How Starbucks changed coffee culture

Before Starbucks took off in the 1990s, and before the period when it opened a new store somewhere in the world every six hours, coffee in America was just coffee, a cup of joe, and it came in a porcelain mug or a spongy foam cup in straightforward sizes of small, medium and large.

Starbucks changed the beverages we drink, when and where we drink them, what they taste like, how much we consume, and their temperature. Meanwhile, its stores became the nation's second living room, meeting place and study hall.

It's not a stretch to say that Starbucks has altered American culture. But with such far-reaching, sociologically significant effects came a host of myths and counter-myths about Starbucks. Here are five:

1.Starbucks puts local coffee shops out of business

Starbucks' "only goal," an essay in the Huffington Post insisted, is "to grow and expand as quickly as possible, so that eventually all mom and pop businesses get edged out." This writer isn't alone in suspecting the company's motives. In 2008, Starbucks settled an antitrust lawsuit in Seattle that charged it with passing out samples of its habit-forming sugary drinks in front of rival coffee shops and strong-arming landlords into not leasing space to competitors.

It's true that competing against Starbucks isn't easy. The coffee giant scoops up the best locations and drives up real estate prices for independents, making them do business along less-trafficked streets and in out-of-the-way locations.

But the chain's rivals are doing just fine. Today there are 13,327 Starbucks stores across the United States. That's a lot, but according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, there were 31,490 independent coffee shops in 2015, up from 1,650 in 1990. In the past decade alone, 10,000 non-chain stores have opened. As J.D. Merget, co-owner of Oslo Coffee in Brooklyn, observed, "Starbucks is good enough to get them addicted" so the artisanal shops can "take them beyond that" with fair-trade coffee, single-origin pour-overs and comfier couches.

2.Starbucks is a worker-friendly company

In 2013, the Motley Fool, a stock-tracking firm, tried to explain "What Makes Starbucks One of America's Best Companies": The retail industry usually treats workers poorly, it wrote, "but Starbucks treats its partners very well." Its employees, including part-timers, receive health benefits, something former chief executive Howard Schultz attributed to the uncertainty that his working-class father faced when he was hurt on the job. Fortune has repeatedly ranked Starbucks on its annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For.

That's not the whole story, though. Workers, including part-timers (two-thirds of the company's payroll), may purchase employer-provided coverage--something common in the rest of the economy, though admittedly less so in retail--if they work at least 20 hours per week. But getting to that weekly threshold can be tough. One of the company's goals is to ensure that it has the right number of workers behind the counter at all times; not too many when traffic is slow and not too few during peak hours. Employees don't make their schedules, and they don't usually work the same days every week. They might work a night shift followed by a morning shift; four hours here and six hours there. According to a PBS Frontline report, baristas who wanted to work at least 32 hours per week had to make themselves available for 70 percent of the hours the store was open.

And while Starbucks baristas earn on average about $9.50 per hour with tips, few make a living wage, especially in high-rent Starbucks-dense cities such as New York, Washington and Seattle. Yet their unpredictable schedules make it hard for them to take second jobs.

3.Starbucks coffee is burned

This is a common complaint, dating back to when the company went national in the 1990s. In 2007, Consumer Reports judged Starbucks coffee "strong, but burnt." Other critics agree, nicknaming the brand Charbucks and StarBurnts.

Technically, though, Starbucks beans are merely roasted to be very dark--darker even than French roast--which produces coffees with a touch of bitterness and a hint of charred wood. In the company's early days, this dark roast allowed Starbucks to distinguish its coffee from typically weak American brews. Eventually, rapid expansion meant the company bought millions of pounds of coffee each year and needed to replicate the taste for customers who expected a uniform flavor from Salt Lake City to Savannah. The dark roast covered up the beans' natural differences and made brewing more efficient. Well-roasted beans could be processed at higher temperatures in shorter periods of time.

The other thing about dark-roasted coffee is that it goes better with milk and sugar. And milk and sugar are lucrative menu items. Introduced in 1995, Frappuccinos now generate 20 percent of Starbucks' revenue. When sales of these drinks jump, as they did last summer with the rollout of the multi-colored, Instagram-worthy Unicorn drink, the company's stock price soars. If this is another byproduct of over-roasted beans, Starbucks is just fine with that.

4.Starbucks is not a combatant in the culture wars

Starbucks releases a new holiday cup design every year featuring such seasonal symbols as reindeer, snowmen and Santa. But in 2015, its cups were simply red. Some right-wing pundits greeted the receptacles with fury, accusing the company of waging a "war on Christmas." In response, the company's defenders insist that there isn't a drop of anti-Christian sentiment in its holiday cups. "In a Starbucks," one snarky customer wrote on Twitter recently, "and they're playing CHRISTMAS music! Really pissed off at this war on the war on Christmas." And of course, all around him Starbucks hawked Christmas ornaments, mugs, gift cards and Christmas Blend coffee.

Yet Starbucks' accusers aren't entirely wrong. The company does not appear to hate Jesus, as one critic put it, but it has allied itself with the razor-thin majority of Americans who, according to Gallup, appreciate being greeted with an inclusive Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas. It has ignored President Trump's promise to bring back Merry Christmas greetings, sticking to its ecumenical 2015 vow to promote inclusion and diversity. And the company has issued statements over the years worrying about global warming and supporting same-sex marriage. No wonder conservative agitation at the red and green cups shows no sign of abating. This year's holiday cups, featuring presents wrapped with bows and two clasped hands, again stirred the ire of conservatives who said the design reveals Starbucks' "gay agenda."

5.Starbucks stores help build community

Starbucks says its stores function as neighborhood gathering places. Supposedly they are spots for people to connect and join in public conversation. The company puts community bulletin boards on its walls and sponsors fun runs and voter registration drives. Busy stores buzz with jazz soundtracks and chatter between the baristas and customers. Business school professors and commentators have called the stores "third places": spaces that aren't work or home, where people meet and create enduring associations.

But sociologists of the community-building process, such as Roy Oldenburg and Robert Putnam, argue that community means bringing people face to face from different walks of life, who don't necessarily know each other already, so they can talk and better understand their differences. And anybody who has visited Starbucks knows that's not what happens there. Several recent visits to East Coast stores found people sitting at tables and on sofas, engrossed in their laptops or cellphones, protected by their earbuds. Groups that chat are ones that arrive together and leave together. More than 70 percent of customers I saw got their coffee to go.

The people who designed Starbucks stores were eager to put the best possible face on this problem. "A single person at a square table looks (and possibly feels) lonely," one executive wrote in his book Built for Growth. But "a round table is less formal, has no empty seats, and the lack of right-angle edges makes the person seated at the table feel less isolated." Or, as New York Times reporter Anemona Hartocollis speculated more than a decade ago, "Maybe ... we only wish to drown our sorrows in a strong cup of coffee in cushy chairs surrounded by strangers who will grant us the illusion of community yet respect our privacy."

Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University, is the author of Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks.

Editorial on 12/10/2017

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