Want to Know What’s Wrong with America? Starbucks.

starbucks_logo_newOh, I know I’m probably going to insult someone with this post, but please hear me out. It’s not about the coffee.

It’s not so much the mere existence of Starbucks that concerns me, it’s the embrace we Americans have made with this extravagance. I admit to having the odd cup of coffee there, and they also make an excellent hot chocolate. Occasionally I will bow to Unnamed Partner’s wishes and we’ll stop in for a cup. The coffee is pretty good.

Last Friday we stopped in at the Starbucks in Union Station in Washington DC, because we were early for our dinner plans. I remembered once again the two reasons why I hate Starbucks.

First, of course, is the price. Four dollars for a cup of coffee? How about you get rid of the leather chair, the annoying music CDs, and just charge a realistic price for the coffee?

But that’s a businessperson’s profit choice, and a consumer’s choice to pay it. As we approached the counter to order, I remembered the second — and more insidious — reason I hate Starbucks: I don’t speak the language. When I walk into a Starbucks, I feel like I’ve just stepped into a production of Seussical the Musical.  The words are either made up (“Venti?” There is no such word, folks!) or they have different meanings than in the “real” world. A “Tall” cup is the smallest cup of coffee. Tall in relation to what? How can it be “”Tall” if there’s nothing smaller?  If that’s not bad enough, there are secrets that we don’t know: they don’t advertise the “real” smallest cup of coffee, which is called a “Short,” but you can order it. And also there are terms like “Wet” which I won’t even pretend to explain.

So even on those rare occasions when I decide to splurge on a cup of coffee at Starbucks, I have to turn to Unnamed Partner (who did 6 months as a “barista” there), hand her my money, and say “Will you order?”

The wonderful thing about America is that we are free to throw away our money any way we want, and we have lots and lots of choices as to where we throw that cash. But as the economy has continued to decline over the past year, Starbucks has seen only a slight decrease in their profits. It seems Americans cannot part with  this fantasy land of some bizarre mix of Italian/French/Horton Hears a Who, even as the world comes crashing down around them.

Yesterday, December 7, I spoke with my father, a World War II veteran. I asked him to tell me again where he was when he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor (he was a 17-year old freshman at Miami University in Ohio; he was in his dorm room reading Time magazine — yes, he has an excellent memory). He joined the Army Reserves (he was too young to enlist yet anyway), and in May 1942 he was called up. In June 1942, my uncle Bob was called up. In July 1942, my Uncle Walt was called up. The fourth son was still in high school, I am sure much to my grandmother’s joy.

All of my uncles and my Dad made it home in one piece, but they were in some scary places and saw some dreadful things. (I have my uncle Bob’s photographs from Normandy in the days after the invasion. It’s not pretty.)

And in those days of War and economic stress, were Americans spending inflated prices on coffee  — or any other extravagance? No, they were using ration coupons, and they were watching every penny. And they were listening to the radio and reading the newspaper for any news they could get about the War.

As I said at the start here: Starbucks is a business and has every right to charge whatever the market will bear. But the fact that we as Americans stand in line to hand over our increasingly scarce cash and order silly named drinks while we’re in the middle of fighting a War — that’s what’s wrong with America.

SoapBox out ….



  1. My goodness, thank you.

    CBS News ran a real puff piece on this outfit tonight, and I almost ralphed my chicken parm. While I was dismayed to hear that 1000 Starbucks employees will soon lose their jobs, their CEO is a stereotype of every goofy New Agey sounding corporate tycoon that ever got lampooned by Hollywood (Steve Martin just did this guy on “30 Rock,” methinks), and, other than giving his employees health benefits, he’s filthy rich on the backs of a lot of young people.

    It’s the same mentality that gave us bottled water, which I also will not buy (unless I’m overseas).

    Their coffee is way over-priced and always. tastes. like. they. burned. the. beans. Dunkin’ Donuts was much better and way cheaper, IMHO.

    That whole vini, vedi, grande, dookey thing is pretentious and silly.

    And thanks for the family story. I too appreciate being reminded of the sacrifices our elders made, and sometimes, at the risk of sounding like one of them, I think we need to be reminded of those things. Times weren’t necessarily better back then, but in some ways, they were smarter.

