming or unpredictable, I was never more than two minutes from the nearest Starbucks. It was always there and it was always the same – unchanging, unthreatening, utterly unexciting.
And that is the chief argument to resist its creeping march on Irish cities and towns.
The real reason I became so reliant on Starbucks is that, if you wanted a hit of caffeine or conversation, there was no alternative. For the three Starbucks outlets in the town in the area of San Francisco I called home, there was a single independent coffee shop whose chief – no, whose only – selling point seemed to be that it was not Starbucks.
It served vast mugs of watery coffee, greasy food and loud, Trump-supporting senior citizens sprawled all over the backyard.
In San Francisco, there are still plenty of great small coffee shops. But in the vast swathes of suburbia to the south, there is really only Starbucks. In towns and cities right across America, there is only Starbucks.
Which is exactly how Starbucks wants it. Its ubiquity is such that it recently started removing its own branding from a handful of stores in Seattle, trying to pass them off as the indie coffee houses whose existence it had helped to wipe out.
Protests against Starbucks, as undertaken by a number of Dublin’s independent coffee shops, aren’t just about small operators whining about competition from the big boys. For a start, they aren’t just whining – three of them are putting their beans where their mouth is and offering free coffee. But when they say they feel like they are “being strangled” by Starbucks, that isn’t merely hyperbole.
Who could reasonably object to a single Starbucks outlet, or even two, on the main street? But there’s the rub.
Starbucks isn’t interested in opening a single outlet or two anywhere. It wants total dominance here, like it has in America. It wants Irelatte. It currently operates 26,000 stores in 75 countries on six continents worldwide. There are Starbucks outlets in Azerbaijan, Colombia, Kazakhstan and Cambodia.
It didn’t achieve this kind of market dominance on the strength of its coffee alone. In her book, No Logo, Naomi Klein unpicks the strategies she claims are employed by Starbucks: buying out competitors’ leases, deliberately operating at a loss, and blanket-bombing the market by opening several stores in close proximity to each other.
It does this to cut down on delivery costs, reduce waiting times for customers and, presumably, eviscerate the competition.
Ireland already has 67 Starbucks outlets. Fifty of them are in Dublin, with another due to open soon in the office of a former recruitment agency. Here, as in the UK, it has been accused of opening stores without planning permission, including in Cork, Waterford and Howth.
Starbucks counters that several of these stores are not cafes but retail outlets, so do not constitute a change of use.
Starbucks is not all bad, of course. It creates employment – the company claims there will soon by 800 Starbucks baristas in Ireland. It gives us somewhere to go in the evenings that doesn’t involve alcohol. And yes, you could make the argument that it has contributed to coffee culture, if by “culture” you only mean people drinking oversweetened beverages with caffeine in them.
Equally, you could point out that it could be contributing a lot more: it became the poster child for tax avoidance by US multinationals in Europe after the EU ruled that Starbucks benefited from an illegal tax deal in the Netherlands. Here, it has been criticised for paying paltry amounts of corporation tax, albeit legitimately – it paid just €45 in 2015.
In the year since I came back to Ireland, I have been to Starbucks twice: both times in search of free wifi. I don’t miss it at all: even in rural Ireland, there are still many good independent coffee shops with character, good food, conversation and very decent coffee.
As a recovering Starbucks customer, I say we should follow Italy – which has a stunning record of no Starbucks and somehow maintains a thriving café culture. Although all of that may soon be about to change: the first Italian Starbucks is due to open in Milan shortly, called “Roastery”, presumably in the hope that Italians don’t notice it’s a Starbucks.
Australia, which also has a vibrant café culture, has so far been similarly resistant to the lure of the pumpkin spice latte: eight years ago the chain was forced into a humiliating retreat, closing 66 of its 84 stores. It is currently back up to 30 stores, and reportedly planning a second attack in 2017.
We should resist the slow, creeping Starbucksification of our towns and cities. We should resist it because Starbucks represents the worst of suburban American in a cup: bland homogeneity; consumption as a new kind of religion; greed and gluttony. We should resist it because, if we don’t, we may soon have no other choice.