Wednesday, February 4th, 2009 • No Comments
What better way to kick off 2009 than with a book all about one of my favorite places?
It’s no secret I spend a great deal of time in Starbucks—it is not only my office, but also my home-away-from-home. Other customers have occasionally mistaken me for an employee because of how the baristas talk to me. I follow Little, Brown and Company on Twitter (@littlebrown) and after tweeting about my Starbucks coffee, they offered to send me a review copy of Taylor Clark’s Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce and Culture. I seem like the perfect audience for this book: a lover of books, pop culture and Starbucks.
As I write this, I am sitting in my neighborhood Starbucks. There is a young woman in her twenties and a slightly older man (wearing a red bowtie, no less) sitting next to me. He is trying to recruit her for Yale graduate school (something with the sciences, it sounds like). There is a retired gentleman—another regular—sitting across from me, reading the New York Times and drinking his grande coffee. A group of teenagers just wandered in from the video game store down the strip mall and are placing orders for frappuccinos and hot chocolate. Buddy Holly is crooning over the loudspeaker as the baristas chat and giggle behind the counter. This is where I spend several hours a day, most days of the week. I am not alone.
Journalist and author Taylor Clark attacks the subject of the global popularity of Starbucks with the gusto of someone who has had a few too many shots of espresso. He asks the important questions and takes a shot (a double-shot?) at answering them, including: Why Starbucks?
An expanded version of this question comes from the company’s brilliant, controversial leader and CEO (after several years’ hiatus) Howard Schultz, who said in an interview:
People weren’t drinking coffee. So the question is, how could a company create retail stores where coffee was not previously sold, charge three times more for it than the local doughnut shop, put Italian names on it that no one can pronounce, and then have six million customers a week coming through the stores?
Schultz’s answer to this has created what has become known as the Starbucks Experience.
The fans of Starbucks might outnumber the detractors, but there is no question that Starbucks has become an enormous phenomenon. Of course, Starbucked was written pre-recession and Starbucks has certainly taken a hit. (The fact that a website called Starbucks Gossip even exists demonstrates just how big and influential Starbucks has become.) Still, Starbucks isn’t the first company to be affected by recession and they seem more than adequately prepared to ride out the economic downturn.
Clark points to Starbucks’ popularity as “a third place” (a neutral, safe, public gathering spot between home and work) as a reason for the coffeehouse’s tremendous growth and appeal. It seems that it’s about more than coffee when it comes to the popularity of Starbucks—it’s about place. Which is something anyone who has spent any amount of time in a Starbucks could tell you—but Clark examines every possible angle of Starbucks’ place in the world—and in people’s lives. Reading Starbucked is a bit like watching one of those “how the magic is done” shows; you come away with a clear understanding that everything—every single detail—about Starbucks is planned and deliberate. Even the quirky details that seem to make Starbucks unique were carefully determined. For instance:
The reason for the unusual names of the beverage sizes tall, grande and venti? Creating a unique “language” builds customer loyalty. It prevents you from going across the street to the competitor because they speak a different “language” than the one you’re used to.
The wisdom of putting two Starbucks coffee shops across the street from each other? To put Starbucks in your path, making it a convenient stopping place. Also, even Starbucks in close proximity to each other draw different customers.
The odd blend of eclectic music that’s piped in? Rotated throughout the day to create different “moods.”
The reason Starbucks can seemingly pop up over night? A limited number of interior designs that allow for each store to be up and running quickly (and relatively cheaply) while still maintaining that sense of uniqueness.
And on it goes. Clark comes off at times sounding like a minister in the church of Starbucks, but he claims he’s not a regular customer and doesn’t care for their coffee. That probably adds to his credibility as an objective researcher—as does the fact that Starbucks hasn’t made any comment on his book. He may not be a fan of Starbucks, but he certainly has become something of an expert. Clark is a journalist and Starbucked is his first book. I’m curious to see if he’ll write another book and what popular culture topic he might tackle. Reality television, maybe?
(For a taste of Clark’s writing, you can read this Slate article he wrote: Why Starbucks Actually Helps Mom and Pop Coffeehouses.)