  2. I actually didn’t know about the CBS thing — I’ll have to look for it. The health benefits things is a little misleading, too. You have to work 20 hours a week for something like 6 weeks before you can get benefits, and surprise surprise, it’s hard to get 20 hours scheduled regularly every week. That’s why Unnamed Partner quit — 18 hours, 20 hours, 16 hours, 19 hours a week.

    I absolutely don’t think times were better when our parents were growing up. But I think you’re right — people were smarter.

    And, I love Dunkin Donuts!

  3. I’ve never been able to grasp the high end coffee thing. I guess I’m just too pedestrian, but the stuff we make at home tastes fine. If I’m out – it’s Dunkin Donuts or Krispy Kreme for coffee.

    You definitely make an excellent point – what we consider needs and wants is pretty flakey these days.

    P.S. I have a son who would pay you to make copies of those Normandy pix. He has dreams of being a WWII historian some day.

  4. I’m so glad I know you, Sue-J.

    I find it astonishing that people buy coffee there 3, 4 times a day (or more).

    What amazes me as much, if not more, is how many of ’em buy those gawd-awful pastries to go with the overpriced and not very good coffee.

    Nothing like paying $5 to have coffee that is bad and pastry that is stale (and bad), or as I like to say, a corporate food pellet experience.

    I used to be somewhat impressed with them, but mostly now I am disgusted with us.



  5. several years back i had one cup of their regular joe, and HATED it! have never spent another cent there since! i can only think that it is a status thing that brings people into one of their stores!

  6. Well YES what the market will bear – I enjoy a great cup of coffee in a nice coffee house. The marketing person in me, the entrepreneur admires an organization like Starbucks – who – treats their employees very well by the way. And I like the decor…give me something lovely over orange laminate and plastic booths any day.

    That said American priorities are screwed up and the recession will shake us all up and cause a re-evaluation of our priorities out of necessity. This will be a good thing in the long run.

    And I just say I want a “small, a medium or a large” it’s amazing they know what you want and you get your order, even without saying “venti”.

    Starbucks is bad and good. But they’ve lost the vision.

    I am a coffee snob, I admit it. I love the dif. texture, aromas, and blends, it;s endless delight. I did work for 4-bucks, and for those who believe that they treat the employees GREAT, well you are dead wrong.!
    The managements bottom line is to make $$$$. You don’t get the hours you want, unless you take on outrageous supervisor responsibilities for $9.hourly., in turn-you don’t the benefits.
    The coffee is good is you care to experiment, they do have SOME free trade, and try help local business people from other countries, but please how nieve to think that there not getting the upper hand. MY GOD… THEY DON’T EVEN RECYCLE THE TRASH…! none of it. They also throw food away that is still good on a DAILY basis. They are wasteful and arrogant.
    I have seen people come into the store and buy 4 cups of coffee at 5-6 bucks a pop. It still amazes me.
    I guess I’ll just have to learn to like other coffees or do with out.

    By the way the WWII pics… I’ve got first dibs. ; )

  8. Hmm. Well thanks for clearing that up. About the non-benefits thing.

    Another good reason to keep going to DnDnts.

  9. I enjoyed this post. I lived in the big city once upon a time, and had a Starbucks on every corner, and I went there often. But the price, as you stated so well is horrible. I can nearly buy a pound of coffee at the store for that price. So needless to say, I don’t go there often.

    Also, I enjoy the funkier sort of places. The old places with big couches, dark walls and the strong dark scent of coffee. Plus, the last time I took my laptop into the Starbucks here where I live, they wanted $10.00 for internet access. Needless to say I was not impressed.

    Nice blog you have going here.

  10. Welcome, Old Crone!

    I hope no one thinks I am “anti- coffee” — I love coffee, morning noon and night! And indeed, I love to go someplace and sit and read the paper and sip a strong brew. I just don’t want to pay inflated prices, and I don’t want to have to say made-up words when I order.

  11. this was the BEST post to read — the body and the comments – you had me laughing my ass off

    ps — the truck parked in front the starbucks near my office makes MUCH better coffee and it is 75 cents

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